2013 Indianapolis Colts – Skill or Luck In First Season Under Andrew??

Lucas Oil Stadium with championship banners hanging.

Lucas Oil Stadium with championship banners hanging.

Not a bad first season in Indianapolis without Peyton Manning playing the lead at Lucas Oil Stadium. The light and sound stage that Andrew Luck commanded saw the most unlikely of scenarios that played out in the 2012 season. The Indianapolis Colts charged to an 11-5 record despite a Hall of Fame quarterback exiting stage left, first year Head Coach Chuck Pagano having to leave the team to battle Leukemia, which left interim coach Bruce Arians and top draft choice Andrew Luck to fend for themselves. Now a full year later we have to ask if the Colts will build on that success or take a step back.

Normally we shouldn’t have to until you realize former Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. His development of Luck along with astute play calling, was part of the reason they had 7 game winning drives. There was no head coach to interject or suggest a few things that could have disrupted the flow Arians and Luck developed. Although they brought in Pep Hamilton, his former offensive coordinator from Stanford, will it be as successful a relationship on the professional ranks?? We have to get through his growing pains as a first time NFL offensive coordinator.

Andrew Luck avoids Mario Williams and gets off a past vs. Buffalo.

Andrew Luck avoids the rush to get off a pass against Buffalo.

Quarterback: Has there ever been a quarterback who answered so many questions about being the number one selection?? Only a few The Chancellor can think of and many shared the spotlight during their 2012 rookie campaigns. For the season Luck connected on 339 of 627 passes for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Yet there is a growing feeling that a sophomore slump is imminent.

The pendulum started to swing as the 2012 season was concluding. Over the second half of the season, defensive co-ordinators were drawing a bead on his tendencies and forcing him to pull the ball down more. He was sacked 41 times in 2012. Far too many…however they did sign Matt Hasselbeck if Luck was lost to injury.Without Arians, how will the in game adjustments be affected?? Especially those in the fourth quarter??

One theme that shows up is how he fared when he faced teams twice. When the Titans and Texans went against him a second time, his completion percentages were 47% and 50%. His maturation has to stay ahead of what he will see of opponents adjustments upcoming.  Don’t forget this is a quarterback who is mobile. People overlook that. He did escape the pocket 62 times for 255 yards and 5 touchdowns. With the pressure the Colts took last year, roll-outs could be utilized to great effect although it shuts off half the field for a young signal caller. Luck will have a setback year that will leave him relegated to a rank of average as a quarterback. Year 3 or 4 will see him regain some of his top shelf play from a good rookie season.

Offensive Backfield: Last year the Colts running by committee was to keep opposing defenses honest. Yet the inability to run the football may have been filled with the signing of former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw, just one week ago. Although in his sixth year, he has run for 1,000 yards in 2010 and 2012 while rushing for 4,232 yards during his career. More important is his 4.6 yards per carry where no Colt back had an average better than 3.9 yards. Bradshaw was a cap casualty in New York and should be the starter and upgrade this position to average.

TY Hilton along with Ahmad Bradshaw will be Luck's receivers to move the chains along with Wayne.

TY Hilton along with Ahmad Bradshaw will be Luck’s receivers to move the chains along with Wayne.

Receivers: Last year’s biggest coup was to talk Reggie Wayne (The [[_]]) in returning to Indianapolis instead of venturing out as a free agent. He was the go to guy, gathering in 106 receptions for 1,355 yards and 5 touchdowns. A spectacular season, yet at 35 (in midyear) can we expect another season at such a torrid pace?? He keeps himself in good shape and now has 968 receptions for 13,063 yards, 78 TDs for his career. Questions arise on his Hall of Fame candidacy yet there should be a slight drop off in production for 2013. http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-2012-elite-performers/0ap2000000122013/2012-Best-of-Reggie-Wayne

Last year the Colts had success developing TY Hilton in the slot (50 rec./861 yds /7 TDs) alongside a veteran Donald Avery (60 rec / 781 yds /3TDs). Luck may have to lean on Hilton and his underneath receivers more this season. Hilton will see his reception total go up to 80-85 receptions this year. We don’t know if  Hamilton will utilize the spread as Arians once did. Receivers will be average in 2013 based upon use and ability to score.

