MIAMI - Anthony “Booger” McFarland was part of a powerful defense when the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive tackle won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay. And that was his reference point when talking about a Colts defense that many thought wasn’t good enough to bring a Super Bowl trophy back to Indianapolis.
“When they handed us those rings,” McFarland said, speaking about the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl XXXVII prize, “they didn’t say, ‘dominant defense.’ They said, ‘Buccaneers 48, Oakland 21.’ That’s all. When you get on this stage, that’s all that matters.”
Through much of the season, the Colts defense was a sieve. A stunning seven times Indianapolis gave up better than 6 yards a rush during a game, and the 5.3 yards per rush the Colts allowed this season was one of the worst performances in NFL history.
They were embarrassed in Jacksonville late in the season (the Jaguars ran for 375 yards) and could not stop the less-than-immortal Ron Dayne (153 yards rushing) in a crushing loss to Houston.
Yet they have metamorphosed in the postseason.
The Chiefs and Ravens went nowhere on the Colts, performances that allowed Indianapolis to get to the AFC championship game despite slow going on offense.
And the defense also made its share of big plays against the Patriots despite New England scoring 34 points, allowing the Colts to rally from a 21-3 deficit.
In the playoffs, the Colts have allowed only 3.6 yards a rush.
“The system works,” linebacker Rob Morris said. “The system is the right system. Sometimes the players just don’t play well.
“Clearly we are a better defense in the postseason. But we are similar (to the regular season). We just have been playing better, playing with more confidence.”
The Colts did make a couple of changes late in the year. One was to replace Gilbert Gardner with Morris. The other was the return of free safety Bob Sanders from a knee injury.
Both have added a physical presence the Colts were missing. And both can tackle — a fundamental with which the Colts were having trouble.
“It’s real simple,” McFarland said. “If you don’t tackle the guy with the ball, this game is hard.”
Morris dismissed the idea the Colts defense began to play better in the postseason when it meant something again. But Indianapolis’ defense had been keeping opponents’ scoring down early in the season when the Colts started 9-0.
Once the undefeated possibility was gone, the run defense got even leakier, and the questions cropped up.
If things didn’t change in the playoffs, the Colts were going to be an easy out. Many thought they wouldn’t win a home wild-card game because they had to try and stop Larry Johnson, the Chiefs’ battering ram.
Johnson gained just 32 yards rushing.
“We are playing with a lot more consistency,” linebacker Cato June said. “Knowing in the playoffs, one and go home, you know you have only one chance to get it right.” The Bears have said all the right things so far, repeatedly talking up the Colts defense.
“They had a couple of glitches in some games at the end of the season,” Bears tackle John Tait said. “Some people made a big deal about it, but it’s a great defense.”
“Great” is a stretch. But it is good enough to get McFarland another Super Bowl ring. “The offense,” said Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, “can’t carry the team every game.”