The Colts are coming off a record-tying ninth consecutive postseason berth in 2010, but it was awfully taxing on a team that had made it look effortless for so many years. Indianapolis scratched and clawed its way to another division title despite leading the league with 17 players on I.R., and missing many other starters for significant time. That TE Dallas Clark and MLB Gary Brackett — just to name a few — are healthy again is cause for optimism. But it has been an offseason full of change and uncertainty, particularly with the league's only four-time MVP, QB Peyton Manning.
Several months after the stunning first-round playoff exit courtesy of the Jets, Manning underwent neck surgery for the second straight offseason, this time to repair a bulging disc. It was unclear as of this writing when Manning, who recently signed a five-year, $90 million extension making him a Colt for life, could begin practicing. The Colts lured veteran QB Kerry Collins out of retirement in the event Manning isn't ready to start the season.
GM Chris Polian called the shots for the first time on Draft Day, selecting a pair of linemen to help reinforce a leaky O-line. Polian also parted ways with several of the team's longest-tenured coaches and front-office staff, including offensive guru Tom Moore.
With a healthy Manning, the Colts are still very formidable, fully capable of becoming the first club ever to play in a Super Bowl on its home field, Lucas Oil Stadium, next February. But following an unsettling offseason, and with Manning's historic durability potentially being compromised, the Colts' road to title contention could have more roadblocks than usual.
Peyton Manning and the offense are most comfortable when the opposing defense is on its heels, which is often the case against the Colts' frequent use of the no-huddle offense. With the three-wide, two-TE personnel package used most frequently, Manning wants to spread it out and let it fly. The offense is at its best, however, when it at least can present the threat of a running game. Coordinator Clyde Christensen gives Manning as much freedom at the line of scrimmage as any QB in the league.
Quarterbacks: It was a trying 2010 season for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. With many of his favorite weapons on the shelf, the Colts leaned on Manning at a record-setting pace. He completed 450-of-679 passes — the completion mark was an NFL record; the attempts were the second-most in a season ever — for a career-high 4,700 yards. But there were times when he tried to do too much. Manning had arguably the worst three-game slump of his career between Weeks 11 and 13, when he tossed 11 interceptions, including two pick-sixes. Manning's 17 INTs were his highest total since '02. At the age of 35, he still possesses a strong arm and impeccable accuracy. Further, his intelligence, preparation and durability are the stuff of legend. However, the uncertainty surrounding the health of his surgically repaired neck, putting his Week One status — and, in turn, his 208 consecutive regular-season starts streak in jeopardy — is undoubtedly the biggest story line in the NFL landscape entering the season. Kerry Collins, who was drafted by vice chairman Bill Polian and the Panthers in 1995, fits the bill of a dependable veteran starter if Manning's neck injury lingers into the season. Collins has lost some zip on his fastball, and can be a statue in the pocket, but he is a smart, heady veteran who should be able to pick up the Colts' complex playbook quickly. Curtis Painter, who has looked great in practice but has not performed well in game action, and Dan Orlovsky are battling for the No. 3 job.
Running backs: The ground game was punchless most of last season, but that is hardly news. Indy has finished in the bottom four overall in rushing each of the past three seasons. Joseph Addai, a patient, shifty runner with good burst, was poised for a strong season before a neck injury in Week Six cost him eight games. Addai's value is his versatility: He is one of the better blocking and receiving backs in the league. Scouts say backup Donald Brown, who has not met expectations his first two seasons, is a quick, instinctive runner with above-average power for his stature. But he spends too much time dancing behind the line and needs to work on blitz pickup. The Colts got good value in fourth-round bruiser Delone Carter. His downhill running style will come in handy in short-yardage situations, where the Colts have struggled.
