Manning quite on defense

Published 12:27 am Sunday, December 31, 2006

Everyone else might be content criticizing the Indianapolis Colts’ defense. Right now, Peyton Manning prefers silence.

Rather than discussing the Colts’ defense Wednesday, Manning focused on what the offense must do to pull the Colts out of their late-season funk.

“If I sit here and be silent, do y’all use that on film?” the two-time MVP asked after a long pause. “It’s our job (on offense) to do what we need to do to win the game.”

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For Manning, it has already been a difficult week — and that’s before he faces one of the league’s top defenses Sunday.

In the second half of last week’s loss at Houston, television cameras captured Manning pleading with the defense to make a stop. Then in his postgame news conference, Manning acknowledged the NFL wasn’t basketball, where players go both ways, a comment construed by some as being critical of the defense.

In the locker room Wednesday, defensive players said they were not offended even though Manning tried to avoid the topic altogether.

“It always starts with trying to evaluate good play and seeing what you can do better,” he said. “I get asked a lot of questions that I really shouldn’t answer, that should probably be addressed by a coach. I try to answer what I can, but I think you always start with yourself and I try to do what I can to help the team win.”

Last Sunday, that meant leading the Colts (11-4) on four scoring drives in six possessions.

But if the Houston loss proved anything it was that Manning cannot do it single-handedly, and the Colts must fix their most glaring problem, the league’s worst run defense.

The Colts surrendered nearly 600 yards rushing in losses to Tennessee and Jacksonville, defeats that cost them a shot at the AFC’s top seed.

Things appeared to get better Dec. 18 when the defense held up against Cincinnati in a Monday night game, but six days later at Houston, the Colts regressed. Former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne ran for a career-high 153 yards and two touchdowns, only the third 100-yard game of his seven-year career.

That loss could wind up costing Indianapolis a first-round bye.

With Miami (6-9) coming to town for the regular-season finale this week, the Colts need a momentum boost to pacify the intensifying critiques.

“Right now the chemistry on defense isn’t there,” cornerback Nick Harper said. “This week, we need to go out and do things so we can get some consistency back.”

First, the Colts must prove they can play well in consecutive games, something that has been missing for more than a month. They’ve lost four of their last six, all road losses, and many wonder what will happen if the Colts go on the road in January or contend with somebody like LaDainian Tomlinson rather than Dayne.

Their postseason track record does not instill much confidence, either.

Aside from beating Denver in two of the past three years, Manning is 1-6 in the playoffs and many recall the nightmarish scene of last year’s second-round loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh at the RCA Dome.

Defensive tackle Raheem Brock, though, remembers the defense struggling late in the 2003 season, just before the Colts reached the AFC championship game.

“We had a similar problem late in the season that year and we came out all right,” Brock said. “We want to get our offense the ball as much as we can, and we need to improve our third-down percentage. That’s what’s bringing us down.”

Getting healthy would help.

Tight end Dallas Clark practiced Wednesday for the first time since spraining his right knee Nov. 26 against Philadelphia. Coach Tony Dungy said if Clark practices again Thursday, he’ll probably play against the Dolphins.

The update on safety Bob Sanders wasn’t as optimistic. Sanders has been active for only two games since having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after the Colts’ second game and again missed practice Wednesday. Dungy said it’s unlikely he’ll play Sunday.

But Manning and his teammates continue to believe they can turn things around in time to make a postseason run — even if the critics discount that notion.

“This Colts team has to play well as a team in all three phases,” Manning said. “That’s how you beat Miami and that’s definitely how you win games in the playoffs. Everybody kind of needs to do their part.”