INDIANAPOLIS – Monday brought the seventh of 10 Organized Team Activity (OTA) practices for the Colts.
As has been the case so far this year, attendance was outstanding, and the team will hold its final three OTA practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
The sessions, along with next week's mandatory mini-camp (June 12-14), will conclude spring work for the full squad.
Veterans have been on hand at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center since the middle of April, and the club's defensive players have been working dutifully to learn a new defensive scheme that should be dramatically different than the one from the 10 previous seasons.
On tap for 2012 is an approach that is more attacking than what Indianapolis has employed in the past, and that suits a group of veterans who profess a strong desire to return to winning ways.
"They're testing us. They're throwing it out to see what sticks," said defensive end Robert Mathis of the pace of information hurled at the team by the coaching staff. "As a competitor and athlete, you like that. You accept the challenge. There is nothing wrong with being challenged this time of year. They (the coaches) want to see how hungry we are. Coming off a 2-14 year, we're pretty hungry."
Safety Antoine Bethea is one of the team's leaders, and he endured the first losing season of his career in 2011. A performer who started in a Super Bowl to conclude his rookie season and who made the game again three years later, Bethea wants to help author a different story in 2012.
"I think everybody is embracing the new defense. So far, it's fun," said Bethea. "It's fun out there. A lot of guys are in position where we can make some plays. I'm anxious to get out there with an opposing team in front of us to see what we really can do. I'm having fun with the new defense. I'm still in the process of learning the whole defense. For what we've put in so far, I'm excited."
From 2006-10, Bethea started at strong safety on teams that were 61-19 in the regular season and earned five playoff appearances, while he earned two Pro Bowl nominations. It was hard work that got the Howard University product into the starting lineup for the Colts, and it is hard work now that is allowing him to see a growth pattern on the unit during spring work.
"We're all taking it in stride with each other, from the coaches to the players. We're all out there for one another each and every day," said Bethea. "We're studying and working, trying to get the defense down. (We're) making corrections on the field, and we're getting better.
"The mistakes we make previously, we're not making the next day. If each day we can get better, the sky is the limit for us come August and September."
Mathis earned three Pro Bowl nominations during the 2006-10 seasons, and the new scheme is something that is an educational process for him as well.
"I am just trying to learn the new defense and get it down. This is new territory for me, and I'm trying to get better every day," said Mathis. "(We've grown) by leaps and bounds. The first week was pretty nasty out there, but now everybody is getting the hang of it on the physical and mental side. It's looking a whole lot better."
The Colts encountered their first losing season since 2001 when they went 2-14 last year. Problems were present on both sides of the ball, and the struggles resulted in scoreboards that were tilted frequently. Four times last year the club had deficits of 20 or more points in the first halves of games. Indianapolis trailed by 10 or more points in 12 outings and had an eight-game stretch during the season when it did not possess the lead at any point.
Linebacker Kavell Conner aims to start for a third consecutive year. Conner has bought into the system and hopes it can help the defense play a prominent role in the flow of games in 2012.
"It is a very aggressive style of defense. We're going to have a new scheme, new coaches and a new mindset around the building," said Conner. "I think players gravitate toward that type of thing. Everybody is fired up. We have great leaders on the team, a great coaching staff that knows how to get the players excited about everything.
"Everyone just wants to get better and improve on the season we had last year. We want to set the tone and tempo on that side of the ball. I look forward to helping try to do that."
Defensive end Cory Redding played in the Baltimore defense last year under coordinator Chuck Pagano, now the Colts' field leader. Redding thinks the new style in Indianapolis will be evident to fans.
"They will be able to see the aggression. We're not sitting back. We are coming," said Redding. "We are reacting. We are going to fly around and make a lot of noise on defense. This defense is something special. When everybody gets it and we throw in all the plays, we're bringing everything but the kitchen sink. Third down, get ready. First and second down is, I guess, our bread and butter."
Indianapolis last year was out-gained on the ground by 10 of 16 opponents, while opposing teams rushed 158 more times than did the Colts. Indianapolis also could not stop the opposition from a 33:47 possession average in 2011. Redding knows the critical need of hindering an opponent's ground attack.
"We have to stop the run. That's what you have to do – force them into second-and-seven, force them into third-and-six, third-and-eight. Once you do that, it'll be a ball. We're coming after you."
Bethea is a proud competitor who leads far more by example than by words. Still, he has a strong internal drive to make 2012 more memorable than last year.
"There is (a lot of hunger), just the way last year ended for us for the guys who were here," said Bethea. "We have a lot of doubters and nay-sayers right now. With the new people coming in here, there is not a lot expected of us. As a professional and competitor when people say that about you and your team, you most definitely are hungry to go out there and prove the nay-sayers and doubters wrong."