After two games, Indianapolis had the worst run defense in the NFL and were allowing an alarming 176 yards per game. They had just faced the Bears and the Vikings in back-to-back weeks and it looked as though things weren't going to improve any time soon, with the Jaguars looming on the schedule and Bob Sanders out for an indeterminate period of time.
The meltdown in Week 3 versus Jacksonville was one of legendary proportions, with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew each running for 100 yards, the Jaguars gaining 228 yards total, and, perhaps worst of all, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
With defensive replacements — Melvin Bullitt in particular — starting to get familiar with their increased responsibilities and playing time, coupled with the release of Ed Johnson without a suitable replacement on the roster, the Texans averaged 5.0 yards per carry in Week 4, but the yardage total was kept down due to the fact that Houston only ran the ball 28 times.
Melvin Bullitt has done a nice job filling in for Bob Sanders
AP Photo/Tom Strattman
The run-oriented offenses of Baltimore, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh were on the horizon and there seemed to be nowhere that the Colts defenders could hide.
Though they've only improved to 26th against the run since Week 4, the fact that they have cut their opponent's yards per carry average from 5.0 to 4.2 speaks volumes to the improved effectiveness of the run defense as a whole.
In the first four weeks of the season, Indianapolis faced an average of 36.3 rushing attempts per game, gave up 5.0 yards per carry, allowed 920 rushing yards overall, and were dead last against the run. Over the past three weeks — a stretch that has included the aforementioned Ravens and Titans — the Colts have faced an average of 25.7 rush attempts per game, yielded 3.4 yards per carry, allowed only 237 yards overall, and Ryan Grant and the Packers needed 32 attempts to gain over 100 yards in Week 7.
Even though the average number of attempts they have faced per game has fallen dramatically, Colts opponents are still running the ball 34.3 times per game, which is 4th in the league and only .7 attempts per game behind league-leading Kansas City.
Eric Foster and Keyunta Dawson are learning how to use their hands to hold off blockers and doing a better job of shooting gaps and penetrating into the backfield. Gary Brackett has stepped his intensity level tremendously and has been all over the field.
Bullitt, though he will never be at the level that Sanders is, has filled in well, taken sound angles to the ball carrier, and has improved as a tackler.
Bullitt's improvement has been so dramatic that Tony Dungy said he is going to find ways to get the young safety more involved on defense now that Sanders is returning.
Although Indianapolis draws a Patriots team that is currently ranked 6th in rushing offense this week, the Steelers in Week 10 — even though they are currently ranked 18th in the NFL, they are a run-first team — the Chargers and LaDanian Tomlinson in Week 12, and Jacksonville and Tennessee again in Weeks 16 and 17, the future looks bright.
Now that Daniel Muir is healthy and understands his role in the defense, it appears as though the Colts have finally found their replacement for Ed Johnson at the nose tackle position. Muir has been slowly working his way into the lineup the past few weeks, and, although he hasn't made any tackles, he has done a nice job occupying blockers and should only get better as the season progresses.
If Muir continues to improve, Brackett continues to show the same zeal and intensity he has shown the past three weeks, Sanders returns to form, and Bullitt is involved in the run defense, this is a unit that will only get better.
The only issue is that, with Kelvin Hayden nursing an injury and opponents discovering that they can no longer run at will against this defense, they are starting to throw the ball more frequently and, if the success that Kerry Collins had on Monday night is any indication, teams will continue to eschew the run turn to the passing game.
This is a situation that should worry Dungy and Ron Meeks, especially with the season-ending knee injury that Marlin Jackson sustained in practice this week.