With a healthy Peyton Manning lining up behind center, the Indianapolis Colts are already weeks ahead of where the franchise was a year ago.
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Manning wasn’t able to take part in training camp or play in the preseason in 2008 after undergoing multiple medical procedures to remove an infected bursa sac in his left knee. Both the quarterback and the Colts got off to sluggish starts and it took some time before the team’s offensive timing got back its usual efficiency.
That isn’t the case this year. Manning is healthy and so are a pair of key offensive linemen, center Jeff Saturday and offensive guard Ryan Lilja, who both missed playing time last season. Saturday sat out four games and Lilja was sidelined for the entire season with injuries.
One major change on the offensive line has veteran Charlie Johnson taking over at left offensive tackle, replacing Tony Ugoh. Ugoh has struggled with consistency the last couple of seasons. For the time being, anyway, he is relegated to being a backup at both tackle spots and at offensive guard.
Indianapolis’ running game, which struggled a year ago, has shown signs of improving during the preseason. Running back Joseph Addai, who had minor knee surgery in the offseason, displays improved quickness and burst. Rookie running back Donald Brown, the team’s top draft pick last spring, has been impressive in limited preseason work both as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield.
“We feel pretty good about where they are right now (offensively),” first-year Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “Obviously, you want to be perfect. You want every drive that you take the field, that it’s culminated with a touchdown. That has not happened this preseason, but we’ve been pretty efficient, I think. So we are pleased with the progress, but the fact of the matter is, we still have to get better.”
Defensively, there will be some changes to the team’s Cover 2 4-3 alignment. The system will stay basically the same, but the Colts – under new coordinator Larry Coyer – have thrown in a few tweaks along the way.
“I can tell you this, we are improving. We do think we have some fundamental issues in terms of our tackling, which hasn’t been where we’d like it. We feel we’ve shown spurts, but we also feel we have to continue to improve. Often times progress is not immediately registered. We feel we are moving in the right direction,” Caldwell said.
Indianapolis most likely will blitz more, using its safeties and linebackers primarily. Coyer wants the Colts to improve their overall pass rush and to be better in third-and-long opportunities.
“We’re just not going to sit back anymore and play base defense,” defensive end Raheem Brock said. “We’re going to come and attack you from everywhere. It’s going to be up to the offense to figure out where we’re coming from.”
The defense will be better if safety Bob Sanders is available for the bulk of the season. Sanders is currently on the team’s physically unable to perform list after undergoing knee surgery this past spring. It’s hoped that he will be in the lineup for the majority of the year.
But even if he’s is sidelined for the early portion of the season, the Colts defense should show overall improvement.
“There’s no question that (Sanders) makes us a better football team. And there’s no question that when he’s flying, we fly at a different level on defense,” team president Bill Polian said. “The caveat is that we’ve learned to play without him. He’s been out so much, that we’ve learned to adjust. We’ve learned that, well, Bob’s not here this week so Melvin Bullitt has to pick up the slack, Antoine Bethea has to pick up the slack. And they’ve done it awfully well, albeit not with the impact of Bob. But they’ve played very, very well.
“And so when Bob’s not there, everybody just says, ‘Well, OK, Bob’s not there, we’ll pick up the slack.’ Our productivity doesn’t slump as much as perhaps an outsider might think. We still play pretty good defense with Bullitt in there. And Bethea has become a really good safety. We want Bob back. We’d love to have him back. We’re a different team with him there. We take it to a bit higher level. But we can win with the other guys in there.”
COACHING: Jim Caldwell. 1st year, 1st year with Colts (0-0).
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 12-4 (2nd in AFC South); lost in wild-card game to San Diego, 23-17 (OT).
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 11-5 (first in AFC South); lose in AFC divisional playoff game.
Notes and Quotes
–Former Arena League offensive lineman Kyle DeVan has played well during training camp and the preseason. He may earn himself a spot on the Colts‘ regular season roster.
“He’s been doing well. He’s a guy who is tough, hard-nosed and physical. He has a lot of grit to him,” Caldwell said. “He also is very resourceful. He’s a quick thinker. He handles all of the adjustments we make on the inside which often times are many in a short period of time. He certainly is a guy that has caught our eye.”
–PK Shane Andrus most likely won’t be on Indianapolis’ regular-season roster. Andrus has kicked well as he’s filled in for starting PK Adam Vinatieri, who has been recovering from offseason knee and hip surgeries. He is hoping his production with the Colts will attract other NFL teams.
“That’s the challenge for him to come in here and do the best job he could possibly do under those circumstances,” Caldwell said. “He’s done nothing but obviously perform extremely well and done everything that we’ve asked him to do, which he has done in previous years. He’s a guy that we knew was reliable and dependable. He has certainly done a nice job.”