An All Pac 12 performer that lasted until the 4th round. Khaled Thornton from USC.

An All Pac 12 performer that lasted until the 4th round. Khaled Holmes from USC.

Offensive Line: This is the group Colts brass worried the most about. This line will have a new look now they drafted G Hugh Thornton of Illinois in the 3rd round and G Kahled Holmes from USC in the 4th. Holmes did play center for the Trojans for two of those years and offers some flexibility. He was an All Pac 12 performer and started 37 games for the Trojans. Both these guys will stick.

Why?? They made some changes in the off-season but will it be enough to keep Andrew Luck upright. We already mentioned they were 23rd in sacks allowed with 41, but they were second to last in hits allowed on the quarterback with 116. If they do that again, Luck will miss some time in 2013. Thank goodness for Luck’s scrambling ability or he could have missed time last year.

However this team needs a bit of a push in the running game as they were below league average with only 3.8 yards per carry. Toward the strong side the Colts were an anemic 38% in converting from the goal line or 3rd /4th and 2 or less. They had to revert to several quarterback draws to outfox defenses and they ran into a buzzsaw when they faced Baltimore in the playoffs. They couldn’t play heads up with such a physical defense and couldn’t score a touchdown. This will be a year of growth for this group and we have to wait into the summer to give them a grade as high as average up from bad.

Defensive Line: When making a transition to the 3-4 from the 4-3 as this team did in 2012, you are going to experience some growing pains. One new assignment that will transition is the right defensive end. Where Dwight Freeney was the speed rusher from the blind-side, to a space eating combination DT/DE that holds ground and power rushes. Freeney, with 5 sacks last season, didn’t fit this new model and along with cap considerations has been released.

Notice  Fili Moala, Ricky Jean Francois, Aubrayo Franklin, and 5th round draft selection Montori Hughes are all defensive tackles acquired this off-season to fit this new team need. They need to be more stout up front as this team was 26th in yardage allowed and 31st in average yards per play given up at 6 yards per pop. This defense couldn’t get itself off the field in the playoff loss to Baltimore. They allowed a whopping 7.8 yards per play, 439 yards of offense, and 6 of 10 times the Ravens were able to convert 3rd downs. This was against a Raven offense that had yet to hit it’s stride. This group has to make more plays and rates as bad and we need to see more before we improve this ranking.

Werner has to prove he wasn't a reach in the 1st round after a disappointing combine.

Werner has to prove he wasn’t a reach in the 1st round after a disappointing combine.

Linebackers: This is another group looking to make the leap from utilizing left over players to bonafide 3-4 linebackers. Former Packer OLB Eric Walden and Lawrence Sidbury were signed early on in free agency. The long armed Walden is versatile enough to rush the passer or clog intermediate lanes against the pass. Then the Colts landed Bjoern Werner of Florida St in the 1st round of the draft. When you draft an All American who finished with 23.5 sacks for his career and voted ACC Player of the Year, you expect him to be on the field. He’ll probably rush from a down lineman position in this first year. There are some questions about him coming out of the combine but we’ll see.

Incumbent OLB Jerrell Freeman (145 tackles / 2 sacks) may have to take an ILB position with all this competition and Robert Mathis (8 sacks) still in the fold. If the newcomers can provide the desired pass rush, Mathis can return to the strong side DE position as well. To improve on competition inside, the Colts traded for former Buffalo Bill Kelvin Sheppard. The Colts should see drastic improvements with all this reinforcement at linebacker. Taylor Blitz Times believes Werner will compete for AFC Rookie of the Year honors. The Colts have upgraded to playoff caliber with the assortment of talent brought in.

Vontae Davis is a member of a secondary in transition.

Vontae Davis is a member of a secondary in transition.

