Indianapolis Colts Improve Run Defense With Simple, Fast Approach
And don't over-analyze, either.
When it comes to the well-timed improvement of the Indianapolis Colts' run defense, Brackett -- the Colts' starting middle linebacker and defensive captain -- has seen a lot of over-thinking and over-analyzing over the years, particularly this time of year.
Yes, Brackett said, the Colts' run defense has improved late in the season.
The statistics say as much. And the results do, too.
But while that has given the Colts a positive feel entering their ninth consecutive postseason appearance, Brackett said the reality is the Colts' run defense never was actually all that bad.
And whatever improvement there has been? Brackett said it comes from simple approach.
"We eliminated some calls, some things that were a little bit confusing," Brackett said this week as the AFC South champion Colts (10-6) prepared to play host to the New York Jets (11-5) in a playoff game Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium at 8 p.m. "We went back to base to about two or three things and do them well.
"Our mantra has always been that we are going to do what we do better than what the other team does what they do."
For the Colts' defense over the last decade, that has meant a simple approach based on speed.
In recent weeks, as the Colts have improved dramatically against the run in a similar fashion to improvement made during their 2006 run to the Super Bowl XLI title, players and coaches say the emphasis has been on getting back to those basics.
"The speed and the simplicity has kind of been the thing that we've been preaching here the last four-to-five weeks," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "We really tried to make sure we did not complicate things."
The Colts in November and early December slipped to 6-6 with their first three-game losing streak since 2002. And while much of the focus nationally was on quarterback Peyton Manning's 11 interceptions during the streak, much of the Colts' focus was on issues more basic.
One of those issues was Improving a run defense that allowed 171.3 yards a game during that span, including 217 in a 38-35 overtime loss to Dallas that dropped the Colts to .500 and into second place in the AFC South.
In four games since, the Colts played the Tennessee Titans and Chris Johnson twice, as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars and Maurice Jones-Drew and the Oakland Raiders and Darren McFadden.
Four games, three elite runners, and four weeks of teams that emphasized the run.
The week after Dallas, Johnson rushed for 111 yards on 22 carries in a 30-28 Colts victory, and in the three weeks since, the Colts' defense stuffed the run each week:
• Game 14: Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two seasons, rushed for 46 yards on 15 carries and the Jaguars rushed for 67 yards as a team in a 34-24 Colts' victory.
• Game 15: McFadden, who rushed for 1,157 yards this season, rushed for 45 yards on 11 carries against the Colts. The Raiders rushed for 80 yards as a team in a 31-26 Colts' victory.
• Game 16: Johnson rushed for 39 yards on 20 carries in the regular-season finale, and the Titans rushed for just 51 yards in a 23-20 Colts' victory.
"The confidence level is definitely high," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "We definitely did a great job against the best running teams and running backs this year, so we know that we are capable of it. It is just about going out there and executing our game plan."
And while "playing fast" may sound like vague coachspeak, Freeney said the reality around the Colts is different. It matters, and if it's hard to describe, he said it's not hard to see.
"It really just means we are playing a little bit more confidently," Freeney said. "The more that you do what you usually do, if that makes any sense, then you start to play faster because you have confidence and start making plays.
"So you can run to the ball a little quicker instead of kind of second-guessing yourself, not knowing exactly where you want to go. That is when you play slow."
Brackett said while observers this week entering a game against the run-oriented Jets may look deep for an explanation, reason is as simple as the Colts say. The Colts are a defense based on speed rather than size, and the ability to play fast can't be underestimated.
"I think it started a few weeks ago, just saying to ourselves that we wanted to go out there and stop the run, and for the last three games we got that accomplished," Brackett said. "We eliminated some things and guys were a little bit hesitant. When you are out there and you're hesitant and you're not the first to react, then you are usually on your heels, and now we want to be on our toes and fly around and dictate the pace ourselves."
Safety Antoine Bethea, a Pro Bowl selection in 2007 and 2009, led the Colts in tackles this season. He said the key to the Colts' defense is that "Everybody knows where they need to be at any given time.
"That way we can all just play fast, we can run to the ball, then we can make plays," Bethea said. "If you're out there thinking, you'll probably be a step slow here, slow there. Coach Caldwell said it best: limited play calling, and we're out there playing fast."
Freeney said, too, that the reality this season was much the same as 2006. That season, the Colts ranked last in the NFL against the run, then surprised many observers when they held run-oriented teams such as Kansas City, Baltimore and Chicago under 100 yards rushing en route to a Super Bowl title. Often that season, Freeney said the Colts' rushing numbers were skewed by a lapse here, and a long run allowed there.
That, Freeney said, occurred at times this season.
"I have been saying it all year -- it really is the same thing," Freeney said. "It's about every guy on every play on every snap. I think we have played great run-stop defense for three quarters and a half for the majority of the year, and then we will have one run here or one run there that all of a sudden our average goes skyrocketing.
"But the last four weeks we have been more consistent, and every snap everybody understanding that just because it is the fourth quarter doesn't mean they are going to stop running."
Whatever the reason for the struggles early, they have been fewer in recent weeks. The result has been a team that not only has been able to stop potent running attacks late in the season, but perhaps one better equipped than many once believed to do so on an over bigger stage.
"One of the things that is an asset of ours is we have a number of guys on our team who can run," Caldwell said. "We don't want to inhibit them in any way, shape or form. Going into the playoffs, that's a very, very important ingredient. You have to be able to go and not think.
"You have to be able to go and play fast, because you're going to be required to do so. You are facing guys who are the best at what they do. That's what makes the playoffs so interesting."