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Indianapolis Colts' defense now a legitimate strength; 10 things

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Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 8, beginning with a surprising strength for Indianapolis and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.

On a snowy January afternoon nearly three years ago, a week before Indianapolis was to host Super Bowl XLVI, Colts owner Jim Irsay was in his office, contemplating the miserable season his team had just endured even as he planned the parties his fellow owners would attend. Irsay was already privately leaning toward making many transformative decisions: that Peyton Manning, whom Irsay was not sure could ever play again, would be released; that Andrew Luck would be drafted. And then, while a reporter was sitting in his office with him, the phone rang, and Irsay asked for a minute of privacy.

That, it turned out, was the moment that might have changed the face of the Colts as much as Manning and Irsay's teary farewell and Luck's selection with the No. 1 overall pick later that year. On the other end of that call was Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. He was accepting Irsay's offer to become his next coach, and he was bringing with him an understanding. That the Colts would become a more balanced team. That the days of relying only on a quarterback -- even another transcendent one -- were over. That the team often described, sometimes derisively, as a finesse squad would now be physical. That the Colts would have ... a defense.

And now, after years of paying lip service to that idea, it has finally become a reality. After a stunning shutout of the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday, the Colts' D ranks third -- third -- in total defense, a level it reached just once (in 2007) in the previous era, forming a staggering partnership with the league's top-ranked offense. Heading into Week 8, Indianapolis also boasts the league's best defense on third down (opponents are converting little more than 1 of 4 attempts), is tied for third in sacks (21) and is ninth against the run. Even Luck, in the midst of an MVP-caliber season, was overshadowed by the defense last week.

"I just love the fact that this is the vision Chuck had the day we came over from Baltimore," said defensive lineman Cory Redding, who arrived in Indianapolis along with Pagano in 2012. "The vision of building a defense that is very physical, a defense that doesn't get mad whenever the offense makes a fumble. We get happy, because that gives us more face time.

"Regardless of what it was in the past, this is a new era, the new vision of our offense, to march the ball up and down, and a stingy defense that don't want to give you even a piece of candy on Halloween when they've got the whole bag."

That wasn't the first time the Colts desired a defense -- former coach Tony Dungy, after all, was a defensive mastermind in Tampa Bay. But the squads Manning led had been constructed to tilt so heavily toward the offense that there was often a shortage of money or will to build a comparable unit on the other side of the ball. Instead, the defense served as a complement -- but not an equal companion -- to the offense. It was small and fast and predicated on rushing the passer, with the knowledge that the Colts would almost always be playing with a lead furnished by Manning, and that their opponents would almost always be throwing to catch up.

The strategy worked, sometimes spectacularly well. In Manning's 13 years playing (he missed his 14th and final season in Indianapolis while he dealt with his neck injury), the Colts won one Super Bowl, played in another and went to the playoffs nine other times. But while Manning had year after year of regular-season superlatives, the defense was often blamed for Indianapolis' inability to capture more than one Lombardi Trophy.

Redding knew immediately what Pagano wanted when he saw that the coach planned to change the defense from the 4-3 the Colts had run in the past to the 3-4. But as the transition began, the team simply did not have the appropriate players to fit the scheme in Year 1. Indianapolis still had smaller players than are ideal for the 3-4, and in that first year under Pagano, the defense ranked 26th in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed. Last season, things improved, but in two playoff games, the Colts allowed 87 points, losing to the Patriots in the divisional round.

The Colts added safety Mike Adams and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson in the offseason, but a potentially huge problem soon presented itself: The loss of premier pass rusher Robert Mathis to an Achilles injury. With Mathis, the defense's biggest star, out for the year, the unit was left almost faceless, an issue that seemingly would have been exacerbated by an ankle injury that has kept Arthur Jones -- perhaps the biggest offseason signing -- out of the past five games.

Redding and Pagano came from a star-laden defense in Baltimore -- think of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata -- but if this Colts unit is relatively unknown, it has also been liberated by coordinator Greg Manusky. With two lockdown corners in Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, who have shown they can take on receivers man to man, Manusky has been free to use a variety of blitzes, bringing pressure from all angles. Six players have at least two sacks. The formula worked particularly well against Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who entered last Sunday's game having taken a league-low two sacks and left with three more.

"Now we've got pieces that we want, the big boys up front to take on double teams, the linebackers that can flow from left to right, corners saying, 'I will take him man to man'; that is the kind of defense that Chuck wanted," Redding said. "We don't need a bunch of big names. We don't need a bunch of guys on the cover of magazines. At the end of the day, there will be enough to go around for everybody. We've got a bunch of guys on the field nobody knows about. They'll know us at the end of the season."

The Steelers might get to know them much sooner, specifically on Sunday. Indianapolis will focus first on limiting Le'Veon Bell, the league's third-leading rusher. Redding said coaches give defensive players just enough information for them to understand, then drill them on it, to ensure that everybody knows their assignments perfectly, which will allow them to play fast.

"Then we can pin our ears back, because they are in second-and-17," Redding said.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will provide a classic test case. He has a passer rating of 134.2 on passes of at least 20 yards in the air, the highest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 15 such attempts. But the Colts' defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 19.4 percent of passes that travel that distance in the air, the lowest completion percentage in the NFL. Roethlisberger, of course, is also known for holding onto the ball a little too long on occasion, making him an inviting target for a swarming and confident pass rush that, Redding said, is playing not only for itself, but for players, like Mathis, who can't be on the field with their teammates.

