ANDERSON –Last week when he emerged from a golf cart defensive end Cory Redding spoke freely about a big goal of the 2012 hybrid 3-4 Colts defense being to stop opposing offenses in their tracks.
Redding wanted his defensive mates to be "challenging any ball that's in the air, stopping the run, not letting the offense get a blade of grass. "That's our mindset. … The attitude is, 'Stop the run, period. Get on the passer.' Point-blank, and that's it."
Redding is not alone in wanting the defense to set a tone on every down and on early downs in particular. It is something that is imperative for success.
Last year, the Colts ranked 31st in the NFL in opposing third-down conversions (98-216, 45.4%), 25th in overall defense (370.9 yards per game), 29th in rushing defense (143.9), 27th in net passing yards per play, 30th in interception percentage, 26th in sacks per pass play, 28th in first downs per game and 28th in points per game.
By the way, opponents snapped more than 100 plays (111) than did the Colts, a feat surrendered only five other times in the club's Indianapolis era. Indianapolis could only control the ball for an average of 26:13, the lowest possession time by the team since the statistic started in 1977.
While statistics can be skewed – opponents snapped 104 more plays than did the Colts in the 2009 Super Bowl season and the team that year won a game in Miami with only 14:53 possession time, setting an NFL record for the least amount ever in a winning effort – last year's troublesome numbers led directly to a 2-14 finish.
This year, a philosophy change with a regime shift has the Colts employing a 3-4 set for the first time since 1992. Head Coach Chuck Pagano came from Baltimore and ushered in the philosophy, and it has met with resounding support from his troops.
On Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the team will attack its first mission against St. Louis – winning the early downs – and it is one that could help spell a part of the story for 2012.
"It's very important. If we can do that, we have two of the best rush ends in the game," said Antoine Bethea, a Pro Bowl safety. "In the type of defense we have, if we can put pressure on the opposing offenses, we can have some game-changers. If we really hone in on stopping the run and being great on the first two downs, I think this defense can be one of the best in the league. That can open it up for everybody in the secondary. We can jump more routes and make plays back there."
Bethea is thirsty for the club to have defensive success. It would be one component for the franchise to return to winning ways. Bethea is joined in the secondary by safety Tom Zbikowski, who participated in such success with Pagano in Baltimore, and winning early downs was one things he saw the Ravens do on a consistent basis.
"You have to because that's when we get to start having some fun on third down, be creative, get different players out there, different personnel out there and really move around so much that you have no idea what we're doing and where we're coming from," said Zbikowski. "In order to do that, you have to be third-and-five-plus. First and second down is really where you make your defense. Third down is where we make our money. That's the mindset we have to have and will have.
"When you can do that, you're (helping your team). To make someone go (long distances) drive-after-drive, in the NFL you're not going to score too many points, maybe 17 or 20 total. Knowing what our offense can do, we're going to be in good shape if we can stop them on first and second downs."
Not every problem last year could be attributed solely to defensive inefficiency. Indianapolis had a -12 turnover ratio, the worst by the team in 11 seasons. Many of those ills led the club to incur
first-half deficits of 20 or more points four times and face double-digit deficits in 12 different outings. The Colts also went an eight-game stretch without leading in a game.
Only six times last year (two wins) did the Colts gain more first downs than did opponents, and the club won the time of possession battle but once all year. Harmful to a larger degree was the 5.64 average the club yielded on 482 first-down plays, with those 2,719 yards accounting for 45.8 percent of the yards given up over the season.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers joined his two other backfield mates in knowing things must change on early downs this season.
"It's very important. Whenever you can win on first and second downs, it makes third down a lot easier," said Powers. "Whenever it's third-and-short, usually it's 50 to 60 percent that the offense will win that battle. Keeping them second- and third-and-long, usually the defense is going to come out on top."
Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky is trying for the overall success of his defense on every down. Manusky knows setting tones is very important at all times, and he is a strong proponent of winning early downs.
"It's big because you get the opponent in third-and-long, and you get those guys on the outside (Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis) rushing the quarterback," said Manusky. "There's a limited amount of plays in third-and-short compared to third-and-long (for a defense). Your calls are a little bit bigger and wide open in third-and-short.
"(What the club gave up last year on first down) was too much. What we have to try to do is limit (opponents), get them in second-and-eight and second-and-longer situations where at least we're dictating what is going to happen. They would be in passing situations, and that's what we're looking for."