Colts defense comes up huge at crucial times

INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Polian isn’t a man given to overstatement. After spending the better part of the past 24 years as a general manager or president with three teams (winning five executive of the year awards along the way), Polian is all about perspective.

So when Polian put his Indianapolis Colts’ defensive effort Sunday on par with a game from the team’s title run in 2006, it’s not just worth noting. It’s worth some serious attention.

Moreno was held to 63 yards on 23 carries.
(Michael Conroy/AP Photos)

As the Colts improved to 13-0 with a 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos and set the NFL record with 22 consecutive regular-season victories, there was the usual dose of praise that goes to quarterback Peyton Manning(notes). His four touchdown passes, including three in Indy’s first four possessions, kept the Colts ahead all game.

But when Manning had an inexplicably bad run of throws from late in the first half to early in the fourth quarter, it was the Colts’ defense that kept Denver and wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes) (and NFL-record 21 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns) from making a serious threat.

“I’m not sure that under the circumstances that wasn’t almost as good as the Baltimore game from the playoffs that year,” Polian said, referring to the 15-6 divisional road win against the Baltimore Ravens on the way to the Super Bowl. “Obviously, that was a playoff game, so it’s different. But [Sunday], with what they had to do, taking shot after shot in the second half and not allowing anything … this ranks pretty high.”

The Colts displayed the kind of defense a team needs come January to get through to the Super Bowl. Especially when Manning wasn’t playing particularly well Sunday.

Manning was brilliant on three of Indy’s first four possessions and again on the Colts’ last important drive. He converted five critical third- or fourth-down situations during those four touchdown drives. He was every bit his brilliant, MVP-worthy self.

But from late in the first half after the Colts built a 21-0 lead to the 8:57 mark of the fourth quarter after Denver had climbed within 21-16, Manning was awful. During that stretch, Manning was 3-of-16 for 21 yards and three interceptions. Two of the interceptions came on tipped passes, but even one of those throws was way off the mark from the beginning.

The key was surviving it.

“That’s what we talk about, picking each other up,” said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney(notes), who notched his 11½ sack of the season. “You don’t complain, you don’t make excuses, you just get it done.”

What the Colts did was stop Denver consistently on third and fourth down from start to finish. Then, when Manning was cold, they kept the Broncos from doing serious damage. Denver got into Indy territory five times during a stretch of six possessions from the end of the second quarter through the third quarter, but got no points.

Finally, with Marshall having his record game, the Broncos started to make it competitive in the fourth quarter.

“You have to give the man his due, he’s not easy to stop,” Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey(notes) said of Marshall. “He’s big and strong, so you can’t just like take him out the game.”

What the Colts did was make a tradeoff. They gave Marshall his catches and covered him one-on-one for the most part in order to stop the run. The Broncos’ running backs didn’t convert a single third- or fourth-down run. In fact, Indy swarmed the Broncos consistently whenever Denver tried to run outside.

“That’s Denver’s game, so we knew we had to take that away,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett(notes) said.

Overall, the performance against the run (holding Denver to 95) was in contrast to many of Indy’s efforts this year. The Colts went into the game ranked 18th against the run (111.7 ypg), including allowing 239 against the Miami Dolphins in a Week 2 game that Indy narrowly escaped.

Some of the Colts’ problems have been related to injuries. The Colts have lost four starters along the way, including rugged, run-stopping safety Bob Sanders(notes). All four are on injured reserve and both starting defensive ends, Freeney and Robert Mathis(notes), have been banged up in recent weeks.

But against Denver, the Colts had what they hope will be their starting defense for the rest of the way. They are getting exceptional play from the defensive tackle rotation of Antonio Johnson(notes), Daniel Muir(notes) and Eric Foster(notes).

“What we’ve always talked about around here is getting to the ball and getting there relentlessly,” Brackett said. “Play fast, run all the time.”

Said linebacker Clint Sessions: “That’s how we have to be, all the time. We all buy in to that and you saw it come together [Sunday]. If guys don’t buy in to the way we have to play, they have to answer to all of us. They have to be able to look us in the eye and explain why they didn’t give everything they have.”

Right now, there explanations aren’t necessary.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Dec 13, 2009