Receivers: When healthy, the Colts possess a deep, extremely talented receiving corps. Reggie Wayne, who hauled in a career-high 111 catches for 1,355 yards and six TDs last season, leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards since 2004. Wayne isn't the deep threat he once was, but he's an excellent route runner who possesses tremendous hands and run-after-the-catch ability. Another monster season could be in the offing as Wayne enters a contract year. Pierre Garcon drives his coaches crazy with his inconsistency and mental lapses, but he came on late last season and possesses game-changing speed and great physicality. Imagine if Austin Collie stayed healthy last season. The lethal slot receiver led the team in TDs (eight), and caught 58 passes for 649 yards in only nine games before two scary concussions ended his season. Collie has not shown any lasting effects from the concussions, but he has been limited by a knee injury this offseason. The offense wasn't the same without Collie and TE Dallas Clark. Former first-rounder Anthony Gonzalez, a fast, precise route runner, has appeared in only three games total the past two seasons because of injuries. Blair White, who has drawn comparisons to Collie for his sure hands and toughness, was a big surprise as an undrafted free agent, catching five TD passes. The always-dangerous Clark is back after a wrist injury cut his '10 season short. He's blazingly fast, has a knack for finding the endzone and can be used as an H-back, split out wide or as a traditional tight end. Clark is rare in that he forces the opponent's hand on personnel packages. Backup Jacob Tamme is a flexible, big-play player in his own right who caught everything in sight last season and became Manning's security blanket after Clark went down. Brody Eldridge is more of a traditional blocking tight end, but he has surprisingly soft hands.
Offensive linemen: GM Chris Polian addressed his team's biggest weakness, spending a first-rounder on OLT Anthony Castonzo and moving up four spots in Round Two to grab OG-OT Ben Ijalana. Both players are extremely intelligent, versatile and durable. Castonzo, who flashes a mean streak, likely will be the starting left tackle in Week One. The athletic Ijalana, a left tackle in college, could begin his career at guard. ORT Ryan Diem's play fell off considerably last season, with false starts and breakdowns in pass protection occurring far too often. He has been getting looks at right guard, where he has been slow to adjust. C Jeff Saturday and Peyton Manning have started 170 games together — the most by a QB-center combination since the NFL-AFL merger. Saturday, 34, is entering the twilight of his career, but his sound technique and knowledge of the system continue to serve him well. Joe Reitz, a converted tackle, appeared to be the front-runner to start the season at left guard as of this writing. Jeff Linkenbach, who possesses great size and length, could begin the season as the starter at right tackle. OG Jacques McClendon, who is battling Reitz for a starting job, is an imposing physical presence who made a minimal impact as a rookie. OGs Kyle DeVan and Mike Pollak, both of whom saw time on the interior last season, also are in the mix at the guard spots. Overall, the position battles along the O-line — with the exception of Saturday and Castonzo — were very fluid as of presstime.
Speed and gap integrity are two key components in the Colts' Tampa-2 scheme. The "D" will allow yards — its main function is to keep plays in front of defenders and stiffen in the red zone. Coordinator Larry Coyer scaled back the blitzing because of injuries and instead relied on perennial Pro Bowl DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to do what they do best: wreak havoc and disrupt offenses' timing and rhythm.
Defensive linemen: DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, two of the more prolific pass rushers in the game, continued their reign of terror on opposing QBs last season, combining for 21 sacks and six forced fumbles. Both players possess freakish speed, leverage and lightning-quick first steps. Freeney's devastating spin move has become his trademark. Meanwhile, Mathis relies more on sheer speed to disrupt plays in the backfield. Both players have terrific motors; Mathis is a better run defender. Three-technique DT Fili Moala made major strides in his second season. A fast, athletic penetrator, Moala has a ton of upside, but he needs to become more of a finisher. NT Antonio Johnson dealt with a knee injury early but was a major reason why the run defense held three of the league's best rushing teams at bay in the final month. Johnson's size and hand strength allow him to occupy blockers and free up plays for 'backers, as well as disrupt plays on his own. The Colts uncharacteristically tapped into the free-agent market, adding a trio of former first-rounders — DT Tommie Harris and DEs Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton. Harris, who was as dominant a three-technique as there was in the league between 2005-07 with the Bears, fits the Colts' scheme perfectly. He relies on his athleticism and strength to get upfield. If Harris' oft-injured knees cooperate, his low-risk acquisition could turn into a home-run signing. Anderson, a major disappointment in Atlanta, could bolster the run defense on the interior, as well as provide depth on the edges if he improves. Rookie three-technique Drake Nevis is a prototypical Colts one-gap lineman. He is undersized but explosive and plays with great intensity. Jerry Hughes is a fast and energetic edge rusher, but he made virtually no impact in his rookie season. The club hopes he will develop behind Mathis and Freeney. DT Eric Foster can play inside and outside. DT Ricardo Mathews will see more chances.
