INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts are trying to change their image.
Sure, Andrew Luck leads the NFL with 14 touchdown passes and Indy is tied for the league lead with 156 points.
But coach Chuck Pagano never wanted to rely solely on Luck's arm and a potent offense to win games, and now, he might not need to.
"We're getting pressure on the quarterback, we're getting sacks, we're getting turnovers, and our run defense has been great," Pagano said Monday, less than 24 hours after the defense played its best game of the season. "The schemes, the plans are really good. Guys are executing those plans."
The combination has given the Colts (3-2) a new look.
Instead of being considered an afterthought, the Colts' defense could be viewed as an asset. Instead of simply protecting leads, as was the case during much of the Peyton Manning era, Pagano and Ryan Grigson have built this team around a philosophy that they can go toe-to-toe for 60 minutes.
The early returns have been a mixed bag.
The Colts struggled through the first two weeks against two of the league's premier offenses, Denver and Philadelphia. They couldn't pressure Manning, and wore down late against the Eagles' up-tempo offense.
In the last three games, all wins, Indy has allowed 297.3 yards and 15.7 points, forced seven turnovers, recorded 11 sacks and given up only 13 first-half points. Not surprisingly, the Colts are ranked in the top half of the league in total defense and share the AFC South lead with Houston (3-2).
The sudden surge has come despite the absence of Indy's most dynamic defender, Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis, who has a season-ending torn left Achilles' tendon; despite losing last season's leading tackler, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, for two of those three games with an injured hamstring; and despite being without former Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, who sat out Sunday to serve the first week of a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing substance policy.
The Colts haven't just persevered, they have thrived.
Against Baltimore, they sacked Joe Flacco a season-high four times, came up with three turnovers, allowed one third-down conversion and closed out the 20-13 victory by stopping the Ravens' last-minute drive near midfield.
Players believe they are capable of playing even more.
"It's the tip of the iceberg," defensive end Cory Redding said as the Colts started preparing for Thursday night's game at Houston. "We have so much more to gain, to improve and still get better at. Despite all that, we have still made some plays out there."
For years, the outsiders believed that with so much money invested in the offense, the Colts had to win shootouts.
Pagano never bought into it.
So when he left Baltimore to take the Colts job, Pagano changed the Colts' philosophy. He switched from a traditional 4-3 front to a 3-4, convinced Grigson to bring in bigger, more physical players who could excel under a more aggressive philosophy.
After three years, Pagano's patience is starting to pay dividends.
"We've had a vision from Day 1 of what we wanted that side of the ball to look like, and I think for the last three weeks, and especially yesterday, you're starting to see what we want the blueprint to look like — and it should look like," Pagano said.
Redding is playing his best football since joining the team in 2012, Indy's top three cornerbacks — Toler, Vontae Davis and Darius Butler — are anchoring a dramatically improved secondary, and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has shored up a run defense that sits just outside the top third in league rankings.
The challenge, of course, is to keep it up.
With a team that already has the AFC's top punter, the NFL's best clutch kicker, an offense with four straight 100-yard rushing games, and Luck in charge, the addition of a stout, consistent defense could be the missing piece to the Colts' puzzle.
"I think the difference now is that everyone is doing their part and that everyone knows the guy next to them is doing their job, and that can really put you in a bind if you're trying to do someone else's job, too," cornerback Greg Toler said. "We're a cohesive unit right now."
Notes: The Colts signed linebacker Victor Butler to the active roster and waived outside linebacker Chris Carter on Monday. ... Butler, defensive tackle Arthur Jones, left guard Jack Mewhort and outside linebacker Bjoern Werner all missed practice due to ankle injuries. Hugh Thornton took the majority of the snaps with the starters at right guard despite an ankle injury, Pagano said.
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