Colts seeking solutions for secondary problems

Greg Toler has spent six weeks watching his Colts’ teammates

work hard on Sundays.

The injured cornerback would rather be out there helping his

pals find a solution to what has become a major secondary problem –

defending the pass.

”As a defense, we take pride in stopping other teams, so it’s

been tough on everyone,” Toler said Wednesday, hopeful he’ll

return to action this weekend against Houston.

Players aren’t the only ones trying to figure out what’s

wrong.

Coaches have spent countless hours poring through game, looking

for a common thread. Anxious fans have become increasingly weary of

seeing receivers get open for big plays. Two weeks ago, team owner

Jim Irsay, who spent tens of millions in free agency to revamp

Indy’s defense, offered his own critique on Twitter.

And while the offense has struggled largely because five key

players are on season-ending injured reserve, including Pro Bowl

receiver Reggie Wayne, there is no clear explanation for why a once

solid defense has been so inconsistent lately. All four defensive

players on injured reserve are backups, and Toler, a first-day

free-agent acquisition, is the only starter who has missed every

game during this disconcerting six-game stretch.

The tale of the tape doesn’t lie.

During the first seven games, when the Colts were up against

quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Phillip

Rivers and Peyton Manning, Indy’s pass defense limited opponents to

a completion percentage of 58.7, a quarterback rating of 79.5 with

eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. The longest TD pass was

31 yards and only two others were longer than 20 yards.

Over the last six weeks, four games that came against

quarterbacks who opened the season as backups, it’s been a complete

reversal. Opponents have completed 64.9 percent of their passes,

posted a rating of 104.9 and thrown 12 TD passes – six of which

have went for 25 yards or longer – with only three picks.

It’s a problem Indy (8-5) knows must be fixed before the

playoffs start.

The good news is that as the only current division champ, they

have three weeks to work out the kinks.

”We’ve got to make plays on the back end,” safety Antoine

Bethea said. ”Of course there’s going to be some times when the

other team makes plays. They get paid as well, they’re

professionals as well. But we’ve got to make plays. One thing we

always harp on is not letting the ball over our head. You’ve just

got to stop those plays.”

But the secondary is only part of the equation, though.

In the first seven weeks, the Colts had 21 sacks. In the last

six, they have nine. And one player, Robert Mathis, has accounted

for more than half of this season’s overall total. He leads the NFL

with 15 1/2.

”There’s a lot of stuff that we need to shore up,” Mathis

said. ”You can blame the pressure as much as anything else on the

defense not getting it done. That’s just putting too much pressure

on the secondary.”

Perhaps things will change soon.

Toler did limited work in practice Wednesday and could finally

return this week – if the doctors clear him.

”It’s just like your rookie year again when you were sitting

behind guys and you weren’t getting reps,” Toler said. ”It’s

getting as many mental reps as you can, asking questions in the

meeting room, telling the guys what you see while you’re not

playing. Just showing the guys that we’re capable of making the

plays that we made early on in the season. We just got to get that

back going.”

The only other defensive player to sit out Wednesday’s practice

was defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who hasn’t played since

Dec. 1 because of a foot injury. Jean Francois was originally

expected to miss two to four weeks.

Indy also faces the reeling Texans (2-11), who have changed

quarterbacks and coaches during an inexplicable 11-game losing

streak that has turned the preseason AFC South favorites into the

front-runner for the No. 1 draft pick. Houston has never won in

Indy – even losing to the 0-13 Colts while it was marching toward

the 2011 AFC South title.

But the Colts understand that what they must do now is get it

right – regardless of the opponent.

”We just have to go out and execute, like we were early in the

season,” cornerback Vontae Davis said. ”It’s the little things,

its execution. It’s just that simple.”

Notes: Jean Francois was one of five injured players missing

practice. Receiver LaVon Brazill (foot), fullback Stanley Havili

(knee) and offensive lineman Jeff Linkenbach (quad) and center

Samson Satele (elbow) also sat out. Mathis didn’t participate

because he was given an extra day of rest. … Coach Chuck Pagano

said backup cornerback Cassius Vaughn will likely return kicks

against Houston after Chris Rainey went on injured reserve earlier

this week.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org