Colts plugging away

A battered defense puts pieces together

By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 19, 2010

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INDIANAPOLIS — The motto around the corral is “Next Man Up,’’ the football version of life in an infantry platoon, where battlefield promotions are part of the profession.

“I don’t care if you’re a practice-squad guy,’’ said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. “You have to be ready.’’

It’s not as though the Colts will get to play seven a side just because their defense is banged up or get to postpone games until everybody emerges from the whirlpool. The club culture is printed on the locker room wall: “No excuses.’’ “No explanations.’’ If the next man up has to be picked at random from the phone book, so be it.

“Giving reasons is giving excuses,’’ said coach Jim Caldwell, whose jury-rigged squad meets the Patriots Sunday in Foxborough. “I’ll recite my old saying to you: ‘Excuses are tools of incompetence. They are used by monuments of nothingness, and those who specialize in them are seldom good at anything else.’ ’’

What is undeniable is that safety Melvin Bullitt is out for the season, that safety Bob Sanders has been out for two months, and that linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session both missed last week’s game and are questionable for this one. In Caldwell’s view, all that amounts to is “a bit of adversity.’’

“It’s required a little bit of adaptation and improvisation,’’ acknowledged the coach, who has been plugging in people who weren’t on anybody’s active roster when the season began. “Everybody’s affected by it, there’s no question about that.

“But the good thing about it is the fact that we have to overcome that. We have to find a way still to improve, although we have to make some adjustments that maybe we aren’t necessarily accustomed to.’’

The patchwork approach might not matter so much if the offense hadn’t already lost tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Anthony Gonzalez for the season and been without running back Joseph Addai for three weeks. Now that Peyton Manning and his playmates aren’t necessarily going to be playing pinball with the scoreboard, the defense understands that it has to step up if the Colts are to proceed to the playoffs.

So it was last weekend, when the defense scored or set up 17 points in a 23-17 home win over the Bengals that kept Indianapolis alone atop the AFC South.

“Three sacks and five turnovers is a big day,’’ concluded Caldwell after his mixed-and-matched unit had picked off Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer three times and recovered two fumbles.

The Colts twisted the tiger’s tail in the first quarter with cornerback Kelvin Hayden running back an interception for a 31-yard touchdown, then with tackle Antonio Johnson pouncing on a fumble on the visitors’ 25 that set up a touchdown by Javarris James to make it 17-0 nearly three minutes into the second quarter.

The Colts would have had another pick-6 in the fourth quarter had linebacker Tyjuan Hagler not been ruled down by contact.

“The whole emphasis this week was for the defense to go out there and force turnovers,’’ said Hayden. “Interceptions, forced fumbles, sack fumbles, strips, anything. Fight and scratch to get turnovers. That’s what we did.’’

On a day when kicker Adam Vinatieri produced nearly half of the team’s points, what Indianapolis needed was a taste of its old-time defense, and there still were enough veterans suiting up to make sure that the newcomers were up to the mark.

“The thing about our defense is speed,’’ said end Robert Mathis. “We want to fly around. Anyone who moves in there has to do the same thing that the guy in front of you has done.

“It’s expected because you’re brought in here for a reason. You’re a professional. They saw something in you and they expect no drop in talent or production.’’

Despite the shuffling that’s been going on at linebacker and safety, the line has been rock-solid with Freeney, Mathis, and tackles Dan Muir and Fili Moala starting every game.

“Any time that you have a solid core of veterans who understand not only what to do but how you do things, that’s important in terms of being able to pass that information along to newcomers,’’ said Caldwell. “That’s a great part of who and what we are. All you have to do is tell a guy, ‘Hey listen, just watch him. Do exactly what he does and you’re going to be OK.’ ’’

What has helped the Colts survive the bumps is their stability and continuity, which is not unlike that of the Patriots. Jim Irsay has been chief executive since 1997 and his family has owned the franchise since 1972. Bill Polian has been president for 13 years. Caldwell was an assistant for seven years before he succeeded Tony Dungy last season. Freeney is in his ninth year here, Mathis and Brackett their eighth, Sanders his seventh, Hayden his sixth.

“You’ve got to start with the front office,’’ said Hayden. “Those guys do a tremendous job getting the personnel. Then it comes to the players buying into what the coaches are trying to do. It goes from the practice field to the classroom. Guys want to do good, so they put in the work and the time and effort and it shows on Sunday.’’

Last weekend the Colts started two rookie linebackers in Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner and used four defenders (Hagler, safeties Aaron Francisco and Mike Newton, and cornerback Cornelius Brown) who didn’t suit up for anybody at the start of the season. Angerer and Conner combined for 11 tackles while Francisco and Hagler came up with interceptions.

“A little misfortune now pays off,’’ observed Freeney, “because now we’re more experienced at certain positions.’’

It hasn’t been conventional this autumn, and the numbers are less than blinding — the Colts rank 18th in total defense and 29th against the run. But they’re 11th in fewest points allowed. Right now, that’s the stat that matters around here.

“We won,’’ Angerer declared after the clock ran out last weekend. “That’s all that matters.’’

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