Secondary: One area the Colts wanted to improve was in the secondary. They signed free agent LaRon Landry to come in at safety and released Tom Zbikowski. Landry is a better pass defender and the Colts should move the sure tackling Antoine Bethea (100 tackles /0 ints/ 7passes defensed) to strong safety. However the Colts also selected S John Moyett in the 6th round.

At corner they re-signed Darius Butler and Vontae Davis to return as an up and coming set of cornerbacks.  In 2012, Butler returned 2 of his 4 interceptions for touchdowns and defensed nearly the same amount of passes (8) as Cassius Vaughn (9). Even though Vaughn started 10 games last year.

Davis, the younger brother of 49er TE Vernon Davis, is a superior athlete with the tools to become a legitimate NFL star. A little focus and a pass rush can help get him there. Last year he had 51 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defensed and one sack.  He should be better with an improved pass rush and the secondary has a better center fielder in Landry. This group right now is average with a chance to upgrade this position this summer.

 

Overall: One saving grace for the Colts is they play in a relatively weak AFC South. The Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars have yet to find themselves and have no identity. They are in a two team race between themselves and the Houston Texans. However they got by on spirit and having teams off kilter facing a team that was unknown from a personnel perspective. Arians could just let loose with his play calling since he wasn’t the head coach. The fact they were playing for a higher cause (coach Pagano battling Leukemia) allowed the 2012 Colts to soar to that 11-5 record. Now it’s about their X’s and O’s and ability to professionally be better than their opponent.

Now with Pagano at the helm, expect a few more possessions to be called conservatively especially at the end of halves. Seven times they scored at the end of halves last year, where with a Head Coach thinking for the team overall won’t always be so aggressive with play calling.

Last year they went 3-1 against the NFC North, where now they face the NFC West with defensive powers in Seattle, San Francisco, and Arizona. Now if you throw in the Rams, they are facing last year’s 4th, 3rd, 12th and 14th best defenses. All of those figure to be prominent with the Seahawks and 49ers having Super Bowl aspirations. There is a four game stretch where we’ll learn where they’re going in weeks 11-14. They travel to the Titans, then go to the Cardinals, host the Titans, then travel to Cincinnati. Last year they swept the Titans but they were blood baths with one of them an overtime win.

Before they take on Houston who is the bully on the block. This team is going to be 8-8 this year if Luck is healthy the whole season. Things are worse if he goes down. When you have 9 games decided by 7 or less, a fickle bounce of the ball is the difference between being 8-8 or 12-4. Last year with Luck, pun intended, they were 11-5. With a first time NFL offensive coordinator, a second year quarterback who develped his play with a departed coach, and a look at this overall roster, this is a 6-10 team. However Andrew Luck is worth at least two more wins. Expect growing pains in Indianapolis for the 2013 season.

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Colts Re-Sign Reggie Wayne

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Well the Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne combo free agent signing conversation ends tonight. Surprisingly, Wayne re-signs with the Colts on a new 3 year deal.

Interesting move and a bit of a gamble on his part. He is banking on a rookie Andrew Luck, and his ability to read zone vs. man. At this point in his career lets face it, he’s lost a step. So he can’t really get deep. He has to run intermediate routes only (under 20 yards) and hope Luck doesn’t read zone when it’s man. If he does, a rookie Luck could throw him into some vicious shots. With a young QB, that will happen as teams will run combo coverages to fool him.

Wayne is taking a risk on this one and his 3 year deal could turn out to be a 1 and done year with moderate success. Time will tell on this one, but as of now Reggie Wayne is headed back to Indianapolis.

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The Peyton Manning Sweepstakes

Peyton Manning wearing his Super Bowl XLI championship ring.

The NFL’s free agent period is about to begin in a few hours as teams try to improve their chances of making it to Super Bowl XLVII. The largest prize to be landed this offseason by far is Peyton Manning. As he goes so does the rest of free agency. His signing will influence a series of events from free agents to a team, free agents within the division, and will alter draft strategies. You don’t think the destinations of WRs Reggie Wayne, Mike Wallace, Mario Manningham, or even a Randy Moss wouldn’t be altered with a Manning signing??  In fact with Drew Brees being franchised, the Saints could possibly lose WRs Marques Colston and Robert Meacham.

