Sanders, Morris key defensive turnaround

From Bob Sanders' healthy return to Rob Morris' insertion in the lineup, there are a number of reasons for the Colts' turnaround on defense, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: February 1, 2007, 1:05 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Of all the changes enacted by the Colts' players and coaches in attempting to fix a run defense that ranked as one of the worst in NFL history during the regular season, the most significant tweak, insisted several key veterans this week, wasn't rooted in schemes or personnel.

Instead, the players claim, almost to a man, it was an attitude adjustment born of a sense of urgency and survival.

"When we were playing bad during the [regular] season," cornerback Nick Harper said, "there was a feeling like, 'OK, we've got next week to get this right and we'll figure it out by then.' But then you get to the playoffs and there is no more 'next week.' The grace period is over. All those tackles we were missing during the season? Nobody wanted to be the guy who missed a tackle in the playoffs and kept us from going to the Super Bowl.

"Now, you can point to us getting [safety] Bob Sanders back in the lineup. Or putting Rob Morris in as a starting linebacker. And there are other things, too. But the biggest thing was everyone becoming accountable for doing his job and being accountable to each other. If you're looking for the key to the turnaround, that was it."

At least a half-dozen Indianapolis defenders endorsed Harper's assessment of a remarkable reversal of fortune by a unit that, for much of the season, looked as if it had been tossed under a bulldozer and run over. Actually, run over, around and through.

Bob Sanders
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesBob Sanders played in only four games in the regular season.
The Colts surrendered a league-worst 173.0 rushing yards per game during the regular season and became the lowest-rated run defense to scratch out a Super Bowl berth. No franchise that ranked lower than 19th in defense versus the run had ever made a Super Bowl appearance.

Ten times in 16 outings, Indianapolis surrendered 140 or more yards on the ground. Four opponents rushed for 200-plus yards. And in an infamous loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 10, a contest in which the Indianapolis defense appeared to be performing a group imitation of the Venus de Milo, the Colts allowed an astronomical 375 yards on the ground.

All the while, in an explanation that at times seemed about as threadbare as his defensive front seven, coach Tony Dungy kept insisting that the team's scheme was sound, that remedies would come from small changes and not dramatic overhauls, and that every shortcoming was a fixable one.

If the media (and almost certainly Colts fans) grew weary of Dungy's mantra, apparently his players never did, and they have certainly followed his lead in the playoffs. In three postseason victories, Indianapolis has permitted just 73.3 rushing yards per game. All three opponents were held to fewer than 100 yards. And the Indianapolis defense stuffed standout backs like Larry Johnson of Kansas City, Jamal Lewis of Baltimore and Corey Dillon of New England. No back has rushed for more than 53 yards against the Colts in the playoffs.

Through the playoffs, Indianapolis has averaged eight fewer first downs, eight fewer plays, 93.6 fewer total yards and 6.5 fewer points than it did during the regular season.

"I don't know if we were ever really as bad as it appeared," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "But I think we're as good, right now, as it looks like we are. I feel like, the way we're playing, we can match up with anyone."

It is notable that, over the final eight games of the regular season, Indianapolis actually allowed fewer yards than a Chicago Bears defense that is suddenly suspect in some areas. Still, while Colts players point to the attitude adjustment at the outset of the playoffs as the biggest factor in their turnaround, there are several others. Here's a look at a few of them:

Scheme change: That Super Bowl XLI has been dubbed the "Cover 2 Bowl" because of the scheme that Dungy developed in Tampa Bay and which is also preferred by Lovie Smith of the Bears, is one of the biggest myths of the week. Chicago played 45 percent of its defensive players in man-to-man coverage over the second half of the season and the Colts broke from their trademark Cover 2, in part to help staunch the run.

"I don't know where all the Cover 2 stuff came from," Harper said. "It's some kind of media creation, a myth, because we've played more Cover 3 than anything else."

By playing more three-deep coverages, and mixing in some man-to-man looks, the Colts can align Sanders closer to the line of scrimmage, an eighth defender "in the box," to help with run support.

Sanders' return to health: Because of September arthroscopic knee surgery, Sanders played only four games during the regular season. After the first two games of the campaign, he never played consecutive outings, but has been able to start and finish all three postseason contests.

The three-year veteran, a Pro Bowl selection in 2005, is barely 5-foot-8, but is built like the proverbial brick house and hits low and hard, like a torpedo. Sanders is a liability at times in coverage, but he is superb versus the run and the Colts will use him a lot in run blitzes designed to get him into the backfield.

"It was torture, being hurt and watching us give up all those [rushing yards], because that isn't us," said Sanders, who leads the team with 19 tackles during the playoffs. 'I'm trying to make up for lost time."

The unsung Morris: A starter at middle linebacker for four seasons, and a guy who averaged 114.3 tackles from 2001-04, Morris has been a backup the past two seasons. But with three games left in the regular season and young starter Gilbert Gardner miserably unproductive, coordinator Ron Meeks moved Morris into the lineup at strongside linebacker, a position he never played.

Morris wasn't spectacular, and the Colts sacrificed some range with him in the lineup, but the seven-year veteran made the simple plays Gardner wasn't finishing. He totaled 25 tackles in the final three games of the season and has 17 tackles in the playoffs.

"There's a steadiness there with Rob that we weren't getting," Meeks said. "People aren't running through him."

"Booger" playing big: With Corey Simon sidelined for the season by polyarthritis, the Colts acquired defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland from Tampa Bay for a second-round draft pick on trade deadline day. The deal proved even more beneficial when tackle Montae Reagor was lost for the season to facial injuries sustained in an automobile accident.

An eight-year veteran, McFarland provided Indianapolis an instant boost, but then his performance fell off after a few weeks. McFarland has rallied, though, in the playoffs. He gives the smallish Colts a physical interior presence and has really clogged the inside in three playoff victories, posting 10 tackles.

Soundness in scheme and execution: When a unit performs as poorly as the Colts' defense did during the season, players often fall into the trap of trying to do too much. They abandon their own responsibilities in an effort to make a play anywhere on the field, but that invariably creates lack of discipline, sloppiness and weakness in the basic scheme.

"You lose gap discipline, and you're always going to be in trouble," said weakside linebacker Cato June. "Teams are always going to exploit you when you've got guys running around and leaving their responsibilities behind. You have to trust the scheme and trust your [teammates], and that's what we're doing now."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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