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Associated Press
Cincinnati’s A.J. Green gets ready to catch a 9-yard touchdown pass behind the Colts’ Darius Butler on Sunday.

Colts seek fix in secondary

Indianapolis has given up 12 passing touchdowns in last four games

Associated Press
Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones catches a touchdown pass behind the Colts’ Vontae Davis, left, and LaRon Landry on Sunday.

– Greg Toler has spent six weeks watching his Colts teammates work hard on Sundays.

The injured cornerback would rather be out there helping his pals find a solution to what has become a major secondary problem – defending the pass.

“As a defense, we take pride in stopping other teams, so it’s been tough on everyone,” Toler said Wednesday, hopeful he’ll return this weekend against Houston.

Players aren’t the only ones trying to figure out what’s wrong.

Coaches have spent countless hours poring through game film, looking for a common thread. Anxious fans have become increasingly weary of seeing receivers get open for big plays. Two weeks ago, team owner Jim Irsay, who spent tens of millions in free agency to revamp Indianapolis’ defense, offered his own critique on Twitter.

And while the offense has struggled largely because five key players are on season-ending injured reserve, including Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne, there is no clear explanation for why a once solid defense has been so inconsistent lately. All four defensive players on injured reserve are backups, and Toler, a first-day free-agent acquisition, is the only starter who has missed every game during this disconcerting six-game stretch.

The tale of the tape doesn’t lie.

During the first seven games, when the Colts were up against quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Phillip Rivers and Peyton Manning, Indianapolis’ pass defense limited opponents to a completion percentage of 58.7, a quarterback rating of 79.5 with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. The longest TD pass was 31 yards and only two others were longer than 20 yards.

Over the last six weeks, four games that came against quarterbacks who opened the season as backups, it’s been a complete reversal.

Opponents have completed 64.9 percent of their passes, posted a rating of 104.9 and thrown 12 TD passes – six of which have went for 25 yards or longer – with only three picks.

It’s a problem Indianapolis (8-5) knows must be fixed before the playoffs start.

The good news is that as the only current division champ, they have three weeks to work out the kinks.

“We’ve got to make plays on the back end,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “Of course there’s going to be some times when the other team makes plays. They get paid as well, they’re professionals as well. But we’ve got to make plays. One thing we always harp on is not letting the ball over our head. You’ve just got to stop those plays.”

But the secondary is only part of the equation, though.

In the first seven weeks, the Colts had 21 sacks. In the last six, they have nine. And one player, Robert Mathis, has accounted for more than half of this season’s overall total. He leads the NFL with 15 1/2 .

“There’s a lot of stuff that we need to shore up,” Mathis said. “You can blame the pressure as much as anything else on the defense not getting it done. That’s just putting too much pressure on the secondary.”

Perhaps things will change soon.

Toler did limited work in practice Wednesday and could return this week – if the doctors clear him.

The only other defensive player to sit out Wednesday’s practice was defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who hasn’t played since Dec. 1 because of a foot injury. Jean Francois was originally expected to miss two to four weeks.

Indianapolis also faces the reeling Texans (2-11), who have changed quarterbacks and coaches during an inexplicable 11-game losing streak that has turned the preseason AFC South favorites into the front-runner for the No. 1 draft pick. Houston has never won in Indianapolis – even losing to the 0-13 Colts while it was marching toward the 2011 AFC South title.

But the Colts understand that what they must do now is get it right – regardless of the opponent.

“We just have to go out and execute, like we were early in the season,” cornerback Vontae Davis said. “It’s the little things, its execution. It’s just that simple.”

Notes: Jean Francois was one of five injured players missing practice. Receiver LaVon Brazill (foot), fullback Stanley Havili (knee) and offensive lineman Jeff Linkenbach (quad) and center Samson Satele (elbow) also sat out. Mathis didn’t participate because he was given an extra day of rest. ... Coach Chuck Pagano said backup cornerback Cassius Vaughn will likely return kicks against Houston after Chris Rainey went on injured reserve earlier this week.