Defense leads the way for Colts

It used to be all about the offense in Indianapolis, but the Colts were led Sunday by their defense.

Updated: September 15, 2003, 11:25 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- It would be heresy piled atop hyperbole to begin suggesting that the latest edition of the Indianapolis Colts defense should be mentioned in the same breath as the Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s, the Chicago Bears of the '80s, the Baltimore Ravens of three years ago, or the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Indianapolis may, however, have added a new term to the football lexicon here on Sunday afternoon.

Colts
AP PhotoChad Bratzke had two tackles and one sack against the Titans.

In the Land of Hoosiers and hoops, the two syllables de- and -fense might as well be uttered in some foreign tongue until sneakers start squeaking against hardwood. Defense, however, set the tone in a contest where the Colts needed to make a statement about their ability to compete with a divisional rival. And defense stoked a raucous (but non-sellout) crowd and turned the RCA Dome into a hall of horrors for the visitors in a dominating 33-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans.

Chew on this one, if you will, even for just a moment: Indianapolis is 2-0 and quarterback Peyton Manning, the man to whom everyone here looks for big plays, has thrown just one touchdown pass. The Colts are undefeated despite only two offensive touchdowns in two outings. Noted for its powerhouse offense, Indianapolis didn't go over 300 yards in either of its first two games, and it seems no big deal.

It matters little because the Colts -- the bedraggled bunch that finished the 2002 season with an ignominious 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets -- are playing superb defense.

Who'da thunk it? Well, at least a few Indianapolis defenders, who insisted Sunday evening that they figured things would be considerably better in the second season under head coach Tony Dungy and coordinator Ron Meeks.

For the Colts, it seems, familiarity has bred contempt for opposition offenses.

This has been, since Manning's arrival in 1998, a franchise that characteristically treated the very concept of defense as if it were merely a diversion, something that took place while the star quarterback was icing his arm. Victories at Cleveland in the season opener, and then the rout of the Titans here Sunday, have certainly altered that mindset.

"Hey, we're upset now if somebody even makes a first down on us," said defensive end Dwight Freeney, the second-year veteran who had 13 sacks as a rookie, and notched one of the Colts' five sacks against the Titans. "That touchdown they scored today? I'm still a little (hacked) off they got into the end zone. I know the people around here aren't used to hearing (defensive players) talk that way. But the way we're playing right now, we just feel we can shut teams down, and that's exactly what we're doing."

Indeed, in two games, the Indianapolis defense has permitted just one touchdown and 13 total points -- the fewest surrendered by the franchise in the first two games of a season since the 1960 Colts allowed just seven. Not since 1996 have the Colts christened a season by permitting fewer than 20 points combined in the first two contests.

It is a radical departure for a Colts team that permitted 20 or fewer points in just 26 of the first 80 games in which Manning played. In the past five seasons, Indianapolis allowed an average of 23.8 points per game -- a lot for any offense to overcome on a weekly basis. It's still very early in the season but maybe this is finally the year in which Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James don't have to do all the heavy lifting.

"They just seemed to play with a lot more energy and confidence," acknowledged Titans tailback Eddie George, who rushed for 41 yards in the first half but then registered just five yards in the final two quarters. "They were flying all over the place. And then they got a decent-sized lead, they really turned it loose."

That isn't surprising since Dungy's career mark is now 53-14 when his team scores at least 17 points, and a remarkable 46-5 when his club has led by 10 points at any point. A workable margin usually means that Dungy's smaller-but-quicker defenders can take more chances and force turnovers. The 75-yard interception return for a touchdown by Indianapolis cornerback Nick Harper in the closing minutes on Sunday was the 61st defensive score by a Dungy-coached unit.

In limiting the increasingly diverse Tennessee offense to 14 first downs and 236 yards, the Colts defense out-quicked its opponent by a considerable margin. Dungy has now assembled a unit that doesn't possess many thoroughbreds -- many observers felt that weakside linebacker Mike Peterson, who defected to Jacksonville as an unrestricted free agent, was the defense's best player -- but has plenty of quarterhorses who run to the ball.

"We want to use our speed on the (artificial) turf," said Dungy, who notched his first victory over Tennessee as a head coach, following four defeats. "We just feel like we are quicker than most teams here. We feel our speed is a big weapon."

It was murderous to the Titans, who averaged just 4.1 yards per snap, and who mounted just one possession on which they managed more than three first downs. Of its paltry 236 yards, Tennessee registered 90 yards during "garbage time" in the fourth quarter, long after the outcome had been decided.

Defensive horsepower
In their first two games, the Indianapolis Colts have surrendered just 13 points, the second fewest permitted in franchise history for the opening two contests of a season. Here are the eight occasions in which the franchise allowed fewer than 30 points in the first two outings:
Season Points
1960 7
2003 13
1971 14
1996 20
1947 21
1992 23
1957 24
1977 26
-- Len Pasquarelli
Only a superb seven-yard touchdown catch by rookie wideout Tyrone Calico, a score that briefly lifted the Titans to a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter, kept Tennessee from further embarrassment. Dungy used the tennis analogy of "holding serve" in talking of the victory, and the simmering rivalry will be renewed in Nashville on Dec. 7, but the Titans will have to find a way to deal with the Colts' quickness if they are to have success against them later in the season.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Indianapolis, while changing five starters from the unit that began last year's train wreck of a playoff loss, has not made high-profile additions. But just as he did in Tampa Bay in his first incarnation as a head coach, Dungy has brought in defenders who fit his system.

League observers scoffed when the Colts added defensive tackle Montae Reagor, who was little-used in four seasons at Denver, but he brought more energy to the front four. The staff felt that second-year pro David Thornton could successfully take over for the departed Peterson, and he has. Rookie strong safety Mike Doss isn't a player who tested well at the combine, but the former Ohio State standout is a gamer and a solid tackler. In conjunction with third-year safety Idrees Bashir, he gives Indianapolis two good young players in the interior of the secondary.

By bringing in Reagor and moving Larry Triplett to the starting lineup, Brad Scioli was free to move back to end after struggling inside at tackle in 2002. Harper is an upgrade over undersized cornerback David Macklin. And the Colts drafted a Dungy-type 'tweener in fifth-round pick Robert Mathis, who is part end, part linebacker, and all pass rusher. By maximizing his snaps, and picking their spots for Mathis, the Colts got a pair of sacks from him Sunday afternoon.

With all the newfound speed, though, the real reason the Colts are notably faster in 2003 is that this is the second year in the Dungy-Meeks system. If you are more confident in what you are doing, every player will tell you, then you simply play much quicker.

"Last year," recalled Meeks, "we had a lot of guys who thought they knew what they were doing. But thinking you know, and knowing it, those are two different things. There aren't too many situations now where guys are thinking, 'Well, I'm pretty sure this is what I do in this call.' Hey, we want guys who know the system. Guys who are positive about everything. It seems like we have that now. We can line up and play now."

And, apparently, play with anyone in the league.

It's been a long time since an Indianapolis defense could say that. No less an authority than Manning, in fact, allowed that watching the Colts defense is pretty enjoyable during those brief snippets on the sideline when he isn't conferring with coaches or reviewing the Polaroid shots sent down from upstairs.

"Seeing those guys flying around like that, having fun playing defense, yeah, it's pretty neat," Manning said. "Pretty neat."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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