As we speak, Manning is less than a week away from making a decision by his own admission.  Although he had lengthy visits with the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos, we believe his odyssey will end with a signing in Miami with the Dolphins. He already has a house there and it was the first place he went after his press conference announcing his release. He’s been throwing and working out with his former Colt teammate Reggie Wayne there. Why do we believe he will wind up a Miami Dolphin?? Several reasons

  • He already has a home there and with no state income tax teams would have to offer more to match an offer from Miami.
  • The Dolphins have an up and coming defense led by Cameron Wake and have WR Brandon Marshall (2011 Pro Bowl MVP) to team up with possibly Reggie Wayne. Wayne also went to school in Miami and being a confidant of Peyton’s it seems a logical fit.
  • He enjoys his position as one of the faces of the game. The rivalry between he and Tom Brady would be elevated to new heights with them in the same division. The competitor in him will pull him in this direction.
  • The Dolphins, of all teams that missed the 2011 playoffs, are only a stable quarterback and one more high quality skill position player away from making a playoff run.

One glaring issue that lingers is the fact that the Cardinals and Dolphins ranked 30th, and 31st in sacks allowed with 52 and 54 sacks respectively. It’s up to each team to show a diligence in signing top shelf WRs to minimize how many hits he’ll have to take. He’ll need weapons and his ability to read defenses and audible to safe plays, he will be able to hold off defenses trying to blitz him. http://www.nfl.com/stats/categorystats?seasonType=REG&offensiveStatisticCategory=OFFENSIVE_LINE&d-447263-n=1&d-447263-o=2&d-447263-p=1&d-447263-s=PASSING_SACKS_ALLOWED&tabSeq=2&season=2011&role=TM&Submit=Go&archive=false&conference=null&defensiveStatisticCategory=null&qualified=true

The same claim could be made for the Cardinals with Manning and Wayne teaming up with Larry Fitzgerald. This is the team with the legitimate threat to knock off the Dolphins and sign him. Each team plays in a warm clime, and the dome out in Arizona, as he had in Indy, could be appealing to him. Make no mistake about it, Wayne will have some sway in this.

For Manning’s entire career, he was able to play for the same organization with the same coaching staff with players suited to his abilities. Going to a new environment in 14 years will be an easier transition with a confidante making it with him.As we go to press with this, it’s reported that Peyton will visit the Tennessee Titans. Yet when you think about it: This wasn’t the messy divorce like Brett Favre leaving Green Bay. We don’t think after that respectful departure he would come back and sign with a division rival. Not when he has all these choices. Manning always takes the high road. The only upside to signing with the Titans would be the chance to get back at the Colts two times a season. After watching Favre’s legacy tarnished to a degree, we figure he’ll pass on that in the end. Especially with a team in offensive disarray. Titans?? Not a fit.

So tonight it begins. Midnight calls and conference calls with players crossing the United States to sell their football wares. Yet if you’re a Miami Dolphin fan, remember Manning said “no thank you” to the train wreck that is the New York Jets, so no love lost there. Imagine the Patriots coming to Miami for an important divisional game and the Dolphins have Manning, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Davone Bess in the slot, and Reggie Bush to throw to. So it’s 3rd and 6 at an important juncture of the game: Who do you key on or double??

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2011 Indianapolis Colts Preview

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, the Colts had a successful season.  After coming up short in Super Bowl XLIV, they did come back and win the AFC South and battled until the bitter end:  a wild card loss to the New York Jets.  Peyton Manning masked so many deficiencies that the Colts were convinced they were formidable, yet a closer look reveals a pro football team that needs to be rebuilt.  The Colts won 115 games in the decade of the 2000s and the constant low picks have loaded the roster with decent talent, not top shelf talent.  Once injuries hit this group, a legitimate chance at returning to the Super Bowl was reduced to that of a puncher’s chance.  The Colts held off the rest of the AFC South last year but lets face it the entire division regressed or imploded.  Can they stave off the Houston Texans who seem to be the heir apparent in becoming the division’s most dominant team??

