By Jeff Rabjohns
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 19, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS -- After the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts were nearly upended at home by then-winless Tennessee in their most recent game, Coach Tony Dungy called his defense "soft." The Colts had allowed 214 rushing yards in escaping the Titans, 14-13, the most recent suspect performance for a defense that ranks as the worst in the NFL against the run.
Heading into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins, the Colts are allowing 166.8 yards rushing per game and 5.2 yards per carry. Both rank at the bottom of the league. With the Redskins rushing for 130.8 yards per game, the party line for the Colts during the bye week has been that they simply need better tackling.
"That's what we really have to focus on, and that's been my message to the team," Dungy said. "Don't think that all of a sudden at the bye week there's a new scheme or new defense or new plays to run, or that there's going to be a new guy to come in or Bob Sanders is going to be healthy and, miraculously, we're going to start playing better."
Despite that party line and Dungy's comment about not bringing in a new guy, the team did just that this week. The Colts traded a 2007 second-round draft pick to Tampa Bay for defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, a player Dungy knows well from his time as Bucs coach. A player who is considered to be a run stuffer, McFarland has appeared in 98 games, 84 as a starter, and has 305 tackles and 20 sacks. McFarland started all five games this season and is expected to be in uniform Sunday.
As for Sanders -- a safety widely regarded as the team's best tackler -- he has missed the past three games with a knee injury. And defensive tackle Corey Simon, who signed a five-year, $30 million contract in 2005 and was expected to be a plug in the middle, is out for the season with an undisclosed condition the Colts say is not related to knee surgery he had in August.
Still, the Colts, with five wins, are one of the league's two unbeaten teams along with Chicago thanks to -- no news here -- an offense that has been able to score when it has to, especially late.
Against both the New York Jets and the Titans, the Colts needed fourth-quarter touchdown drives to erase a deficit.
The Colts point to points allowed -- they're giving up 20 per game, 16th in the NFL -- as evidence that the problems with their run defense aren't as critical as they seem.
"I don't call it an issue for the simple fact that we know the reason our run defense is poor is we're missing too many tackles," defensive tackle Montae Reagor said. "Sometimes we overrun the football, and sometimes we're not in the right gap.
"But like I've said before, if we limit teams to 13 points, we're going to win. We try to focus on the positives. We know we have to shore up the run defense, but if we can hold teams to 13 points, we're going to win most of them."
The perception is that the Colts play the Cover 2 defense that gained attention when Dungy used it successfully in Tampa Bay. In reality, the Colts are playing more of a Cover 1 with safety Mike Doss creeping up to help with run support and rookie Antoine Bethea playing center field in the secondary.
If defense sounds like something of an afterthought, that's only because it pales next to the offense. Keeping defensive personnel in recent years hasn't been a priority for the Colts, who have re-signed quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and other offensive players.
On the defensive side, they have allowed linebackers Marcus Washington (with the Redskins), Mike Peterson (Jaguars) and David Thornton (Titans) to leave as free agents.
"I think it's just the guys. They have to go out and play well. It doesn't really matter who's in there," Sanders said. "That's what Coach Dungy teaches every week. It doesn't really matter who's playing. The guys that go in there are expected to play up to par and play well.
"We haven't done that so far, but I'm pretty sure that will pick up."