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Indy's run defense looks revived

The Indianapolis Colts' defense will try to prove that its playoff resurgence is not a two-week mirage when it meets New England in the AFC Championship Game Sunday.

After giving up a league-worst 173 rushing yards a game in the regular season, the Colts have yielded just 63.5 a game in playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore.

"I think it's just all about attitude, and everyone being passionate about it and wanting to win," said Colts safety Bob Sanders.

Two games, however, don't make a turnaround.

Yes, in the first round of the playoffs the Colts shut down Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, the NFL's second-ranked rusher. But Kansas City never tried to throw the ball downfield despite the fact the Colts stacked the line of scrimmage with eight and nine men play after play.

Yes, in the second round last week the Colts shut down Jamal Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. But the Ravens' run game ranked 25th in the league and was hardly awesome down the stretch of the season. The Buffalo Bills shut them down in the regular-season finale.

"You play defense with an attitude," said Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. "That's how you are supposed to play defense, with energy. I'm not going to say in the regular season we didn't have that. But I know we have that now, and we're going out there and playing how we are supposed to play."

Injuries were the Colts' biggest problem in the regular season. They lost both starting defensive tackles -- Corey Simon to injury and Montae Reagor to an auto accident. Their starting safeties -- Mike Doss and Bob Sanders -- played only four regular-season games each due to injury. So the middle of the defense was decimated.

The Colts allowed 5.33 yards a carry, the worst figure in 45 years -- since the expansion 1961 Minnesota Vikings. They allowed at least 100 rushing yards in all 16 games. The low point came in the 13th game, a 44-17 loss at Jacksonville.

The Jaguars rushed for 375 yards, tied for the second most in a game since the 1970 merger.

"That was the lowest point there could possibly be," said Colts cornerback Nick Harper. "Their No. 1 and No. 2 backs ran all over us, and they brought in the No. 3 back and he almost gained 100 yards on us."

The Colts have a small, fast defense. Their Cover 2 scheme relies on all 11 players fitting into a gap, and then everyone pursuing to the ball carrier. Numerous Colts say plain, old bad tackling was a big part of their problem.

"Coach Dungy broke down the [Jacksonville] film for us," Harper said. "It wasn't anything they did. It was us. We had guys in the hole. But the free hitter was just missing the tackle. . . . The tackling was horrible. The run fits were there but the tackling was horrible."

Sanders, the Colts' talented second-round draft pick of 2004, returned for the playoffs and has brought his physical presence to the secondary.

"He's a very fast player," Dungy said. "He's got a lot of pop in his body. He's a strong hitter. But probably more than anything else, I think he just loves to play the game. He's excited about practice. He plays with high energy. . . . He does help everybody play a little bit better."

Sanders played a strong game in the Colts' regular-season win over the Patriots and will need to be good Sunday. New England ranked 12th in the NFL in rushing. Corey Dillon gained 812 yards. Laurence Maroney had 745.

The Pats rushed 22 times for 97 yards in the first half of the Week Nine game against the Colts. But they only called 11 running plays (for 51 yards) in the second half. The Colts won, 27-20.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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