SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
Indianapolis Colts
Projected Finish: 1st in AFC South
 
Indy's hopes could hinge on whether Sanders's wing has healed.
Bob Rosato/SI
2008 Schedule
 
 
SPOTLIGHT
 

While what's-his-name convalesces, Dwight Freeney and the defense are healthier -- and itching for redemption.

Members of the Colts' defense understand what the fuss is about. But forgivethem for not participating in the hand-wringing that's taking place throughoutIndianapolis.

Yes, quarterback Peyton Manning's 10-year run of 160 consecutive startsmight be halted in the season opener if he hasn't sufficiently recovered fromsurgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee. But unlike somefans, Manning's teammates aren't walking around with sweaty palms andaccelerated heart rates.

From the day Tony Dungy was hired as the Colts' coach in 2002, the aim was tobuild a defense that could sit at the grown-ups' table with Manning and theoffense. That plan seemed to come to fruition during the playoffs two seasonsago, when the unit carried the team to its Super Bowl title while Manning threwseven interceptions -- and only three touchdown passes -- in Indianapolis's final fourgames.

But after allowing a league-low 262 points during the 2007 regularseason, the unit slipped up in a 28-24 loss to the Chargers in the divisionalplayoffs, a team Indianapolis also lost to last November. The Colts had allowedthree offensive touchdowns in one game just twice during the regular season butsurrendered that many in the second half alone against a San Diego offensethat played the fourth quarter without two of its stars, injured running backLaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers.

Accordingly, as Indy's defense prepares for the upcoming season, it ismotivated less by Manning's potential unavailability than by its owndisappearance in the final two quarters of that January loss to the Chargers."We all feel as though we left a game out there," says safety Antoine Bethea. "Alot of people are talking about San Diego having our number. We're not takinganything away from them. But I think as an organization we don't feel like weplayed our best ball [during] that game."

"The disappointing thing was that we had a lead in the fourth quarter anddidn't hold it," says Dungy of the way last season ended. "If you're a defensiveteam, you want to be in that position in a playoff game. We had our chance, butwe didn't get it done. [We have] a long way to go to get back to that situation,but we would like to be there again."

The pieces are in place for that to happen. The defense not only brings backevery key contributor for the first time since Dungy arrived but will alsobenefit from the return of All-Pro end Dwight Freeney, a fierce pass rusher whomissed the final seven games after surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury on hisleft foot last November. His return should create more playmaking opportunitiesfor cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, who are entering their secondseason as full-time starters.

"One of the positives from last season was that some of the younger guysplayed well," says defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "We expected that fromKelvin and Marlin, but we also had some surprises, particularly up front with[tackles] Ed Johnson and Keyunta Dawson."

Indianapolis's biggest concern at this point is injuries. Freeney and All-Prosafety Bob Sanders (who underwent off-season surgery on his right shoulder) wereheld out of the first month of training camp and practice so they could continueto rehab, 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 come back like we think they will for the start of the season -- andthey stay healthy once they're back -- I think we can be better than we were lastyear," Dungy says of the imminent returnees.

If not, fans won't be the only ones who'll have reason to wring theirhands. -- Jim Trotter

 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.