NASHVILLE, Tenn. – First it was Jason David and the New Orleans Saints. Then came Nick Harper and the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. And when the Indianapolis Colts see Cato June and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 7, they'll check him off the list, too.
All in hopes of making people see that trio as merely players who came and went – just a few guys whose departures won't make or break the Indianapolis defense.
"Look here," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney demanded after Sunday's 22-20 win over Harper and the Titans. "What we do here is about the scheme. It's about the system. It's about the coaching staff. It's about the veterans. People need to start recognizing that."
And they just might after Sunday. The Colts went into their matchup against the Titans without two of their starting linebackers – Rob Morris and Freddy Keiaho – fielding a defense with only six of last season's regular starters. But in what largely was an ugly game, head coach Tony Dungy may have executed one of his most impressive defensive game plans, bottling up Tennessee on the game's final drive to secure the win.
It was a scene eerily reminiscent of the Colts' 20-17 road loss to the Titans last December, when Vince Young engineered a 43-yard drive that resulted in a game-winning 60-yard field goal by Rob Bironas. That nightmare was ever present in the mind of the Colts defense, which stopped the Titans at their own 47 with 15 seconds remaining.
While Peyton Manning and the Colts' offense struggled to finish drives, the injury-depleted defense managed to slow what should be a good Titans running game. That was the No. 1 priority this week, when the Colts spent the majority of their film sessions devising a plan to slow Young and the tailback tandem of LenDale White and Chris Brown. That trio dropped an eye-popping 282 yards on the Jacksonville Jaguars last week and sent the Colts' assistant coaches into marathon sessions in their film caves.
The singular goal? Don't let Young and the Titans' running backs dictate the game.
"Today our defense saved us," Dungy said. "We looked at the tape from last year and we saw the ways that (Young) got loose.
"I'd like not to say exactly what we did. We're going to have to play them a lot. We were just more conscious of it. We were trying to keep him inside, and the times that he did get moving around on the outside, he hurt us."
Part of the plan involved brining safety Bob Sanders into the box more often. At times, the Colts went into Cover 1, with Sanders acting as a fourth linebacker. In other situations, Sanders appeared to shadow Young, although he denied being specifically assigned to the quarterback. The result was a spectacular game for the safety, who had 11 tackles and 2½ sacks.
It's just the latest and greatest for a man who has become one of the best defensive players in the NFL and arguably as valuable to the Colts as Freeney. While teams have found ways to neutralize Freeney at the line of scrimmage (he's sackless through two games), the Colts have adjusted by finding more ways to utilize the speed and hitting ability of Sanders. That has meant adding more blitz assignments to his already steady presence against the run.
"You can tell (Sanders) studies the game," Titans cornerback Eric Moulds said. "He can point out your tendencies in certain formations, and that's the sign of a great safety because he knows how to make big plays. … You have to do a lot of shifts against those guys because they can really affect your passing game."
Sanders' health and increased role in the secondary has helped soften the offseason departure of the team's two starting cornerbacks. New starters Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden both bring additional speed to the secondary, but they've also adopted Sanders' "kill at will" hitting style. And while both have had some flaws in the first two games, they also have managed to show that the drop-off from last season's starting tandem will be negligible.
"Everyone assumes that losing those guys means we're in trouble, but it's not just as easy as, 'Oh, we lost one guy here,' " Freeney said. "Nobody knows who that next guy is to step up. You don't know what kind of offseason he had. You don't know how we're scheming to help him. At the end of the day, you line up Sunday and that validates everything. We've got young guys out there, but we're still making big plays."
They not only made plays against the Titans but also they frustrated Young, who was not able to operate smoothly in the passing game or freelance with his legs. Young scrambled to the Tennessee 44 late in the first half but was hit by Hayden as he stepped out of bounds, leading to Young flipping the ball at Hayden's stomach and drawing a drive-killing 15-yard penalty.
It was a tense moment in a rivalry that is starting to blossom. Clearly the Colts still carry a chip over last season's late loss on the Bironas field goal. And the Titans have gotten a new lease on life with Young, who seems to have transformed the franchise's mindset.
"It's so similar to when Steve McNair was here," Dungy said. "They just believe that when the games are close and they can keep you out of the end zone, they can win."
Added Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, "The down years of the Titans are over with. We are going to come out here and play with a lot of heart. We'll go toe-to-toe with anybody. Even the world champs."
But with the Colts at 2-0, the AFC road still seems to bend toward Indianapolis. As the Colts develop, they may be a more balanced team than ever. While the offense sputtered at times Sunday, the ball was spread evenly among a cadre of options – Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez. Meanwhile, a young defense continued to mature with interchangeable parts.
"We have got a fairly new team," Manning said. "Some of our players from last year's team are playing for the Titans, and some are playing for other teams. It's kind of like a new team and trying to establish our identity. I think we'll do that throughout the season."
Freeney added: "The opportunities we're looking for, it's that situation right there. The fourth quarter, under a minute left, they need a touchdown; we need to stop them. … That's the type of games I love to play. Defensively, your backs are to the wall; they're at home, everybody is booing us. I love it."