Qarterback: The Colts trigger -man going into his 15th season is one of the league’s elder statesmen in Peyton Manning.  We forget to think of him in terms of tenure until you realize that in Manning’s rookie season he was handing the ball off to Marshall Faulk before being traded and the Greatest Show on Turf was even in existence.  Yet here we are with Faulk retired and elected to the Hall of Fame and Manning is still throwing bombs in Indianapolis.  Last year Manning had to institute a short passing game to offset the Colts inability to run consistently and had a good year.  Throwing for 450 completions on 679 attempts for 4,700 yards, 33TDs and 17 interceptions was good enough for 10th with a 91.9 rating.  His ability to audible and read what a defenses true intentions were have aided the offensive line and he was only sacked 16 times.  He led the league in completions and attempts while ranking second behind Drew Brees in completion percentage with 66.3%.   All things must come to an end and how long can Manning continue to play at such a high level?

So what is the book on defending Peyton Manning? Many teams have tried and had success in disguising their intentions until under 10 seconds left in the play clock and then sending exotic blitzes at him.  Thus robbing the QB of adequate time to audible.  Defenders are jumping on the short routes without any Colts burners to throw the ball deep to.  The Ravens and Jets have carried on this approach against Manning after the Patriots used it for much of the decade of the 2000s to deny him Super Bowl trips.  If you can get some hits on Manning early, he will get happy feet and uncharacteristically will force a throw.  He relies on the receivers having the same sight adjustments and occasionally has to take the gamble that his receiver will get there.  See the Tracy Porter interception that sealed the Colts fate in Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints as evidence of this.

That withstanding,  he is a future Hall of Famer and has a couple years left in his prime before he sees his skills diminish any.  Right now he is the only serious weapon in the Colts arsenal.  Can he play well enough that he can continue to mask the team’s other deficiencies?  The window may have closed on that….Still Super Bowl quality at quarterback in Indy.

Offensive Backfield: Remember the perennial 1,000 yard seasons from Edgerrin James (The U) that gave the Colts a formidable rushing attack?? Seems like a distant memory now that for the last several seasons its been a committee carrying the load in Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes, Mike Hart, and Donald Brown out of UConn.  This group underperformed in 2010 and thrust the pressure onto the passing game.  Colts backs rushed for a total of 1,440 yards on 383 carries for an average of 3.7 yards where league average is 4.0.  Not good enough.

This group couldn’t stay on the field and were bitten by the injury bug repeatedly during the season.  Starter Joseph Addai may be better served as a change of pace running back.  He doesn’t seem to have the heft to take the pounding of an every down back and has missed games during the last few seasons.  However he averaged 4.3 yds on his carries gaining 495 yards during the 2010 campaign.  If he were spelling another back these would be satisfactory numbers.  As a lead back this isn’t enough seeing that others had to carry the load on the other 267 Colt rushing attempts.  Going into his 6th season he looks like injuries are slowing him some and this team needs a Grade A running back to do the heavy lifting.

Donald Brown filled in admirably and ran for 471 yards yet ran in a more mechanical fashion.  He didn’t run as instinctual as he had back at Connecticut and ran up the backs of his blockers, or arrived too early to where the hole was going to be.  He only averaged 3.7 yards on his 126 carries once Addai went down.  He seemed to turn a corner late in the season against Jacksonville when he rushed for a season high 129 yards on 14 carries.  Javarris James, Edgerrin’s nephew, played well as a 3rd down back and rushed for 6 of the Colts 13 rushing touchdowns usually out of passing formations.

