When Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis emerged as a tag-team menace for quarterbacks, Indianapolis opponents foiled them with extra blockers. All the time.
Now the Colts are plotting their counter move.
New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer has spent the past five months devising ways to free up players like Freeney and Mathis to become more effective _ without sacrificing the system or the core principles that led the Colts to a Super Bowl title after the 2006 season.
"It's just little tweaks here and there," safety Antoine Bethea said. "But this new defense is something out of the ordinary from what you're used to seeing from the Colts. It's going to be exciting."
Coaches and players are careful not to reveal too many secrets yet, and coach Jim Caldwell cautions that fans may not notice some of the small changes.
To players, though, the design makes sense.
What Coyer has done is taken former coach Tony Dungy's signature defense, the "Tampa 2," and expanded it to play to the Colts' biggest strengths _ speed and big-play ability.
"There's a lot of moving around," defensive tackle Ed Johnson said. "It's fast and aggressive, and when you bring the speed that we have, you're going to make plays."
Clearly, Coyer is working with a strong foundation.
Freeney and Mathis went to the Pro Bowl last year and are among the most feared pass-rushing duos in the league.
Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders was the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year and Bethea joined Sanders at the 2007 Pro Bowl. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden recently signed a five-year, $43 million contract in February, and linebacker Gary Brackett, the captain, is entering his fifth season as the defensive signal-caller.
So he isn't doing anything drastic, like moving Freeney to linebacker or turning the Colts into Blitzburgh.
But he has been constructing a different plan.
"For me, it means playing closer to the line of scrimmage and at the same time, you've got to be smarter," Bethea said "You've got to know what's going on everywhere in this defense."
Along the defensive line, which Freeney has anchored since his second NFL season in 2003, things are changing in an effort to make offenses rethink their strategy.
"In the past, a lot of teams liked to double-team us," defensive end Raheem Brooke said. "We're known for getting to the quarterback, so offenses would try to leave everybody in to block them. Now everybody's moving around and having fun. It confuses the offense and gives us a chance to make plays."
Indy also has tweaked its overall philosophy.
Dungy preferred speed to size. But after finishing near the bottom of the league in run defense last year and getting sent home from the playoffs by San Diego's Darren Sproles, Caldwell, Coyer and team president Bill Polian made a conscious decision to get a little bigger.
They added two 300-pound defensive tackles, Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor, in the NFL draft and another when they re-signed Johnson in May. Johnson started his first 17 NFL games before being waived in September after an arrest for drug possession, leaving a huge gap in the middle of the run defense.
The additions could give the Colts a much stronger presence against the run.
"We play a style of defense and will continue to play a style of defense that emphasizes running and changing direction and athleticism on the part of those guys, but they have to be big enough not to be blasted off the line of scrimmage," Polian said. "Two hundred sixty-five pounds in a running situation on first-and-10 is not big enough. The fellas we have now are plenty big enough and plenty athletic enough to hold up."
How successful will Indy be in the revised system?
The grades won't be known for months, but players and coaches are already smiling.
"I don't anticipate that our game will be an all-out blitz from start-to-finish," Caldwell said. "But we've kind of always preached aggressiveness. We're just going to spice it up a bit and maybe utilize our talent in a little different way."