–QB Peyton Manning knows how important it is to get the regular season off to a fast start.
“Well, last year was tough. You never like to put yourself in a hole, especially with our tough division and our tough schedule. To lose your first one and be 1-2 after the first three games is not the situation that we want to be in. The nice thing was that we found something out about ourselves, that we can work ourselves out (of an early season hole),” Manning said.
“It’s the same goal this year, to get off to a fast start. We have an extremely tough schedule to start the season. But I guess the thing we learned is that the season is not over if we don’t (get off to a fast start) like we’re used to. You can still turn things around. … We just lost to Tennessee, and we had New England, Pittsburgh and San Diego coming up, somewhere in that order. The future didn’t look that bright at that point, but we did find a way to get it done. Certainly, that is the goal this year.”
–Manning doesn’t like talking about the “R” word – retirement.
“(I think) the only people who can relate to the position (Brett Favre has) been in is guys that are retired now. I really can’t speak for him or what he’s thinking and what not. Like I said, you keep creeping that word into my mind. You start talking about post-career, retiring, it becomes more of a reality,” he said.
“I’m trying not to think along those lines. I’m trying to think young and think in the now. That’s one thing Coach Caldwell does talk about a lot, is focus on the now. I’m taking my head coach’s advice.”
–The Colts‘ starting quarterback is known as a meticulous note-taker. So much so that he still has all of the notebooks that he’s kept since entering the league in 1998.
“I have all my notebooks. They stopped making the notebooks I used to have. I had to have Jackie (Cook), Coach Caldwell’s assistant, stock up on them. If it’s not broken, we can’t change it now. I believe in being a note-taker. That’s one thing that Coach Caldwell and I definitely have in common, we are both note-takers,” Manning said.
“I bet he has every meeting Coach Dungy has ever held. I saw him first-hand basically transcribing meetings. I’m a note-taker. I write down things coaches say and thoughts to myself and reminders and refer back to those old notebooks. It’s been 12 years. I fill every page. It’s been averaging around 10 a year in season. I usually have one in the offseason that lasts me. In season, you get into the games and playoff games, so about 10 a year. I guess it would be a little over (100).”
BY THE NUMBERS: 2. The Colts have kept only two quarterbacks on their regular-season roster every season since Peyton Manning has been with the team with the exception of a brief period in 2004.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “He’s really big about having the intensity up, being up-tempo, being sharp on the details. No earth-shattering cliches or phrases there. Those are things that he always used to remind me as a quarterback and things I’ve always believed in. I think the team is responding to that.” – QB Peyton Manning on first-year head coach Jim Caldwell. Caldwell had been Manning’s quarterbacks coach.
Strategy and Personnel
CB Michael Coe, along with DEs Rudolph Hardie and Curtis Johnson, were placed on the team’s waived-injured list. Coe has been bothered by a groin injury while Hardie injured his right knee in the Colts‘ preseason game against Detroit. Johnson had a hamstring injury.
Indianapolis also waived undrafted rookie tight end Colin Cloherty and S Marcus Paschal.
CB Kelvin Hayden (hamstring) and DE Raheem Brock (hand) are both expected to be available for the Colts‘ regular-season opener with Jacksonville on Sept. 13.
–LB Clint Session suffered a leg injury in the Colts‘ preseason game at Detroit. Session hopes to be available for the team’s regular-season opener with the Jaguars.
–TE Tom Santi hurt his ankle in the Lions game and will be sidelined for a couple of weeks. It’s not known if he will be able to play against Jacksonville on Sept. 13.
–OG Mike Pollak has been bothered by back spasms, which has forced him to miss some practice time. Pollak is slated to be the Colts‘ starting right offensive guard.
–RB Mike Hart continues to rehab his sprained left ankle. Hart began training camp by spraining his right ankle and missed the second half of the 2008 season with a knee injury. It’s not yet known when he will be able to return to the practice field.
–CB T.J. Rushing could end up winning back his job as the Colts‘ primary punt and kickoff returner. Rushing sat out last season after incurring a knee injury in training camp.
–CB Jacob Lacey, a rookie undrafted free agent, has been impressive in the preseason. He could wind up winning a job on the regular season roster.
PLAYER TO WATCH: DT Adrian Grady – An undrafted interior defensive lineman from Louisville, Grady has gotten the attention of the Colts coaching staff. “He’s active. He makes plays. That’s what he does. He’s a guy that finds a way to get to the ball. He has been steady in there. He’s another guy we look forward to getting a real good look at this Thursday. He has certainly caught our eye on occasion. He’s coming along. Watch the ball, and he is going to show up,” Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell said.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/27, RB Donald Brown, Connecticut – He’s been everything that the Colts were looking for in a second primary running back. He has impressed with his burst between the tackles and his ability to turn a short play into a big gainer. Brown looks to be the real deal.
