MEMBERS OF theColts' defense understand what the fuss is about. But forgive them for notparticipating in the hand-wringing that's taking place throughoutIndianapolis.
Yes, quarterbackPeyton Manning's 10-year run of 160 consecutive starts might be halted in theseason opener if he hasn't sufficiently recovered from surgery to remove aninfected bursa sac from his left knee. But unlike some fans, Manning'steammates aren't walking around with sweaty palms and accelerated heartrates.
From the day TonyDungy was hired as the Colts' coach in 2002, the aim was to build a defensethat could sit at the grown-ups' table with Manning and the offense. That planseemed to come to fruition during the playoffs two seasons ago, when the unitcarried the team to its Super Bowl title while Manning threw seveninterceptions—and only three touchdown passes—in Indianapolis's final fourgames.
But after allowinga league-low 262 points during the 2007 regular season, the unit slipped up ina 28--24 loss to the Chargers in the divisional playoffs, a team Indianapolisalso lost to last November. The Colts had allowed three offensive touchdowns inone game just twice during the regular season but surrendered that many in thesecond half alone against a San Diego offense that played the fourth quarterwithout two of its stars, injured running back LaDainian Tomlinson andquarterback Philip Rivers.
Accordingly, asIndy's defense prepares for the upcoming season, it is motivated less byManning's potential unavailability than by its own disappearance in the finaltwo quarters of that January loss to the Chargers. "We all feel as thoughwe left a game out there," says safety Antoine Bethea. "A lot of peopleare talking about San Diego having our number. We're not taking anything awayfrom them. But I think as an organization we don't feel like we played our bestball [during] that game."
"Thedisappointing thing was that we had a lead in the fourth quarter and didn'thold it," says Dungy of the way last season ended. "If you're adefensive team, you want to be in that position in a playoff game. We had ourchance, but we didn't get it done. [We have] a long way to go to get back tothat situation, but we would like to be there again."
The pieces are inplace for that to happen. The defense not only brings back every keycontributor for the first time since Dungy arrived but will also benefit fromthe return of All-Pro end Dwight Freeney, a fierce pass rusher who missed thefinal seven games after surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury on his left footlast November. His return should create more playmaking opportunities forcornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, who are entering their secondseason as full-time starters.
"One of thepositives from last season was that some of the younger guys played well,"says defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "We expected that from Kelvin andMarlin, but we also had some surprises, particularly up front with [tackles] EdJohnson and Keyunta Dawson."
Indianapolis'sbiggest concern at this point is injuries. Freeney and All-Pro safety BobSanders (who underwent off-season surgery on his right shoulder) were held outof the first month of training camp and practice so they could continue torehab, and standout middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who led the team intackles last season with 116, missed a good chunk of the preseason because ofhip and groin ailments. (Another starter, outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, isexpected to be out until October after tearing a pectoral muscle while liftingweights during the off-season.)
"If they comeback like we think they will for the start of the season—and they stay healthyonce they're back—I think we can be better than we were last year," Dungysays of the imminent returnees.
If not, fans won'tbe the only ones who'll have reason to wring their hands.
PROJECTED STARTINGLINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH TONY DUNGY (127--65 in NFL), seventh seasonwith Colts
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
2007 RECORD 13--3NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): offense 18/6/5 defense 15/2/3
14 at Minnesota
5 at Houston
19 at Green Bay
27 at Tennessee (M)
2 NEW ENGLAND
9 at Pittsburgh
23 at San Diego
30 at Cleveland
18 at Jacksonville (T)
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 2
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .594
Games against playoff teams: 8
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Colts' units.
The whole game runs through Manning, and he makes it all work.
Addai has become a star; this unit finally has some depth.
A healthy Harrison makes No. 3 Anthony Gonzalez better.
Clark is a vital part of the offense, but there's no depth.
Well-coached unit; key will be Ugoh's consistency.
Play hard and fast; have to, with Freeney double-teamed.
Speedy, active unit that works Indy's scheme very well.
When healthy, Sanders is one of the league's top playmakers.
Vinatieri very reliable; not many chances for Smith to punt.
The perennial Pro Bowl player missed 11 games lastseason with a left knee injury and then had off-season surgery on his rightknee. That's a difficult double whammy for any skill position player, let aloneone who just turned 36. Harrison looked strong in camp though—good news for theIndianapolis passing game.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
November 22, 1999
THE COLTS' second-year sensation is as comfortable onthe field as any passer with his limited experience has been. Yet for all hisgrace in the spotlight, Manning is often lost when it comes to menial tasks. Hehas flailed in the face of such daunting endeavors as opening a can of soup,ordering Chinese takeout and hooking up a TV set, and he has less fashion sensethan Cher on Oscar night. ¬†--Michael Silver
Free access to all COLTS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
SHOULDER STAKES Indy's hopes could hinge on whether Sanders's wing has healed.
AL TIELEMANS (COVER)