We should see the Colts go for their first marquee running back in this months draft since picking Faulk and James two decades ago. This team needs a true every down back that Addai can compliment, who can run with power between the tackles, pick up the blitz, and catch passes out of the backfield.  Everyone has their eyes on Mark Ingram of Alabama but he may not be around in the latter part of the 1st round.  However there are several backs in this year’s draft that should do the trick.  After all he wouldn’t be keyed on with #18 standing next to him to run play action passes anyway. The very success of the Colts 2011 season will wrest on the move they make here.  Need a marquee runner….running back is very below average.

Receiver: On the opposite end of all those throws were Manning’s receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, and TEs Dallas Clark, and Jacob Tamme.  Again injuries were the story at this position also that had Tamme see significent time replacing Clark.  Blair White and Austin Collie emerged with the loss of Anthony Gonzalez and came through with respectable seasons.  White emerged as an up and coming intermediate receiver with 36 catches for 355 yards and 5 touchdowns.  He was a first down maker that Manning threw open on many a third down.  Austin Collie had 58 receptions for 649 yards and came through with 8 touchdowns.  Collie has a tremendous upside and can stretch the middle of the field better than White can.  Each are smaller receivers, better suited to the slot where a bigger corner isn’t able to manhandle them and throw off their routes.  Collie can get deep but can’t quite stretch the field like Anthony Gonzalez could yet injuries robbed him of the 2010 season.

Pierre Garcon had a solid season in 2010 yet will forever be linked to his dropped slant in Super Bowl XLIV that would have sent him off to the races and broken a 17-17 4th quarter deadlock…yet I digress.  He pulled in 67 passes to tie for second on the team with Jacob Tamme and to only outgain the unheralded tight end in yards (784 to 631) and touchdowns (6 to 4) illustrates another receiver who can’t get deep.  Manning is passing into a phone booth and its surprising he didn’t throw for more than 20 interceptions. Garcon is a young version of Wayne in the fact that he is a solid receiver with size and decent speed.

However there is Reggie Wayne, the veteran receiver from Miami who’s numbers are starting to reach those of a player who could receive  Hall of Fame consideration with a few more productive seasons.  The 2010 season wasn’t his most spectacular yet his production was tremendous.  With 111 receptions, 1,355 yards and 6 touchdowns, the successor to Marvin Harrison was the portrait of consistency.  Entering his 11th season, Wayne isn’t a threat to stretch the field beyond 40 yards yet has the moves to get open on most intermediate routes.  Never having blazing speed to begin with he can be caught by younger cornerbacks while the ball is in the air on fly patterns.  He needs to really set up a corner with a jab step to get deep on most corners.  For his career Wayne has gobbled 787 catches for 10,747 yards and 69 touchdowns.  If he duplicates his 2010 season he’ll have 900 catches, 12,000 yards, and will be right on the threshold of joining the likes of Jerry Rice, OSU’s Cris Carter,  and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown with over 1000 catches in their careers. A savvy veteran with another 3 prime years left.

Receiver is average in Indy yet they need a speed receiver to make them good again.  We don’t know how Anthony Gonzalez is going to recover and if any of his speed will be diminished upon his return.   Robert Irsay and the boys may want to think of a bigger receiver with speed also.  Too many smallish receivers that can be thrown around as we saw in last year’s playoff loss to New York.  Teams like the Jets with athletic, physical corners can take away Manning’s outside threats and allow the safety to help in the running game or squeeze off routes less than 25 yards downfield.  They need speed to scare free safeties deep.  A Julio Jones of Alabama could do the trick with their second round pick.

Offensive Line: Its amazing how a playoff loss in microcosm showcases a team’s deficiency that has plagued them all year.  You’ve read the aforementioned facts that this team allowed just 16 sacks for the season while only averaging 3.7 yards per carry rushing the ball.  In that 17-16 loss to the Jets, this line couldn’t sustain the running game for anytime during the game.  On 27 carries the Colts gained just 93 yards for an average of 3.4 yards per carry while being thrown for a loss on 4 of them.  They only allowed 1 sack in the game yet Manning threw the ball away numerous times before the pressure got to him.  Where are we going with this?

