St. Louis will face Indianapolis tonight on a national stage.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts defense has heard it for years: It wasn't tough enough, it wasn't good enough, and with that offense, it didn't really matter.
If five weeks of pressuring quarterbacks, forcing mistakes and allowing a paltry total of 29 points couldn't completely change their image, tonight's game against the St. Louis Rams might.
"It's a chance to show what we can do against a team like that, which has been, historically, a good offensive team," Indianapolis' Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney said.
Doubters contend that the Colts have produced impressive numbers against five teams struggling to get in sync, choose a quarterback or score points. Clearly, the Rams (2-3) are different.
While some of the names have changed -- former MVP Kurt Warner is gone, coach Mike Martz is on a medical leave of absence, running back Marshall Faulk is a backup, receiver Isaac Bruce likely will sit out again with a turf toe -- the Rams' winning equation remains the same.
The Greatest Show on Turf still stretches the field, still relies on speed, still relishes shootouts and won't back down, especially against a rapidly improving defense trying to prove itself.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for this defense and what it's done," Rams receiver Torry Holt said. "So we're definitely not taking this defense lightly. They should be very confident and look at it as a challenge."
It will be, easily, the biggest test of the season for Indianapolis (5-0), the NFL's last unbeaten team.
But the question this week is whether Martz's absence will alter the Rams' strategy.
Martz, sometimes called the NFL's mad scientist for his daring moves and unparalleled replay challenges, left the team this week because of a bacterial infection of the heart. Joe Vitt, a defensive assistant, will take over as interim coach, and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild will call plays.
Will the changes lead to a more conservative approach? Don't bet on it, even though Holt acknowledged Thursday that the Rams would like Steven Jackson, Faulk's replacement, to become more involved.
"The offense is in, the defense is in, and we are who we are," Vitt said. "Steve is going to call the game the best way he can."
But the Colts expect little to change.
"I'm sure he's still involved in the game plan," Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor said of Martz.
If the game turns into a shootout, Indianapolis still has the firepower to match the Rams' offense. From 2000 to 2004, Indianapolis scored 2,160 points -- the most of any team in the NFL.
This season has been different, though. Two-time MVP Peyton Manning has thrown seven touchdowns, a pace that's dramatically down from his NFL record 49 last year, and the Colts' deep passing game has been thwarted by opponents that drop extra defenders into coverage. It's forced the Colts to throw shorter passes.
So Indianapolis has relied more heavily on its ground game and suddenly stout defense, which has scored as many touchdowns (two) as it has allowed.
Colts coach Tony Dungy, who managed to slow the Rams in the 1999 NFC Championship Game when he was coaching Tampa Bay, said he's never been around a defense that limited opponents to two TDs in five games and believes this unit has what it takes to hold up against the Rams' creative tactics.
Freeney, Reagor and Robert Mathis have spent plenty of time this season in opposing backfields, giving the Colts enough freedom to stay in their base defense and use seven defenders against the pass.
But the Colts have not yet faced an offense this diverse.
"They're way more explosive," Dungy said. "By far, they're the best at moving the ball and getting big plays than anyone we've played so far."
That's why the Colts have been eagerly anticipating this matchup.
With critics questioning whether the Colts defense can continue playing at such a high level, Freeney and his teammates believe they have something to prove to a national television audience: that the Colts defensive success is no mirage.
"They have tremendous balance and we're going to have to be tremendously focused," former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Corey Simon said. "We've not played an upper echelon team yet, and we're still a work in progress, and we still haven't played our best game yet."