INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Coach Chuck Pagano came to the Colts with a proven defensive blueprint.
He needed bigger, stouter players in the front seven, cornerbacks and safeties who liked getting physical and a unit committed to stopping the run.
Three years into this project, Pagano's imprint seems to be taking hold. A week after limiting the Broncos to 3.2 yards per carry, nearly cracking the league's top 10 in run defense and allowing just one score in the second half, Pagano's players believe they're making progress.
''We've gotten better at every position, every year,'' said defensive end Cory Redding, who played for Pagano in Baltimore and was one of the Colts' first additions after Pagano's hire in 2012. ''The first year, we didn't have the guys up front that we needed, but we made it work. Last year, we got better and now, we've showed at times, that we can do the job.''
The next big test comes Monday night when the Colts (0-1) will try to slow down Philadelphia's surprisingly strong ground game.
When Chip Kelly took his fast-break style offense from Oregon to the NFL, the natural assumption was that the Eagles (1-0) would be throwing the ball a lot. Instead, the Eagles wound up leading the league in rushing last season at 160.4 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry, and last week the defending NFC East champs and their new tag-team backfield of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles nearly matched those numbers. They combined for 32 carries, 145 yards and one touchdown.
Indy's defensive players have taken notice.
''They try to get you off balance, kind of panic based on their tempo,'' outside linebacker Erik Walden said Friday. ''But we have to get after 25 (McCoy) and 43 (Sproles), first and foremost.''
Nobody understands the challenge better than Arthur Jones, a 6-foot-3, 337-pound run stuffing defensive lineman who Indy signed this offseason in free agency, and running back Dion Lewis, who the Colts signed this week.
Lewis replaced McCoy as the starter at the University of Pittsburgh after McCoy left school early for the NFL.
Jones, a Syracuse alum, was mentored for four seasons in Baltimore by the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs before joining the Colts, and before that, Jones was chasing down McCoy in the Big East.
''He (McCoy) is a good friend of mine. I've known him a long time,'' Jones said with a smile. ''He's a great guy, a better football player and it will be good to go out there and tackle him a few times.''
If he gets the chance. Jones has missed the last two days of practice with a shoulder injury.
But even though the Colts defense is not functioning at full strength, there are indications things are changing.
Indy's defense is no longer willing to tack a backseat to the offense, and it wants to do more than just protect leads.
Redding and Jones have helped bring that Baltimore swagger to the locker room, and on the field, the numbers are improving, too. The Colts allowed fewer points to the Broncos on the road last week than they did in last season's win over Denver at home. Yes, Manning threw for 269 yards and three TDS in last week's 31-24 victory, but that fell short of Manning's averages (342.3 yards and 3.4 TDs) from his record-setting 2013 season. And the Colts did that without their best pass rusher, Robert Mathis. And they found a way to stuff the run in the second half when the Broncos were trying to play keep away, too.
Can they play that way again this week?
It won't be easy for the short-handed Colts.
The suspended Mathis has been lost for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon. In addition to Jones, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman sat out for the second straight day with a hamstring injury and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky acknowledged the Colts might use second-year linebacker Josh McNary or CFL veteran Henoc Muamba if Freeman can't play. Backup linebacker Cam Johnson went on injured reserve this week with a left elbow injury, while nose tackle Josh Chapman (ankle) and cornerback Greg Toler (ribs) have been contending with injuries this week, too.
But this week, there's only one thing that really matters to these Colts.
''Philly does a great job of what they do over there,'' Jones said. "They have two special running backs over there, which makes them really good. We just have to do a good job of gang tackling and get ready to play.''
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