Work in Progress
Though it showed some spunk against the Raiders, the Colts' defense has a ways to go
The biggest upset at the RCA Dome on Sunday night was not that the Raiders stole the game the way a very good team like it usually does, nor that normally infallible Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw a bad interception while trying to drive for the winning touchdown with a minute to play. The biggest surprise came in the aftermath of Oakland's 23-18 win, when Indianapolis coach Jim Mora, who has been known to lash out at his team after a disappointing loss, stepped to the podium and said, "I thought we played by far our best game of the season. I'm not upset with how we played. I have nothing but admiration for the effort we put forth."
Maybe Mora has changed, though those around the Colts say that's not so. It's more likely this: Mora knows his offense will be all right. He knows his kicking game is one of the best in the league. Now he thinks that he finally has the makings of a competent defense as well. Mora hasn't had a solid D since taking the Indy job in 1998. In his first three seasons the Colts finished 29th, 15th and 21st, respectively, in total defense, and only once in 54 games has Indy held an opponent to single digits in scoring. Mora knows that without a good defense, Manning is destined to become the Ken Griffey Jr. of his sport, a guy who puts up tremendous numbers year after year but never has the supporting cast to win the big one.
"Everyone wants to know if the defense can hold up," Colts linebacker Mike Peterson said after Sunday's game. "Everyone's asking, 'Can you guys do your job?' It's pretty embarrassing."
The matchup with the Raiders was a perfect barometer to gauge the progress of a defense that is playing with six new starters. In Week 2 last year Oakland came to Indianapolis and won a 38-31 shootout. The Raiders ran for 152 yards and five touchdowns while piling up 359 total yards. Most disconcerting was that Oakland, after falling behind 24-7, put together five scoring drives in the last 26 minutes. On Sunday the Colts held the Raiders offense to 16 points. (Free safety Anthony Dorsett returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.) They held the Raiders to 101 yards on the ground and a respectable 317 overall. Four fewer touchdowns, 51 fewer rushing yards, three more sacks. That's progress.
However, down 20-18 midway through the fourth quarter and needing the ball back, Indianapolis couldn't make a stop when it needed one most. Oakland chewed up nearly seven minutes on a 14-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a field goal. Still, the Colts earned praise from Raiders coach Jon Gruden. "They were more physical than last year" he said. "They came with a lot of blitzes we hadn't seen and really tried to shut down our run."
"What I sensed out there was more respect from them," said Peterson, a third-year outside linebacker from Florida who leads Indy in tackles. "They knew if they hit us in the mouth, we would hit them right back."
In jettisoning aging veterans like linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Dwight Hollier and safety Jason Belser, the Colts have gotten younger and faster. Peterson, a fluid 232-pounder who floats between the middle and the outside, and Marcus Washington, a second-year linebacker out of Auburn (who sacked Rich Gannon twice), give Indianapolis an excellent pair of sideline-to-sideline playmakers. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio rotates seven or eight linemen, including a pair of run-pluggers picked up by way of free agency: Christian Peter (Giants) and Mike Wells ( Bears). Free safely Idrees Bashir, the lone rookie starter, is a roamer with a big upside.
Nevertheless, improvement needs to come faster for 2-2 Indianapolis. The Colts are ranked 22nd in the league in total defense. That's not good enough. In their quiet locker room players were encouraged by the words of their coach, but as Peterson said, "We need wins. Around here one play usually shatters our day on defense. By the end of the season I think we'll be able to hold our own."
Even Mora seems to believe that day is coming—though it can't come soon enough for him.