Sixth of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS - If a position defined the Colts' defensive approach – and its success – in times of crisis this past season, Tony Dungy said that position may have been defensive tackle.
Injuries hit the position early, forcing young players into the lineup.
All were rookies for the Colts during the 2007 season, and all played extensively at times, with Johnson starting all 16 games. Dungy said their performance not only was key to the team's performance last season, but showed the tackles were a group poised to emerge as a defensive strength in coming seasons.
"They improved," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's defensive tackles, the sixth of a position-by-position series that will run throughout this month.
"Watching the tape from last year, we think that should be a strong suit for us."
The story of the Colts' defensive tackle position last season began early in training camp, when veteran Anthony "Booger" McFarland sustained a knee injury.
He was placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter, ending his season. McFarland, who was acquired in a midseason trade in 2006, was released in a salary-cap move in late February, shortly before the start of the new league year.
McFarland's injury made a young group even younger, and the Colts entered the season with veteran Raheem Brock – in his second season at the position – and Johnson starting at the position.
Brock, in his sixth NFL season, started 11 games this past season, the first time since 2002 he had not started every game for the Colts. He missed five games with injuries, registering two and a half sacks, 42 tackles, four passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
He also had 12 quarterback pressures, fourth on the team and first among defensive tackles.
Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Penn State University, started in place of McFarland, and was the only Colts defensive lineman to start all 16 games in 2007.
He finished eighth on the team with 63 tackles, 49 solos, and had a sack and eight quarterback pressures. He also had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
"He did a lot of great things," Dungy said of Johnson.
Dawson, a seventh-round selection from Texas Tech, also played in all 16 games. He started four and registered one sack, with 34 tackles – 20 solos. He also forced a fumble and recovered two fumbles. Pitcock, a third-round selection from Ohio State, started one of nine games, registering 1.5 sacks and 24 tackles, seven solos.
"Pitcock was probably the most well-known of the group, but they did a good job," Dungy said. "All three of those guys are going to continue to grow and improve and play much better than they did last year. Ed got the most playing time, but Keyunta was in there a lot in passing situations, and toward the end of the year, he was playing more."
Pitcock, Dungy said, was injured early in the season, but improved late.
"The plays that he played were as impressive as anybody," Dungy said. "The more he plays, the better he's going to get. I think he has an idea of how we play now, which was different than he played at Ohio State."
Veterans Darrell Reid and Dan Klecko also played roles as backups, with Reid finishing the season with 25 tackles, a half sack, five pressures and two fumble recoveries and Klecko finishing the season with 10 tackles and a sack.
Dungy said the performance of the rookie trio was not only key to the defensive performance in 2007, it exemplified the Colts' approach. Rather than sign a veteran free agent when a player is injured, the Colts often opt to move the player's backup into the starting role. Such was the case this past season at linebacker, when Rocky Boiman and Tyjuan Hagler each played extensively, as well as along the offensive line and at wide receiver.
Dungy said it was particularly true this past season at tackle, in the wake of McFarland's injury, and later in the season when Brock was unavailable.
"We lost Anthony and then Raheem had the shoulder injury for a while, so he's out," Dungy said. "They're playing and they're just kind of unsung, but getting the job done. No one felt the need to say, 'We've got to go out and get a veteran guy,' or, 'We've got to get this and that to shore it up.'
"It was, 'They'll grow into it,' and they did."
The group, Dungy said, did more than fill in for injured players. The defensive tackle position is critical in Dungy's one-gap style of run defense, and after ranking 32nd in the NFL in run defense in 2006, Indianapolis ranked 15th in the area this past season.
"No question the line play makes such a big difference," Dungy said. "People talk about having (Pro Bowl safety) Bob (Sanders) back. That helped and the linebackers were more physical, but the line play was very good and that was a big reason our run defense was so much better."
And as imantly, Dungy said, it is a diverse group with a chance to improve.
"They're at the point where we feel good about our inside play and think that's going to be a strength for us," Dungy said. "Of course, you have Raheem who is kind of the guy who shows them the way and is the leader of that tackle group. We have four guys with all different body types, but they can be effective.
"If we pick out how they play and when and how much and against who, we can use all four of their talents to have a real, real good rotation. I think the sky's the limit for that group of guys."