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Indianapolis defense trying to plug holes, prevent surge of recent big plays

The Colts' defense is moving into prevent mode.

Players and coaches have spent extra time fine-tuning their techniques and fundamentals. They've talked repeatedly about the need to fill gaps and not do too much, and they're hoping all the extra work finally eliminates some of those maddening big plays.

Over the last 3½ games, Indy's opponents have scored six touchdowns of 30 or more yards and that doesn't even include a 98-yard punt return for a score.

"Those are explosive plays and you never want to give those up," said linebacker Robert Mathis, the NFL's sacks leader. "It's very fixable and we're working on it."

The Colts (7-3) don't have any time to waste, either.

On Sunday, they visit surprising Arizona (6-4) where they'll take on Larry Fitzgerald and Bruce Arians' wide-open offense. They still have rematches with Tennessee and Houston, teams that accounted for three of those long scoring plays, and they still have to travel to AFC North-leading Cincinnati and AFC West co-leader Kansas City.

Indy leads the AFC South by three games and could clinch the division and earn a home playoff date when the Titans come to town Dec. 1. The Colts insist their problems will be fixed before the playoffs start.

"It's just execution, period. It's just execution," defensive end Cory Redding said. "When it comes to us, we've got to be in our gaps and do our job and make the play when you get to make the play."

One thing that could help is the return of some injured players.

Each of the four long TD passes came with starting cornerback Greg Toler and backup cornerback Josh Gordy out of action. Both were injured in the second half of the Denver game and have missed the last three weeks because of groin injuries. Backup safety Delano Howell, who had 18 tackles in two starts this season, also missed the last three games with a neck injury.

Indy could have all three back on the field this week.

Coach Chuck Pagano said Wednesday that the three defensive backs — and starting safety LaRon Landry (right foot) — are all considered day-to-day.

Toler, for one, can't wait to play.

"I'm very anxious to get back," he said. "But it's like I told the guys, you've just got to make the plays and they're more than capable of making plays. We've just got to get back to playing Colts football."

Indy came into the season touting its new desire to rely more on the ground game this season, a strategy shift that has produced mixed results.

But the Colts' first-half struggles have increasingly forced them away from that strategy. In a come-from-behind win at Houston and an embarrassing loss at home to St. Louis, Indy ran just 28 times for 87 yards. Last Thursday, at Tennessee, they again trailed early. This time, they stuck with the run, grinding out 137 yards and got the winning score on an 11-yard TD run from Donald Brown.

While many have critiqued the slow-starting offense for its inability to stay on the field in the first two quarters of the last three games, the defense that has created some of its own problems by failing to get off the field.

The result: Indy has been outscored 66-9 in the first half since the start of November.

"There's some things we can pinpoint in the last three ball games in the first half that you can put your finger on and say if we get these things corrected," Pagano said. "I told the guys, if you total up just third down, if you look at third down offense and third down defense and you look at us last three ball games, we've converted 13 percent of the time and our opponents have converted 62 percent. So that's something right there that we can focus on both sides on the ball and try to fix."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org