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Time for Colts coach Chuck Pagano to live up to his defensive reputation

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INDIANAPOLIS -- It was one of those accidental, yet truthful, slip-ups by new Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins.

Hankins, who will be an anchor for the Colts defensive line, was asked how much he knew about the team's defense before signing with them.

"Not too much, I thought they were pretty bad, not pretty bad, but struggling against the run," Hankins said last month.

It's OK, Johnathan.

The Colts didn't just struggle against the run -- 25th in the NFL -- they were a bad defense on the whole last season, finishing 30th overall.

They've been so bad under coach Chuck Pagano you forget that he arrived in 2012 with a defensive reputation. The Colts have finished 20th or worse in four of his five seasons. They're 0-12 when they give up at least 35 points under Pagano.

"If we can get to where we are just in the middle of the pack defensively right now, we've got a chance to take another step," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. "The last few years they've been at the bottom of the league."

Ballard pulled out a jackhammer and shattered last season's defensive unit into pieces.

Older players?

Out.

Experience was overshadowed by slower and no longer effective defensive players. The Colts released or didn't re-sign six defensive players who were at least 30 years old.

"I think that change is good," Colts second-year defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. "I think that's the only thing that stays the same in our league is change. I think that needing it -- there was a need there for some change. ... We were at a point with several players that we needed to move and that's what Mr. Ballard decided to do."

Younger. Bigger. Faster. Physical. Aggressive.

That's the transition the Colts have made on paper this offseason. Six of their eight draft picks, including their first three selections, were on defense to go with seven defensive free-agent signings.

"Look, athletic ability and speed cover up mistakes," Ballard said. "When you can bring guys with talent into the building -- athletic ability, speed, some type of upside -- and our coaching staff can bring that talent to light, it's always going to look better on Sunday. It covers up your mistakes. When one guy makes a mistake, a guy on the backside because he's running and has speed, can cover up some mistakes."

And one of the most underrated facets Ballard has focused on is the ability to force turnovers so that Andrew Luck and one of the NFL's top-scoring offenses can get back on the field. They were only 26th in the league in forced turnovers last season with just 17.

"Take the ball away, take the ball away, take the ball away," Monachino said. "If I've heard it once, I've heard it 100 times."

The pressure is on Monachino to put the new defensive unit together as quickly as possible, but there's somebody else under a brighter spotlight: Pagano.

Luck and his heroics covered up defensive flaws during the QB's first three seasons in the NFL, but not during back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2015 and 2016. The Colts would have won the AFC South and reached the playoffs last season had they been able to come up with late defensive stops against Detroit and Houston.

Ballard has given Pagano a foundation to work with.

"We are a long, long ways away, but we're talking big picture," Pagano said. "We're talking building this thing and building something special. We're trying to build something special on that side of the ball. We all know it, they all know it -- we have a huge challenge on our hands on that side of the football [and] we have to be better. And that falls on me, I have to be better. I have to coach better and we have to get all these guys going. We have to get them coached up and again, that falls on me. But together, we need to put a good product on the field."

The Colts already exude confidence in what they believe will be an improved defense. Hankins said on NFL Network on Monday that he believes they have the best defense in the AFC.

But there's still work to be done on defense.

The Colts still have concerns about putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks after not signing or drafting any players that have a pass-rushing reputation. They were 19th in the league sacks last season.

But the process has at least started and Indianapolis is in a better position defensively than it has been in years. Now it's time to see if Pagano and his staff can put all the pieces together on the field.

"We know we have to pull our part of the rope on that deal," Monachino said. "All we have to do is hold serve one more time than they do. But from a statistical standpoint, we would love to be better than average in a lot of those places. Average puts you at 16th and 16th isn't really good enough for a guy that is a competitor like I am."