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Tough Colts defense gets rid of 'soft' label

| Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts defense has heard all the critics' complaints.

People said it was too small, too soft, too reliant on speed.

Well, the Colts finally have an answer for those labels. New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer gave Indy a chance to punch back with a more physical, more aggressive style — and they've been tough enough to reach another Super Bowl.

"We come down, we hit, we hustle and this year we're making more plays," said safety Antoine Bethea. "I think we've always been physical. But whatever we do, there's going to be naysayers."

Some doubters rely strictly on statistics to make their point.

Indy (16-2) did finish the season ranked No. 14 against the pass, No. 18 overall and No. 24 against the run, numbers that don't exactly jump out — especially when the defense is overshadowed by such a high-powered offense.

Stats, the Colts contend, only reveal part of the story.

Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, like Bethea, were picked for the Pro Bowl and middle linebacker Gary Brackett made a strong case for his first selection, too. The Colts cut the number of rushing TDs allowed from 18 to 10 this season, and when the defense has had to protect late leads or stop opponents to give four-time MVP Peyton Manning a chance to rally, the defense delivered almost every time.

It also saved its most complete performances for the most important games.

In two playoff contests, Indy limited the powerful running games of the Ravens and Jets to an average of 86.5 yards. Those same teams had a combined quarterback rating of 72.2, and next week's challenge, against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, will be even more daunting.

But the Colts insist there is a new attitude this season.

"We're a hard-hitting team, we play relentlessly," linebacker Clint Session said. "We want to continue to hit you so you remember every time you come this way. That's what we do. It's not just me, it's all about the overall scheme of what we're trying to get across."

Session exemplifies Coyer's approach to the game.

The third-year linebacker, who played with Darrelle Revis at Pitt, has excelled in the expanded blitz packages and those who dare to challenge the 235-pound weak-side linebacker often find themselves getting run over. It's turned Session into the leader of a new Colts pack.

"Clint is extremely aggressive, he has a natural intensity about him and he absolutely loves to play," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He has this natural leverage, and I think that gives him an opportunity to pack a real punch and he can do it in very short range. It's incredible."

On Friday, Saints coach Sean Payton talked about how the Colts take away big plays and mentioned Session by name.

"I know that the offense gets more attention and that's just the nature of our league, but they're playing championship-level defense," Payton said. "You watch them create turnovers and get to the football — it's impressive, the tape you watch. You look at how they handled the Jets' running attack last week, a team that was No. 1 in the league in rushing the football. They're a tremendous challenge."

The Colts learned to play that way three years ago, when they suddenly figured out how to stop the run in the playoffs, helping them capture the first Super Bowl since the franchise relocated to Indianapolis.

Now they're back for another reason — consistency and their continual ability to overcome the adversity of a potentially devastating rash of injuries.

· Bob Sanders, the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year, played only two games this season because of a knee injury and torn biceps.

· Linebacker Tyjuan Hagler hasn't played since mid-October after he also tore his biceps.

· Starting cornerback Marlin Jackson, a first-round pick in 2005 out of Michigan and a Sharon native, went on injured reserve in early November after tearing the ACL in his left knee.

· Cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who signed a big contract last offseason, missed seven games because of hamstring and knee injuries. He's expected to play against the Saints.

At one point, Indy had so many injuries that team president Bill Polian told his radio listeners Indy was at a breaking point. But it made the Colts tougher mentally.

"Last year, you could say we were more of a bend-but-don't-break defense, but this year I think we're more of an attack team," Hayden said. "We're taking it to the offense. When they make a bad decision, we take advantage of it."

The Colts hope their new approach will finally ditch the old perceptions.

And that some will acknowledge Indy's defense is finally tough enough.

"We take it personal, we just go out there and hit people in the mouth," defensive tackle Raheem Brock said. "Guys come in here and think they're going to pound the ball on us, like they don't watch film. We just go out there and do what we do. We don't talk about it until after the game is over."

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