THERE'S NOTHING exotic about the Colts' defense. The base formation is the 4--3, and the primary scheme is a Cover Two designed to prevent big plays and make opponents work for their yardage. Want sexy? Indianapolis will substitute a third corner for a linebacker in passing situations.
Unlike teams that employ creative blitz packages, the Colts rely almost exclusively on their front four to disrupt the passing game. According to Stats Inc., Indy blitzed 22 times on third-down passes last season, fewer than every other team but the Raiders (15) and 40 below the NFL average. Coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks contend that speed, execution and physical play are more important than schemes and disguises. It's a strategy that places great responsibility on the linemen. "I wouldn't say it's a burden to have that type of pressure on you," says defensive end Robert Mathis. "It's more of an honor that they trust us."
Judging by Indy's NFL ranking—first in scoring defense, second against the pass and third overall—that trust was earned last season. But mostly because of injuries to linemen, it wasn't easy. End Dwight Freeney, a two-time All-Pro, hurt his left foot in early November and missed the rest of the season; regulars Mathis (both knees sprained) and Raheem Brock (rib injury) missed the final three and four games, respectively. The impact of losing those players is made most clear by comparing the Colts' two games against the Chargers: In November, when the starting defensive line was intact, Indianapolis gave up one offensive touchdown and 11 first downs; in the January playoff, with Freeney out and Brock and Mathis suiting up for the first time since early December, San Diego's offense scored four TDs and had 20 first downs in a 28--24 victory.
The Colts' linemen aren't big, so a deep, healthy rotation keeps them from getting worn down. "When we're really going well we probably have seven or eight guys who are playing a lot for us in the line," Dungy says. "As much as Dwight's not being there hurt from a production standpoint, it also took one more guy out of the rotation. You had more guys who had to play more, and that affected how fresh they were." If there was a plus side to the injuries, it was that up-and-comers such as tackles Ed Johnson and Keyunta Dawson got significant playing time. Both are expected to play important roles this year.
There were thoughts of limiting Freeney to passing downs early in the season, so in preparation Mathis was flipping from the left side to Freeney's spot on the right, and Brock was working at left end. Freeney, who had never missed more than one game in a season since entering the league in 2002, hopes the changes won't be necessary; he was on track to start the season opener. "It's like you've been studying for a test since November, and now I finally get to take that test," he says. "I'm ready to ace it."
SPIN CYCLE Dawson (96) will play a key role in a rotation that's meant to keep the smallish Colts linemen fresh.