Chuck Pagano came to Indianapolis making the case for a robust defense.
Now the Colts coach has the proof he needs to demonstrate it’s working.
The stats have improved, the game tapes look better and a suddenly stout defense is one of the major reasons the Colts are playing for their third AFC title Sunday at New England.
“We’re playing better run defense now than we ever have,” Pagano said Monday after shutting down Denver 24-13 in an AFC divisional-round win one day earlier.
“We’ve got to prepare the same way we prepared last week. We’ve got to do a better job because if we’re not able to stop the run, we’re not going to have a chance.”
Until Pagano arrived three years ago, it was a mantra that rang hollow.
But evidence shows that’s not the case anymore.
In 2013, Indianapolis allowed 125.1 yards rushing per game, 26th in the league. This season, they trimmed that number to 113.4 yards and jumped to No. 18.
In the playoffs, the Colts have been even better. Against two of the hottest backs in the league, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill and Denver’s C.J. Anderson, the Colts allowed a meager 198 yards rushing in two games. The per-game average of 99.0 yards is the lowest among the four teams still playing on championship weekend.
Indy’s pass defense has been even stingier.
On Sunday, the Colts’ secondary challenged Peyton Manning with press coverage. Manning finished 26 of 46 for 211 yards with one touchdown and lost a fumble.
“We disguised a lot and we ran to the ball. As a group, we didn’t stop,” safety Mike Adams said. “We did great things and we didn’t let the ball over our head. The corners did a great job. We really shut down the deep balls.”
How did the Colts make such a dramatic shift in just three years? By getting bigger and stronger up front.
In 2012, Indy started the conversion by signing free agent defensive end Cory Redding, drafting rookie defensive tackle Josh Chapman, moving Robert Mathis to outside linebacker and adding inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman from the CFL.
General manager Ryan Grigson then traded a second-round pick to Miami for cornerback Vontae Davis, who has blossomed into a Pro Bowler.
In 2013, Grigson continued to follow the long-range plan by singing defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, safety LaRon Landry, cornerback Greg Toler and outside linebacker Erik Walden in free agency and taking outside linebacker Bjoern Werner in the first round of the draft. All five are starters.
Last summer, Grigson added three more starters in free agency — inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, defensive tackle Arthur Jones and safety Mike Adams — and found a budding pass rusher in outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, a fifth-round draft pick.
Pagano likes the results.
“Getting Art back and healthy, he’s playing at a high level right now. Everybody’s doing their job,” Pagano said. “The execution is really good. Guys are getting off blocks. We’re tackling, we’re tackling better. We’re not giving up the long (plays), we had a couple get out on us yesterday, but not giving up big plays.”
Being better still might not be good enough this weekend, though.
The AFC South champs face Tom Brady on his home turf, where he is 13-3 in the postseason and 3-0 against Indy thanks in large part to a formula the Colts haven’t yet figured out.
Last year, LeGarrette Blount piled up 166 yards rushing and four touchdowns in a 43-22 divisional-round rout. In November, the Patriots got a career-high 201 yards and four more touchdowns from unheralded running back Jonas Gray in a 42-20 victory.
This time might not be the same.
“I think, like most good teams do as the season progresses, they just continue to get better,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “They’re very aggressive with, not only pressuring, but also man-to-man coverage. They’ll get up there and play tight and jam and disrupt the passing game that way. And it’s a physical group.”
The Colts, of course, will focus on stopping the run first this weekend.
That mission could be complicated by Brady’s efficiency and the matchup problem they’ll have against tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But the Colts see this game in simpler terms. One more win in a hostile venue will give them a trip to the Super Bowl.
“Stats and all the other stuff doesn’t matter,” Redding said. “The only stat that matters is a `W’ or an `L’. So right now our main focus is to prepare the best way we know how, get the game plan and go into Foxborough (Massachusetts), try to execute it to a T and get the `W’.”