Indianapolis taking new approach on defense

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Suddenly, size matters on the Indianapolis Colts' defense.

For nearly a decade, the Colts had one of the fastest and smallest defenses in football, a perfect fit for Tony Dungy's Tampa 2 system. New coach Chuck Pagano has brought in a different philosophy.

He ditched the traditional 4-3 alignment in favor of a 3-4 hybrid system that requires bigger defensive linemen and a new aggressive approach to force opponents into mistakes, and players like what they're seeing.

''We brought in some guys and the first day I saw them, I was like `Gosh, how much do you weigh?' I think they said like 330, 340, something like that,'' cornerback Jerraud Powers said. ''They probably have not had a d-tackle that big in a long time around here. I'm just glad that once we get in warm-ups, we'll look as big as the teams we're playing.''

The Colts (No. 32 in AP Pro32) needed a change after last season's 2-14 disaster.

Indy's defense allowed 430 points, the fifth-highest total in the league and the fourth-most in franchise history. Opponents ran for a staggering 2,303 yards.

There were more problems defending the pass. Opposing quarterbacks completed a league-record 71.2 percent of their attempts and piled up a mind-numbing rating of 103.2, the sixth-worst in NFL history. Even worse, Indy and Minnesota tied for the league-low in interceptions (8).

Players who watched from afar last year think the numbers made an abysmal season look even worse.

''I always remember them wreaking havoc and doing damage to our offense during the regular season, and in the postseason (2009) I remember how fast they were,'' said new Colts safety Tom Zbikowski, who spent the past four seasons with Baltimore. ''But I always knew that defense was way, way, way underrated as a unit.''

For Colts' fans who have long complained the defense was too small to stop the run, Sunday's preseason opener against St. Louis will be a fresh start.

Pagano's plan is to confuse the offense with schemes that remain relatively simple for the defense.

It does work.

During the past four years in Baltimore, the Ravens relied on mammoth linemen, such as Haloti Ngata, to keep blockers off of linebackers like Ray Lewis. Pagano's star pupil was safety Ed Reed, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And when Pagano was promoted to defensive coordinator last year, Terrell Suggs won the top defensive award.

''Just watching the film, you see the way he gets after it,'' safety Antoine Bethea said. ''It's more aggressive.''

Pagano and new general manager Ryan Grigson began reshaping the defense in March.

Grigson unveiled the plan by quickly signing three free agents - Zbikowski, 315-pound defensive end Cory Redding and 345-pound nose tackle Brandon McKinney - to help with the transition. All played with Baltimore last season.

Pagano then moved 245-pound defensive end Robert Mathis to outside linebacker and asked the other Pro Bowl end, 268-pound Dwight Freeney, to brush up on pass coverage so he can play linebacker, too.

Outside linebacker Kavell Conner will now play inside, and last week, Grigson traded cornerback Kevin Thomas to Philadelphia for linebackers Moise Fokou and Greg Lloyd.

That may not be the end of the player moves.

Pagano told reporters last week that he and Grigson would continue exploring ways to improve this team.

There are plenty of questions, though.

The biggest concern is finding another cornerback to start opposite Powers, and it's still unclear how Freeney will split his time between defensive end and linebacker.

Players have eagerly jumped on board.

After playing most of the past two seasons in zone coverage, Powers called his old college coaches to help him work on his footwork for playing more man-to-man coverage. Coaches think the extra work has paid off.

''Powers has really bought in and he's been playing at a high level every day,'' defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. ''And he's only getting better.''

But the Colts are also in a race against the calendar.

Indy has barely a month to learn this new defense and get everybody in sync before the regular-season opener Sept. 9 at Chicago. Manusky said the Colts are about 60 percent there, but others think the transition has gone surprisingly well.

''It's pretty impressive to take an entirely new scheme and by a week into training camp, really be in the fine nuances of the defense, not trying to still get down some blitzes and some things like that,'' Zbikowski said.

When they have the full feel of the scheme, that's when they will find out if bigger players will lead to a better defense.

''They've always been a great pass-rushing team,'' Manusky said. ''Now we're trying to build the monster, as Chuck would say, and that's stopping the run.''

Notes: Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was 30 of 45, with four TDs and no interceptions during team drills at Tuesday night's practice. It was his most attempts at any practice during training camp. ... Defensive end Dwight Freeney rested. ... Ball State coach Pete Lembo and his team made the 25-minute drive south to attend practice.


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Tagged: Colts, Ravens, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, Tom Zbikowski, Jerraud Powers

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