FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The big strategic issue everyone wants resolved this week, and it is actually a two-pronged question, is this: What in the world happened to the Indianapolis run defense this postseason, and will it be similarly formidable against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI?
Opponents' rushing yards allowed per game, regular season: 173.
Opponents' rushing yards allowed per game, playoffs: 73.
The cliché answer is that with torpedo-esque safety Bob Sanders back after missing 12 of the final 14 regular-season games, Indy's rush defense has undergone a metamorphosis. Not exactly. Sanders obviously has been a vital cog, as have run-stopping defensive backs Marlin Jackson and Antoine Bethea, who missed time with injuries as well. But this team, quite simply, was sick of getting whacked on the head by the media for being so porous down the stretch. And they understood the importance of something as simple as gap control -- the ability of one player to make sure his hole on the defense was filled -- and they straightened that out in January.
Talking to the Colts on Wednesday, it became clear that the players and coaches got fed up with playing poorly, undisciplined and not physical enough to stop NFL rushing games.
"It's just the matter of having more intensity," said Jackson, who has played both cornerback and safety. "The running back is almost always going to be bigger than you, but you've got to be smart and stay in your gaps, and you've got to have heart. I just have the attitude that I believe I can blow up any running back."
Coach Tony Dungy said he told his defense to concentrate on the simple things rather than have him put in some elaborate schemes to improve their play against the run. On almost every obvious running down, Indy brings an eighth defender near the line of scrimmage. It's not always the physical Sanders, although he's the most notable run defender in the secondary. Jackson told me today he could be in that extra linebacker spot as many as eight or 10 downs on Sunday, depending on what formation Chicago uses offensively.
But the more people you talk to with the Colts, the more you get the feeling that the key to their improvement is a result of the shame of being known as one of the worst run defenses in NFL history. And never doubt that mindsets and abilities can be changed by embarrassment.