Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett is among the league's more respected players. The seventh-year veteran made the climb from undrafted rookie to team captain using hard work and dedication as his ladder. He has a foundation that assists children who've been affected by cancer, and each year he conducts a football camp for youngsters in his hometown of Glassboro, N.J. The next time he says a bad word about a coach, teammate or opponent will be the first.
So when Brackett says Indianapolis' defenders feel more liberated under Larry Coyer, who replaced longtime Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks this season, it should be taken as a statement of fact instead of an attempt to stir the pot.
"The Cover 2 scheme worked great for us in the past," Brackett said this week by phone. "We won a championship using that. We won 12 games six years in a row using that type of scheme. But I think, to a player, anytime you have an ability to blitz, to be involved in the passing game, to be able to run around, you're excited. In a Cover 2 scheme, you kind of get, not black-balled, but almost stereotyped that all you can do is play Cover 2. He's a Cover 2 corner. That's a Cover 2 middle linebacker. That's a Cover 2 safety.
"Now, guys are doing so much different stuff. Now we're 'football' players. If given the ability, if given the chance, we can play man coverage, we can play Cover 4, we can play Cover 3. We can mix it up, zone blitz, whatever the case may be. That's what you're seeing now, a lot of guys are showing their versatility that they can do more."
Under Meeks and former head coach Tony Dungy, the Colts were content to beat opponents with speed and precision on defense. They played a 4-3 scheme -- four linemen, three linebackers -- and relied on the linemen to pressure quarterbacks. According to STATS LLC, Indianapolis blitzed a league-low 43 times in passing situations in 2008.
This season the Colts have been markedly more aggressive ... and creative. In the regular season they blitzed 146 times in passing situations and varied their coverages in the secondary. Previously their cornerbacks played zone almost exclusively, with two safeties deep. The goal was to protect against big plays and force offenses to drive the length of the field.
But this year they've played more one-on-one coverage and mixed their zones, splitting the field into quarters and thirds instead of halves. An offensive coordinator who has faced them multiple times over the past few years described the changes thusly: "They play more defensive fronts on all three downs. Before, they played only one front. They also disguise coverages a lot better. They substitute smarter than they have in the past. Before it was based on number of plays; now it's more by situation. They do better stuff with [ends] Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, so you can't double-team them as much. Before they were good but very predictable."
"They've got to be the most underrated unit in football," says Texans coach Gary Kubiak. "They do a hell of a job. They're so sound and play so hard. ... Larry has put his stamp on that group. They play a lot more quarters than they've ever played, and they're very aggressive with their pressure stuff. I know they gave us fits in the two games we played."
One AFC South assistant says he believes this might be the best defense the Colts have had since four-time league MVP quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in 1998; the unit ranked second in points allowed after 14 games before resting its regulars the final two weeks. But even if that statement is true, the words are coated with irony considering the franchise's only Super Bowl win since Manning was drafted No. 1 overall was due largely to the defense.
In the 2006 season Manning threw seven interceptions and only three touchdowns over four playoff games and did not throw more TDs than picks in any of them. The defense picked up the slack by limiting Kansas City to eight points, Baltimore to six and Chicago to 10 (the Bears also scored on a kickoff return in the Colts' 29-17 victory in Super Bowl XLI). Even in the one game the defense struggled -- a 38-34 win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game -- the unit limited New England to two field goals in five fourth-quarter series after allowing touchdowns on three of its first seven possessions.
"No one looks at the Colts and talks about defense," says safety Melvin Bullitt. "The first name you say is Peyton Manning, then you go [to pass-catchers] Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon. ... You never say, 'The Colts and their defense; the Colts and this person on defense.' So we're always fighting for respect."
It will be easier to get it if they play as well in Super Bowl XLIV against New Orleans and its top-scoring offense as they did the past two weeks. The Colts limited Baltimore to a field goal and held the Jets to 17 points. More noteworthy: They have shut out opponents in six of eight quarters.
Some have said the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees will be the toughest test for the Colts. Brackett disagrees. That distinction is reserved for the Colts offense. Brackett says the first-team offense and defense went hard at each other in training camp and during the week off after the regular season. Manning and Co. made their share of plays, but so did the defense under the guidance of Coyer.
"We still play Cover 2, that's our bread-and-butter coverage and all our shells come from our Cover 2 look," says Brackett. "But there's a lot of rotation from the safeties now. Either one of those guys can roll down into the box for run support, and any of the three linebackers can blitz -- and we can play man coverage behind it. We're just doing a lot of different stuff. The way that Coach Coyer calls it, it gives us the ability to make some plays."