AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS - Dan Marino lacked the running game to win a Super Bowl. Dan Fouts never had the defense. Two-time MVP Peyton Manning suddenly has both.
After seven years of breaking passing records only to be rewarded with frustrating playoff exits, Manning and the Colts have forgotten the finesse.
Rather than throwing deep, scoring quickly and relying primarily on Manning's strong arm to win shootouts, Indianapolis is carving out a new identity. The Colts are grinding out victories with a smashmouth style that would make Bill Parcells proud, and a stingy defense that rivals Tony Dungy's former masterpiece in Tampa Bay.
The combination has not only produced three straight wins and given Indianapolis the early edge in the AFC South, but it also is changing the perception of a team once considered "soft."
"I think we have our own unique way of doing things here," said defensive tackle Corey Simon, who played on the Philadelphia Eagles' NFC championship team in 2004. "These guys are hungry, they are young and they want to get better. They want to make a name for themselves."
Three weeks into the
season, the Colts' defense is doing what many considered impossible - dominating.
Indianapolis has not yet allowed a 100-yard rushing game. It ranks second in the NFL with 13 sacks. It has not yielded more than seven points in a game this season, and, yes, even with Manning and the offense out of sync, the defense is strong enough to win games.
The early success has drawn comparisons to the
formidable unit Dungy built in Tampa, comparisons the Colts bristle at.
"We play Colts defense," coordinator Ron Meeks said. "I think people see some similarities in the coverages and schemes, but this team has a different personality and we have to become a
better tackling team."
Dungy insists the transition is far from complete.
The Colts are allowing 4.1 yards per rush, haven't forced a turnover in two weeks and still blow assignments that make Dungy cringe.
But Dungy, always the perfectionist, has read from this script before.
"It was that way in Tampa, too," he said. "That's why I have to think back sometimes and remember that John Lynch always said I was never satisfied there, either."
While the salary-cap era has forced most teams into choosing whether to excel on offense or defense, the Colts have found a rare balance this season.
Opposing defenses still fear the Colts' air show, and they drop extra defenders into coverage. But the Colts are content to shorten games and wear down opponents with their powerful ground game because their defense has been virtually impenetrable.
Indianapolis has allowed only one touchdown this season, and that came in the final seconds of a 24-7 win at Baltimore. On Sunday at Tennessee, the Colts can join the 1962 Green Bay Packers as the only teams since World War II to limit their first four opponents to single digits.
Players from Byron Leftwich to Trent Dilfer and former Colt Mike Peterson, now a Jaguars linebacker, and even defensive masterminds such as Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel, have all detected the difference. The Colts are faster, tougher and more physical.
"They have tremendous speed on defense," said Crennel, architect of three Super Bowl-winning defenses in New England. "Their pass rushers are fast, their
linebackers are fast, their defensive backs are fast."
So far, opponents haven't been able to keep up.
Dwight Freeney already has four sacks and has established himself as an early front-runner for defensive player of the year. Montae Reagor and Robert Mathis both have three sacks, and the Colts' biggest defensive lineman, Simon, has barely gotten started.
Safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss are delivering hard shots, in the mold of Lynch, and cornerbacks such as Nick Harper are stripping receivers at critical moments.
Yes, some opponents have complained that Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck is teaching players to take out quarterbacks with low blows, but the issue was not raised in Teerlinck's previous three seasons in Indianapolis.
And those who thought the Colts' previously porous defense might put Manning in the company of the Dans - rather than with Super Bowl champion quarterbacks - are now reassessing those
If the defense continues playing this way, it could do the same thing for Manning that a running game did for John Elway, delivering a Super Bowl ring.
"It feels like its long overdue," Reagor said of the defense. "Our time has come and we have to hold up our end of the bargain."