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 INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -This time last year, defense was going to stop the Indianapolis Colts. Their own defense.
Not physical enough to win in the playoffs was the criticism and, for a while, it appeared to be valid.
Then, an improbable postseason turnaround on defense changed everything. It gave Indy a new image, new jewelry and a boost of confidence players hope translates into more consistency in 2007.
``We're playing fast and playing smart, and I think we're a lot further along right now than we were this time last year,'' middle linebacker Gary Brackett said Sunday. ``We built some confidence last season in the playoffs, so we wanted to get some things established during the preseason, and I think we did that.''
Believing you're a top defense is one thing, proving it is quite another and the Colts' won't have to wait long for their first big test.
They open Thursday night against New Orleans, a team that has all the trimmings from last season's top-ranked offense. There's Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees and perennial 1,000-yard rusher Deuce McAllister. There's Reggie Bush, one of the NFL's most exciting young players, and a cadre of dangerous receivers that includes last year's surprise rookie Marques Colston and this year's first-round pick Robert Meachem.
Outside of practice, Indy's defense may not face a tougher opponent all season.
Still, players are eager to show this year's defense will look more like last season's 2006 playoff model than the 2006 regular-season jalopy.
``The thing is we want to play like we did in the playoffs,'' cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. ``That's the key, to play that way.''
Duplicating their playoff run, though, comes with challenges.
Former Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June and starting cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper left in free agency. David, in fact, will be on the opposite sideline Thursday night as a Saints' starter.
Defensive tackles Corey Simon and Montae Reagor, who were expected to be key contributors until injuries sidelined them last year, were released and are now playing in Tennessee and Philadelphia, respectively. Anthony McFarland, a defensive tackle acquired in a trade last October, helped stabilize the Colts' defense last season but is out with a season-ending knee injury.
That means this defense has a new look.
Hayden, whose 56-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the Super Bowl, is replacing Harper on the left side. Former first-round pick Marlin Jackson, whose interception sealed the AFC Championship game victory over New England, replaces David on the right side.
Second-year linebacker Freddy Keiaho, primarily a special teams player last season, takes over for June, and undrafted rookie Ed Johnson has emerged as McFarland's replacement.
The biggest concern at training camp was expected to be getting everybody in sync.
``Everybody's comfortable and things are coming together pretty fast,'' defensive tackle Raheem Brock said. ``Even the second team, this last preseason game, looked pretty good.''
The preseason statistics, for what they're worth, show Indy is making progress.
After allowing a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry during the 2006 regular season, they yielded only 4.1 yards in the playoffs and only 3.2 yards in the preseason.
In Week 13, Jacksonville gouged the Colts for 375 yards, 44 more than they permitted in four postseason games and eight more than they allowed in the preseason.
While numbers are not necessarily the best indicator of what to expect, this Colts defense has looked faster, more aggressive and appears to tackle better.
``I think we are a little faster in some areas and we're playing faster, which is good to see,'' coach Tony Dungy said. ``We just look to be more physical with some guys in the secondary, some linebackers, even some of the linemen.''
Still, questions remain.
Will more speed be enough to hold a Saints team that scored 416 points last year in check?
If Indy plays well Thursday night, will the critics finally believe?
``Hey, we've faced Peyton Manning and Joseph Addai all preseason, so we're ready to play,'' Brackett said. ``We just want to go out and start fast and play like we did in the playoffs.''
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