INDIANAPOLIS –Conclusions are too early to draw while games remain and challenges loom, but through two games Indianapolis has shown improvement in its rush defense.
Chicago dented the Colts defense for 114 yards in the opener, while Minnesota gained 95. Two of the NFL's prominent rushers Matt Forte (80) and Adrian Peterson (60) did not approach seriously the 100-yard mark that Indianapolis has permitted to opposing rushers six or more times in seven of the last nine seasons.
To claim a resurgence or renaissance is underway is way too premature, but Head Coach Chuck Pagano does like the start his team has shown.
"From a communication standpoint, they're getting on the same page (and) from a technique standpoint," said Pagano. "Greg (Manusky) is doing a great job with the defense as a whole and the position coaches are doing a tremendous job. With the front seven, Gary (Emanuel) is doing a great job of teaching the technique.
"Guys are buying in, and they're starting to understand how to play square, how to knock them back, moving the line of scrimmage, playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, building a flat wall. We talk about downhill linebackers playing square, getting off blocks, setting the edge of the defense, things like that. … It's just a matter of understanding gap integrity, technique up front, playing square, those types of things."
During Pagano's four years in Baltimore, the Ravens ranked no lower than fifth in rushing yards per game allowed (3rd, 81.4; 2008; 5th, 93.3, 2009; 5th, 93.9, 2010; 2nd, 92.6, 2011). They also never ranked below eighth in yards per attempt, including a second-ranked unit in 2011 (3.5). Pagano sees progress in his Indianapolis unit, one that is employing a 3-4 base for the first time since 1993.
Indianapolis hardly has approached those levels. The 104.5 average yielded after two games has only been bettered eight times in the club's 59 seasons, including just twice in the 29-year Indianapolis era (91.1, 1995; 102.9, 1994).
Progress will be measured in 60-minute increments. With the club yielding a 3.5 yards per attempt average, Pagano is keeping a preferred figure in mind.
"Our goal is to never give up a 100-yard rusher, first and foremost. If you can hold people to three yards a carry, I think we go 3.2, 3.3, somewhere in there, you are going to be in the top 10, if not the top five, in rush defense every year," said Pagano. "That's kind of our benchmark, that's our goal, that's our number."
Indianapolis enters divisional play on Sunday against Jacksonville, and Pagano told reporters covering the Jaguars the move to a 3-4 look was precipitated by his experience previously with it.
"I've coached under both systems, but just recently the time that I spent in Oakland with Rob Ryan and obviously the four years in Baltimore, one year with Rex (Ryan) and the system staying intact there, it was obviously a natural and easy transition for us to bring in here," said Pagano. "With Greg Manusky being involved in the same system and spending time with Mike Nolan who had been a part of that system in Baltimore (it helped bringing it here).
"The hard part was on our players. Moving from a 4-3 and trying to take two outside guys (Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis) that have played at a high, high level for a long, long time and make them outside linebackers and stand them up (was different). It's their willingness and their effort and the time that they've put in that they've been able to make that transition go as smooth as possible. Plus, you get the new guys that we got in from Baltimore and everybody else on that side of the ball buying in. They're having fun with it."
Defensive end Cory Redding was one of three Colts who came from Baltimore. While not playing at the level of the Ravens' defense, Redding is seeing growth.
"Every day it's (the goal) to get better," said Redding. "You either get worse or you get better every single day. There's only one option, to get better around here. That's all we're doing is taking steps forward.
"Every day we're getting better. We're still learning. We're still adjusting. We're still adding. We're just continuing to fight right. This unit is looking better and better every single day."
Pagano said there was discussion about the defensive implementation, but that it was determined this was the approach to take.
"There was a lot of talk and a lot of dialogue (about going to a 3-4)," said Pagano. "We said from day one that we weren't going to try to jam a round peg into a square hole, but we looked at those guys and the size and stature of them. It would have been different if those guys were 6-4 and 6-5 and 300 pounds but you're looking at two very, very athletic football players (Freeney and Mathis) that played at such a high level, Pro Bowl level, for such a long period of time.
"We understand that there's going to be a learning curve there. There might be some bumps in the road along the way but as long as we stick to our guns and trust and believe in the system and the scheme, and they do, then we will do nothing but make progress. In the end we will be where we want to be."
With a wary eye on Sunday's challenge, Pagano is encouraged by the start.
"You have to be. These guys have come a long way in a short period of time," said Pagano. "I was talking to Robert Mathis. His learning curve (was great). What he's been able to do in a short period of time, going from a system he was involved with for 10 years, then standing up and playing all the different things (is impressive). He's setting the edge as good as anybody on our defense right now. He also has pass coverage responsibility to go along with that.
"Up front, the guys who were here, (it's) a totally different deal as far as controlling the line of scrimmage, playing square, gap control and those types of things. I think we're starting to see the benefits, their hard work and them buying into the techniques that Greg (Manusky) and Gary (Emanuel) and everybody on defense is teaching them. I'm pleased with where we're at."
Redding has exhorted the defense not to yield a blade of grass in the rushing game. Stopping opposing rushers is job one for the unit.
"First and foremost, it's to stop the run, period. I don't care who we play, at the top of our list is to stop the run," said Redding. "(We have) two games without a 100-yard rusher. That's tough to do in this league. There are tremendous backs in this league every week. We are facing another in Maurice Jones-Drew. He's going to come in and he's going to bring it. We have to gear up for that. Just like last week, have five, six, seven hats to the ball, 11 if we can."