INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Coach Chuck Pagano spent the past two seasons changing the Colts’ defensive philosophy.
He wanted his players to be physical and aggressive. He wanted them to play with passion. He expected results, and he wasn’t going to let anything deter this transformation.
Now, finally, it looks as if Indianapolis may be on the verge of a defensive breakthrough.
“I think we’re better probably right now today than we’ve been at any point. We’ve been consistent. Again, it’s so early, we have a long way to go,” Pagano said Tuesday. “We all had a picture when we got here of what we wanted to be and what it should look like. We’re getting closer.”
In about 2½ quarters, the Colts have allowed just 91 total yards and no touchdowns.
Indy (0-2) has figured out how to pressure quarterbacks despite playing without reigning NFL sacks champion Robert Mathis, who will miss the first four games of the regular season after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. They held two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning to just one completion for 6 yards on Saturday and have swarmed the run.
While the doubters rightfully point out the measuring stick so far has been two preseason games against teams that aren’t exactly offensive juggernauts, Mathis, the longest-tenured Colts defender, likes what he’s seen.
“I feel like things are taking shape,” he said. “The guessing is over and we’re done thinking. We can play fast now, everybody is playing fast.”
Indy could face its toughest test yet Saturday — if Drew Brees plays for the high-powered Saints.
But there’s no doubt the Colts are improving.
When Pagano arrived in 2012, he inherited a defense that had allowed 430 points, the fourth-most in franchise history, and had long been castigated as the reason Indy didn’t win more Super Bowls.
So he changed the script.
Instead of building a contender around a potent offense and a defense designed to protect leads, the former Ravens defensive coordinator scrapped Indy’s traditional 4-3 front in favor of a more aggressive 3-4 and moved bookend pass rushers Mathis and Dwight Freeney to linebacker. While Mathis flourished in his new spot, Freeney never quite looked comfortable and was let go after the 2012 season.
General manager Ryan Grigson then scoured the free-agent market for reasonably priced players who were better fits in Pagano’s system.
He came up with three starters — cornerback Greg Toler, safety LaRon Landry and linebacker Erik Walden — and added two more starters this offseason when he signed defensive lineman Arthur Jones and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
All the new faces have given the Colts a new personality.
“We’re building our monster here, and we’re going to have some swag this season,” said Jones, who won a Super Bowl with Baltimore.
With two preseason games to go, the Colts still have something to prove, even to themselves.
First, they must continue playing this way.
Plus, they still have some holes to plug — most notably who will start at safety with Landry.
Grigson said Tuesday that Delano Howell, the front-runner in a four-man battle for the job, is consulting more doctors about an injured neck that has kept him out of practice for nearly two weeks. Howell also missed the final 10 games last season with a neck injury.
A prolonged absence would give NFL veterans Mike Adams, Colt Anderson and Sergio Brown a chance to win the job.
Grigson said he hopes to have more information before Saturday’s nationally televised game.
“He’s going through a whole entire process of seeing multiple people so he can formulate that opinion with his wife and his agent and himself and us and Chuck and all of us, and make the decision that’s best for Delano,” Grigson said. “Hopefully, he’s seeing another specialist so he can pinpoint what the problem is exactly and hopefully he’s back out there playing for us soon.”
But with or without Howell, this year’s defense is having a lot more fun.
“I’ve been here when we were treated like stepchildren,” Mathis said. “So I’m just enjoying every minute of it.”