Rd. 2/56, DT Fili Moala, Southern Cal – Has struggled a bit as he’s tried to learn Indianapolis’ defensive system. Needs to improve overall consistency. Possesses the skills to be a major contributor to the defensive line rotation.
Rd. 3/92, CB Jerraud Powers, Auburn – The talk of training camp and the preseason. A big-play defensive back who most likely will start out on special teams. He will also battle to become the Colts‘ nickel back. Can play outside or in the slot if needed.
Rd. 4/127, WR Austin Collie, Brigham Young – Started slow in training camp as he’s picked up the nuances of the Indianapolis passing game. Has gotten steadily better throughout training camp and the preseason. Could end up being the Colts‘ regular slot receiver.
Rd. 7/222, P Pat McAfee, West Virginia – Will be the starting punter for Indianapolis. McAfee will also be the holder for placekicker Adam Vinatieri. His booming punts in practices and games has made him the perfect replacement for veteran Hunter Smith, who was not re-signed in the offseason. His outgoing personality makes him a favorite of the fans and the media.
Manning is healthy and has been in regular-season form throughout training camp and in the preseason. Sorgi remains as the team’s primary backup, but the Colts added Painter through the draft. Indianapolis has kept two quarterbacks on the regular-season roster in recent years, so the team may be forced to make a tough decision.
Addai didn’t see much work this past spring after undergoing knee surgery in the offseason. Indianapolis added Brown with the team’s first-round pick in April. Addai and Brown have both looked good in training camp. The Colts also have Hart, a 2008 draft pick who was impressive as a rookie before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Hart has battled ankle injuries during camp. Ball and Simpson are also in contention for the third running back spot.
Clark had a career year at tight end in 2008. Robinson stepped in to become the primary backup. Tamme and Santi were 2008 draft picks who saw limited playing time as rookies due to injuries. Tamme has impressed in training camp. Petrowski, who spent last year on the team’s practice squad, is another possibility.
Wayne is now ready to become the team’s primary pass catching threat. Gonzalez will take over Harrison’s spot in the lineup after bouncing between slot and outside receiver. Garcon and Collie, along with former practice squad members Giguere and Smith, are battling for the third receiver role.
Having a healthy Saturday, along with the return of Lilja, should help bolster the Colts‘ offensive line. Johnson has gotten the early nod at left offensive tackle, taking over for Ugoh in that role. Ugoh can fill in at both tackle spots and offensive guard. Pollak, the team’s top draft pick a year ago, has earned a spot in the starting lineup at guard. Richard, a seventh-round pick in 2008, was the major surprise starter as he took over at center with Saturday sidelined. Justice, another 2008 draft pick, saw considerable work as a rookie. Federkeil and Toudouze, along with 2009 draft pick Thomas and former Arena League offensive guard DeVan, will provide depth.
The Colts should have good depth along the defensive line in 2009. Indianapolis officials made an effort to get a bit bigger with the addition of draft picks Moala and Taylor along with undrafted free agent Grady. A veteran group of linemen return with Freeney, Brock, Mathis, Foster, Dawson and both Johnsons. Ed Johnson is back after being released by the team last year. Howard could have a breakout year as a situational pass rusher while Antonio Johnson has played well in limited duty. Smith and Muir, both picked up during the 2008 season, could earn starting jobs. The Colts have also re-signed Thomas, a top backup a year ago.
Brackett returns at middle linebacker. The Colts, however, will be younger at both outside linebacking positions. Wheeler had a strong spring and will play on the strong side while Session moves to the weak side this year. Keiaho and Hagler were free agents during the offseason who were re-signed. Keiaho can play all three linebacking positions. Hagler is comfortable at either outside spot. Senn was impressive as a special teams performer a year ago and did a nice job defensively when called upon. Tauiliili, an undrafted rookie, has caught the attention of the Indianapolis coaching staff.
Hayden was re-signed during the offseason and Jackson has made a strong recovery from offseason knee surgery. The pair gives Indianapolis as good a set of starting cornerbacks as there is in the league. When healthy, Sanders is one of the top strong safeties around. Bethea remains a major part of the Colts‘ defensive secondary. Bullitt, Giordano and Silva give Indianapolis good depth at safety. Jennings and Hughes will battle for the nickel role. Powers, a rookie, has been impressive during offseason work and in training camp.
Vinatieri remains as one of the NFL’s best kickers, but offseason hip and knee surgery has kept him sidelined during training camp. He is, however, expected to be fine for the start of the regular season. The Colts brought back Andrus as an insurance policy. Seventh-round draft pick McAfee takes over as the Colts‘ punter. Rushing was the Colts‘ primary kickoff and punt return man in 2007 but missed all of last season with a knee injury.