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Colts' defense has opportunity to step out of the shadows

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Playing defense for the Indianapolis Colts means accepting your place in the shadows.

You usually only get recognized when you're being criticized. If praise comes the team's way, which is often, it is almost always for the guys on the other side of the ball.

"No one looks at the Colts and talks about defense," strong safety Melvin Bullitt said. "The first name you hear is Peyton Manning and then it's Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and you can name them on down. We are always fighting for respect within our team. (But) it's funny because when we get out there in practice, we feel like we have the upper hand against the best offense in the NFL. We feel like we do a pretty good job against them.

"Why not do it against another team?"

Why not do it against the league's top-ranked offense, which happens to belong to the New Orleans Saints?

Such an opportunity awaits the Colts' defense in Super Bowl XLIV.

How far a strong performance would go toward bringing the unit the sort of recognition that Manning & Co. enjoy is debatable, especially if Manning & Co. have a typically impressive showing in a winning effort. But the Colts defenders have plenty of reason to be satisfied with the contribution they've made to the team's 14-2 regular season and postseason victories over the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.

In two postseason games, the Colts haven't allowed a single point in the second half. They didn't exactly put up sterling numbers during the regular season -- 18th in the league overall, 24th against the run, and 14th against the pass -- but they did establish themselves as being far more aggressive than they had been in previous years.

When Tony Dungy was the Colts' coach, the defense played a Cover 2 scheme that basically surrendered to short and intermediate throws in the middle of the field, while its coverage was focused on preventing the deep pass and tightening up in the red zone. After Dungy retired last year, new coach Jim Caldwell hired Larry Coyer as his defensive coordinator.

It wasn't long before the Colts' defense began playing with a style consistent with Coyer's reputation for getting after the quarterback. They used a wider variety of pass rushers and took better advantage of the speedy athletes that were part of Dungy's defensive template.

"It's way more (aggressive) than it was last year," linebacker Clint Session said of the scheme. "You think about last year, we didn't blitz as much. We kind of played into a mode of not giving up the big play, not losing the game for the offense. This kind of defense is designed to have the offense's back. The offense gets a chance to take some chances, and if they don't come out right, we have their back. Everybody on our defense likes to hit, they run fast and they take pride in what they do."

Said cornerback Kelvin Hayden, "Last year, you kind of could say it was more of a bend-but-don't-break defense. This year, we're more of an attack team. We're taking it to the offense, making the offense make bad decisions. And when they make a bad decision, we take advantage of it."

According to Coyer, the Colts' blitz ratio is a little less than 10 percent of the time. But that's still a substantial jump from the two percent they were blitzing before his arrival.

"He has our defense able to attack offenses by blitzing from different angles where offenses don't know where we're coming from," defensive lineman Raheem Brock said. "He's given me the ability to move around; I'm playing linebacker, defensive end, and I'm moving to D-tackle. He takes advantage of everybody's ability. And it opens up the one-on-ones for us as a D-line. Offenses never know what's coming."

Coyer made certain from his first meeting with the Colts' defenders that they understood things would be done a little differently under his watch.

Of course, some skeptical players actually needed to witness Coyer make such calls before they'd actually believe it.

"It's one thing to plan five blitzes during the week and run one of them during the game," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "Guys kind of lose their luster. But when you put in five blitzes and you run all five of them, guys really get excited about that and they get their ears pinned back. And when your number is called, you want to go ahead and make a play."

The Colts' defense has long been predicated on a fast, swarming style that tends to be effective against opponents that, like the Saints, prefer to maximize the outside speed in their running game. They've also proven they can hold up reasonably well against power-rushing teams, such as the Jets, who were held to a mere 86 yards on the ground in the AFC Championship Game.

But while the Saints, whose running game ranked sixth in the NFL, don't quite match the muscle of the Jets' league-leading rushing attack, they do have their share of speed-burners. Running back Reggie Bush, who catches the ball as well as any receiver, leades the way, and complements a group of highly talented, fleet receivers.

"Speed will be the key to this game," Coyer said. "It'll be a competitive deal that way."

Brackett is the play-caller and leader of the Colts' defense. He relies heavily on his speed and instincts. He covers a tremendous amount of ground, takes good angles to the ball and makes plays when he gets there.

Weak-side linebacker Clint Session, another exceptionally fast player, has emerged as the Colts' hardest-hitting player. He might very well be one of the hardest hitters in the entire NFL.

"We're a hard-hitting team," Session said. "We play relentless. We want to continue to hit you so that you remember that every time you come this way. We're all human. I don't care how (many) weights you lift, if somebody keeps hitting you, you're going to be a little timid coming back in that area. Every time you're in that area you're going to think twice."

Strong-side linebacker Philip Wheeler isn't particularly fast, but he has good size and strength and is more of a physical style of player than the Colts have had at the position in a long time.

With defensive end Dwight Freeney, the Colts' most talented defensive player, dealing with an ankle injury that could cause him to miss the Super Bowl, or at least be at something less than full capacity, Indianapolis is going to need to lean on other people up front. One is Brock, who is expected to do some rotating with other reserve players. Robert Mathis, the Colts' other starting end, is likely to see extra blocking attention.

Still, the line benefits from Coyer's creativity with the front seven. He constantly likes to mix things up and trusts the talent and intelligence of his players to handle the various combinations he uses in his front seven.

Coyer is also a good motivator. Before the AFC title game, he challenged the members of the front seven to prevent the Jets from trampling them on the ground. Defensive tackles Dan Muir and Antonio Johnson took Coyer's words to heart, and gave their best performances of the season.

This time, the challenge is to at least slow down the Saints' multi-faceted offense, which quarterback Drew Brees can lead with every bit as much effectiveness as Manning can direct the Colts' offense. It helps that the Colts' defense was studying videotape of the Saints before the postseason, figuring, with the success both clubs were having during the regular season, there was a pretty good chance they would face each other in the Super Bowl.

"As a defense, we have a challenge with Drew Brees because he has a great corps of receivers that can make plays, and to have an excellent running game that guys can move the sticks and get out of the backfield and make things happen that way, too," Hayden said. "It's going to be a challenge. But as a defense, I think our speed and things will come into effect and we can make those plays when our number is called."

If that happens, the Colts' defense still will find itself residing in the shadows of Manning and the rest of the team's offensive stars.

That's OK, as long as the night ends with the team collecting its second Vince Lombardi Trophy in four seasons.

"When you play on a team that's offensive-oriented, you're never going to get the respect that you deserve," Bullitt said. "With Peyton in there, it's just, hey, let him do this thing. We'll go out there and do ours, he can take the credit, and it's cool. Who cares? But we'll get a ring together."

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