"There's nothing nice or soft about being a defensive player," Redding said. "We're very aggressive. We don't want to be vanilla. We want to dial it up, bring a safety, a linebacker; put two defensive linemen out there. There are so many different things to do with so many different guys. Our mindset is, Hit first and ask questions later."

Here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 8 schedule plays out:

1) A rumbling in Dallas. It might be time to embrace the idea that the Cowboys are not a mirage -- and that it doesn't matter who Washington starts at quarterback on Monday. Washington's defense is decent against the run (103.3 yards per game, 12th in the league), but DeMarco Murray has rushed for at least 100 yards in all seven games this season -- and that production is giving the Cowboys lots of third-and-short chances. Their 57.4 percent third-down conversion rate is the best since at least 1972.

2) The Jets' Percy Harvin experiment begins. Harvin's ability to stretch the field might not be on immediate display against the Bills. Consider that he does not have a reception on a pass thrown 20 or more yards this season, and his last 100-yard receiving game came in 2012. Over the past four weeks, Geno Smith has completed just two of 16 passes of at least 15 yards in the air. The Jets average a league-low 4.94 yards per pass play, while the Bills are allowing 5.08 yards on all plays, fourth-best in the NFL -- and Buffalo leads the league in sacks.

3) Will the Packers test the shaky Saints' dominance at home? The Packers have won four in a row, and Aaron Rodgers is on pace to throw 41 touchdowns and two interceptions this season -- a ratio no quarterback in history has achieved. The Saints' offense is as potent as ever (it ranks second in yardage), but the defense is allowing 27.5 points per game (28th) and has just four takeaways (tied for 30th).

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4) Which wilting defense rights itself in Carolina? The Seahawks are allowing nine more points per game than they did last season, and they're getting fewer takeaways (none on the road) and sacks. Opposing passers have a rating of 103.7 (12 touchdowns, two interceptions), which ranks 28th in the NFL. Carolina is allowing 12.8 more points per game this year than it did in 2013, and it's given up at least 37 points in four of its past five games. The Seahawks wouldn't make the playoffs right now, while the Panthers are the only NFC South team that isn't below .500.

5) A matchup of strength against strength in the desert. The Eagles have the third-best scoring offense and the Cardinals have the fifth-best scoring defense, begging this question: Can Arizona score enough to keep up with Philly? The Eagles have averaged 174.0 rushing yards in their past two games, while the Cardinals entered this week with the best rushing defense in the NFL (allowing 72.5 yards per game). Arizona has the 14th-best scoring offense, but Carson Palmer is 3-0 and completing 66.1 percent of his passes for an average of 269 yards per game, with six total touchdowns and one interception.

6) Can the Bears get right against a hurting Patriots D? New England has the best passing defense this season, but the team is entering a stretch of games against top-notch quarterbacks without top pass rusher Chandler Jones. Will Jones' absence help Jay Cutler, who denied reports that Brandon Marshall called him out in frustration after Chicago's loss last week, get the ball to his No. 1 receiver? Marshall has had at least 135 receiving yards in each of his past two games against the Patriots (both of which came in 2011, when he was with the Dolphins). But Marshall has just 31 receptions for 349 yards and five touchdowns this season.

7) A Bengals offense struggling at a bad time. Coming off a shutout loss, Cincinnati faces the Baltimore Ravens, the only NFL team to not allow more than 23 points in a single game this season. The Bengals are averaging 8.7 fewer points in their past three games (the last two without receiver A.J. Green) than they did in their first three games -- and they've gone 0-2-1 in that stretch. The Ravens have scored on a league-best 47.4 percent of their drives this season, and have gone three-and-out on just 11.8 percent of their drives, second-best in the league.

8) Can Brian Hoyer keep a secure hold on the Browns' starting QB job? In last week's loss to the Jaguars, the Browns scored just six points, and Hoyer completed just 16 of 41 passes. He might not have to do much better to beat the winless Raiders this week, though. Oakland's defense is worst in the league on third down, while the Raiders have scored 14 points or fewer in five of six games and have gone three-and-out on 30.8 percent of their drives, most in the NFL.

9) Numbers lining up for the Lions across the pond. The Falcons have lost four straight games by at least 10 points (they have lost 18 of their last 24 games overall), and opposing passers have a rating of 97.5 against them. An ailing Calvin Johnson is causing a dip in Detroit's offensive numbers, but in last week's win over the Saints, Matthew Stafford brought Detroit back from a 13-point deficit with less than four minutes to play. Golden Tate had 10 receptions for 154 yards and one touchdown; his 73-yard score on a short pass and long run pulled the Lions to within six points. Tate has 48 receptions this season, the most through seven games by a Lion since Herman Moore in 1997.

10) The battle for Missouri. After an upset of the Chargers, can the Chiefs keep pace by topping the Rams? St. Louis has allowed at least 100 yards rushing in five of its six games this season, so Jamaal Charles -- who has at least 80 yards rushing in each of the Chiefs' past three games -- could have a big impact. The Rams' defense got three sacks last week against the Seahawks, upping their total to four this season. But the Chiefs rely heavily on short passes from Alex Smith. Smith is averaging just 6.2 air yards per pass attempt this season -- lowest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 75 attempts.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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