INDIANAPOLIS – Talk about a recipe for disaster. The Indianapolis Colts' playoff journey starts Saturday with the league's worst run defense (173 yards per game) taking on the NFL's second-leading rusher (1,789) in Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson.
Is a little revision to the playoff rushing record in store?
"What you hope to do is eliminate the big plays. In the playoffs, you can't have that one play where you give up the 47-yarder because that can be all it takes to get you beat," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "Larry Johnson is a good back. I don't envision us holding him to 25 yards on 12 carries. We can't give up plays when we are in a defense that should stop that play. You have to get them stopped."
Good luck. Containing the run, let alone stopping it, has been an infrequent occurrence for Indy this season.
The Colts have given up big yards to teams that run well (Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans) and those that don't (Cincinnati Bengals). They've been torched by stars (Tiki Barber, Fred Taylor) and non-Pro Bowl types (Anthony Thomas, Ron Dayne, Mike Bell) alike. And then they had the ultimate indignity of allowing 375 yards the second-time around against Jacksonville; a contest in which two rushers (Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew) surpassed 100 yards by halftime and a third (Alvin Pearman) finished with 71.
While their woes have been well documented, putting an end to the problem has eluded Indy like many of the rushers they've faced this season.
"It's been a lot of things," Colts cornerback Nick Harper said recently. "You don't want to put the blame on injuries or the fact that we've had guys playing who haven't had a lot of experience. But some of what's been happening is that when younger guys play, they sometimes want to do too much.
"Instead of just playing the defense the way it's supposed to be played, they see a breakdown in one area and they try to overcompensate by doing too much. When you do that and leave your area of responsibility to help out someplace else, that leaves the team vulnerable."
The idea that a playoff team is consistently allowing 200-plus yards a game is mind-boggling. Throw in the fact that Indy gave up 65 yards less on the ground last season with most of the same personnel, and you have cause for further examination.
While the nucleus of the Colts defense has remained largely the same the past two seasons, injuries, illness and salary cap decisions have certainly played a part in the unit's slide.
Among the key performers that have either left the team via free agency or have been sidelined for the year due to medical problems include outside linebacker David Thornton (now with the Titans), defensive tackle Larry Tripplett (signed with the Bills), defensive tackle Corey Simon (illness), defensive tackle Montae Reagor (head and facial injuries/automobile accident), and safety Mike Doss (knee).
Then there's the up-and-down play of veterans such as defensive end Dwight Freeney (just 5 1/2 sacks this season, down from 11 a year ago), outside linebacker Gilbert Gardner (Thornton's replacement in the Colts' starting lineup whose first year as a starter has been rocky at best), middle linebacker Gary Brackett, outside linebacker Cato June and defensive tackle Raheem Brock.
The midseason acquisition of former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland has helped to some extent, but he's still getting acclimated to playing with the Colts.
Throw in the on-again, off-again season of safety Bob Sanders (knee) with injuries to rookie safety Antoine Bethea (shoulder), cornerback-turned-safety Marlin Jackson (leg, shoulder) and Harper (groin, leg, ankle), and it may be easier to get a better idea of what has transpired over the last few months.
As much as injuries and personnel decisions have played a part in what's happened to the Colts' defense, execution of the scheme and game plan – or sometimes the lack thereof – has been the biggest obstacle this year.
"Our problem [against Jacksonville] was not scheme. Our problem was execution," Colts team president Bill Polian said. "We didn't execute in a lot of phases. As Tony often has said, when we get an unblocked player in the hole, and the hole is reasonably small and we miss the tackle or the guy runs out of the tackle because you're tackling with an arm rather than with our head and shoulders, that's execution. That isn't scheme.
"The scheme gets the player there. The player makes the play. He's either good enough or not. We weren't good enough on far too many occasions [against the Jaguars]."
For his part, Polian accepts partial blame for the loss of Thornton to Tennessee in the offseason. But he is quick to point out that the NFL's salary cap limitations played a far larger role in the situation.
"We lost him and I'm not sure we've made up for that loss in a lot of different ways. I guess if I had it to do over again, we probably would have done it differently. The salary cap is very frustrating because it causes you to lose players. This is one whose loss we feel pretty dramatically. I have to say that. That responsibility rests with me," he said. "The linebackers have not played as well this year as they did last. No question about that. We're going to have to get that better."
Tom James writes for the Terre Haute (Ind.) Tribune-Star.