Linebackers: Injuries to MLB Gary Brackett and WLB Clint Session, who departed in free agency, along with the inconsistency of SLB Philip Wheeler opened the door for rookies Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner to enter the lineup a year ago. Brackett, the quarterback of the defense, is an integral part of the scheme. He plays fast and instinctively, with great coverage skills up and down the field. Angerer, a member of the PFW All-Rookie team, is considered the heir apparent to Brackett, though he replaced Wheeler as the starting "Sam" linebacker the second half of last season. The undersized Angerer showed outstanding aggressiveness and versatility in finishing second on the team in tackles (75) and first in special-teams tackles (15). Conner, an active, high-motor 'backer who has good instincts and understanding of proper angles, will battle with veteran free-agent addition Ernie Sims to replace Session on the weak side. Like with most of the LB corps, Sims makes up for his lack of size with his speed and quickness. He is a big hitter who fits the Colts' scheme like a glove. Nate Triplett provides depth and help on special teams.
Defensive backs: Now the official starter alongside ultraconsistent FS Antoine Bethea, SS Melvin Bullitt doesn't provide the physical presence that former Colt Bob Sanders once did, but he is fast, instinctive and his toughness and work ethic are second to none. Bethea, the only Colts defensive back to start 16 games last season, is a difference maker in the secondary. An excellent athlete with good range and even better football IQ, Bethea plays the deep zone extremely well and can come up and support the run. Following the release of veteran LCB Kelvin Hayden, several candidates will vie to start across from RCB Jerraud Powers, whose arrow is pointing up despite missing the final four games with a broken forearm. Undersized but sound in his technique, Powers added a run-stuffing dimension to his impressive read-and-react skills, and was the team's best corner at the time of his injury. CBs Justin Tryon, Jacob Lacey, Kevin Thomas and rookie Chris Rucker will all be in the mix to replace Hayden. Tryon did yeoman's work after being acquired in a trade shortly before the season began, starting six games, but team insiders say he is best suited for the nickel-back role. Lacey battled injuries and inconsistency last season after a breakout rookie campaign in 2009. Thomas, the club's '10 third-round pick, blew out his knee in minicamp as a rookie but is a big, physical cornerback whom the Colts are high on. The athletic Rucker has intriguing upside, but his lack of discipline is a concern. Safeties Al Afalava and Joe Lefeged are depth players who will be counted on for special teams.
The coverage and return teams left a lot to be desired last season, but PK Adam Vinatieri was terrific. Coming off a season-ending knee injury in 2009, Vinatieri converted 26-of-28 FG attempts. P Pat McAfee, who also handles kickoff duties, finished in the top 10 in touchbacks but was middle of the road in most punting categories. Justin Tryon and Blair White flashed in the return game last season.
The Colts still have the firepower that has made them an annual Super Bowl contender, but their window could be starting to close. Peyton Manning wants to play five more years, but it is fair to wonder if we are starting to see chinks in his once seemingly indestructible armor. WR Reggie Wayne and DE Robert Mathis are both entering contract years, and it wouldn't be shocking to see one or both of them playing their final season with the club. For the Colts to make a run this season, first and foremost, Manning must be healthy. But the offensive line and run defense also must rise to the occasion and help lessen Manning's load and preserve his few remaining years.
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