Over the years, the Indianapolis Colts have enjoyed about as much success as any team in the NFL. In a league that is based on parity and the ability of teams to rise and fall quickly in the standings, the Colts have been the gold standard of success and consistency. Over the last five full seasons, the Colts have never won less than 12 games and have an overall record in that span of 63-17. If there is a formula for success, Tony Dungy and the Colts have found it.
Yet, the perception of the Colts has been that they are "soft" on defense. They have had difficulty stopping the run at times and, in a conference dominated by aggressive, risk-taking defenses, the Colts are a team that doesn't stand out as a dominant defense. But to call them soft? That isn't accurate.
"I've played against them before," center Matt Birk said. "They're not soft by any means. People who say that have never played against them."
Perhaps the label of being soft defensively comes from the style of play that the Colts defense employs. They run the Tampa-2 defense, the brain child of former Vikings defensive coordinator and current Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy. It is predicated on playing spots on the field, keeping plays in front of the defenders and attacking when the ball enters a specific zone of the field. While not overly aggressive in blitz packages, it is an efficient defense that forces opposing offenses to execute and convert on third downs. If you're going to score on Indy's defense, you will likely have to convert three or four third-down plays and execute your plays to perfection.
That is in stark contrast to many NFL defenses, which look to attack and take risks. Vikings wide receiver Bobby Wade is no stranger to the Colts' Tampa-2 defense. He played against them twice a year as a member of the Tennessee Titans and said the defense the Vikings saw on Monday night is in stark contrast to what they will see Sunday when the Colts come to the Metrodome.
"They're exactly opposite from the defense Green Bay played against us," Wade said. "Green Bay plays in your face and presses you. Indianapolis allows you to get up in their defense without pressing you. They pride themselves on their speed and being able to make big plays. I think that's where they get the tag of being soft. As far as being physically soft? No way."
Dungy earned his reputation as a defensive guru with the Vikings, but etched his legacy in stone when he was the head coach at Tampa Bay. With stars like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and John Lynch, the Buccaneers defense was oppressive. While he doesn't have that same type of personnel in Indianapolis, Dungy has molded his Colts defense with speed and agility, as well as playing together as an 11-man unit.
"They play great team defense," Birk said. "They know where they're supposed to be and they execute that very well. They very disciplined and you have to prepare very hard because they don't make many mistakes."
Still, the knock on the Colts defense has been that it struggles against bigger, stronger offensive lines that can keep them from getting to the quarterback as well as dictating the pace in the running game. In their season-opening loss Sunday night at home against the Bears, the Colts allowed rookie running back Matt Forte to gain more than 100 yards, which has Vikings fans speculating that Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor could potentially double that amount. But the Vikings aren't buying into that theory.
"Nothing carries over from week to week," Birk said. "Chicago was able to be successful because they executed extremely well. I'm sure that, with the kind of defense they have and the players they have, they're going to make adjustments to keep from having that happen again."
The Bears were able to manhandle the Colts up front, taking advantage of the undersized nature of the Indy defense. But Birk was quick to point out that defensive speed is an attribute that can pay big dividends and shouldn't be viewed as a weakness.
"They're an extremely quick bunch up front," Birk said. "By NFL standards, they're smaller than most D-lines, but they play with extreme quickness and intensity. They can cause a lot of problems for you because of their speed."
The style of defense the Colts play has proved successful – if the defense was as bad as some pundits would have you believe, the Colts wouldn't win 12 games or more every year. It is a system that works for the Colts and, seeing as the Vikings run a similar system under former Indy assistant coach Leslie Frazier, it is a system that has merit.
"Our defenses are very similar," linebacker Ben Leber said. "We have different personnel, but the basic ideas are the same. You don't allow big plays over the top and you attack when the ball is in the air. A lot of bad things can happen to an offense when a quarterback drops to pass. He can get sacked. He can have passes tipped that are up for grabs. Or, if you time it right, he can throw passes that get intercepted. They've lived off that kind of defense for a long time and their record speaks for itself."
So as the Vikings look to get their first win of the 2008 season, they will be seeing a similar type of defense facing their offense that the Colts will be facing when they have the ball. And perhaps it's time to shelve the talk about them having a soft defense.
"Anyone who has ever been hit by (Colts safety) Bob Sanders wouldn't call them a soft defense," Wade said. "If they have faced him and still call them soft, they're lying."
Who's calling the Colts soft? Not the Vikings
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