Jeff Saturday is an undersized center who made the Pro Bowl and along with fellow lineman LG John Detwiler, LT Charlie Johnson, RG Mike Pollack, and RT Ryan Diem are solid pass blockers who influence block too high to get movement on opposing defenses.  Since they are always in a passing stance this team can’t really get down and make a hole when it needs to.   This team tied for 16th with only 13 rushing touchdowns while only rushing for 28 1st downs all year.  The good new is with a synergy type existence between quarterback and center, the play audibles and blocking audibles have meshed to have Manning sacked the fewest times with 16 and 2nd with being hit with 47.

This line plays too high and depends on influence blocking too much.  Its great to have a Hall of Fame passer but get on the 7 man sled and let this team toughen up by coming off the ball.  We still don’t know if they were adequate in replacing Tarik Glenn at left tackle from a few years back.  His replacement, 5th year pro, Charlie Johnson seems to be holding up.  Yet could you imagine where this line would be without Manning’s alert audibles and checks??  Its still a smallish line that could use some size and draft picks right here.  Offensive Line is average…

Defensive Line: This unit begins with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the bookend pass rushers who accounted for 20.5 of the team’s 28 sacks.  These two on turf are lethal and are really the singular reason this team was able to run the “Tampa 2” for so many years.  The pass rush generated by these two allowed the Colts to drop 7 on a majority of the pass plays where they didn’t have to blitz to apply pressure.  Last year we saw Mathis outplay Freeney and finish with 10.5 sacks (team lead) and 59 total tackles which was good enough for 4th.  Are injuries starting to slow down the former All Pro End from Syracuse? He played through some nicks and bruises and had 10 sacks but his meager 23 tackles weren’t enough.  Yet both DEs landed in the Pro Bowl. The Colts may want to put a draft pick here to allow for a situational platoon deployment of Freeney who is undersized anyway.

The DTs Fili Moala and Daniel Muir are going into their 2nd and 4th seasons respectively and need to improve at the point of attack and not allow linemen to get on the smallish Gary Brakckett at MLB.  This is the anchor to the defense and yet without a real strong showing here helped the Colts to an overall ranking of 20th and 21st in 1st downs given up per game with 19.6.  This has to be attributed to a defensive line that needs a bigger anchor in the middle.  Teams have been rushing the football on the Colts for sometime.  A couple defensive picks could be used here to bolster the defensive tackle spots or one to spell Freeney and / or Mathis.  Defensive Line is average at best.

Linebackers: Colt linebackers could use a few more instinctive players and it starts with MLB Gary Brackett, who missed several games last year, yet finished second on the team with 73 tackles.  Rookie Pat Angerer played fairly well and had a tag team rookie partner Kavell Conner manned the other linebacker spot.  They were out of position several times yet finished with 72 and47 tackles respectively.  These players are young and developing where there is room for improvement, don’t draft here. Yet improvement is necessary here.  Linebackers are little below average, right now not very instinctive and this year they’ll see what they have.  In reserve is Clint Session and Terrence Hagler, hard hitting special teamers that lead the Colts special teams downfield.

Secondary: Hard to give a grade to a unit when the best member was on the field for only a few games. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, who was finally let go, was the fire starter to this defense. Yet we have to cover the players that remain: First there is cornerback Kelvin Hayden who played solidly with 58 tackles and only 2 interceptions.  Just two? This is the ball hawk who replaced Nick Harper in Super Bowl XLI and ran an intercpetion for the game clinching touchdown against Chicago and he only had two interceptions?  Not enough…although he defensed 8 passes.  Justin Tryon and Jacob Lacey only recorded 1 interception between the two of them at the other cornerback spot.  Once you put in Antoine Bethea’s one interception, you realize that 8 interceptions overall on a defense is pathetic.  They have been rushing the passer well enough for an alert secondary to intercept a few more passes than that.

This is where they miss a Sanders who would play the game at 100% full speed and instinctual at supporting the run and adept enough to knock down plays 25 yards downfield.  Antoine Bethea did finish with the team lead in tackles with 105.  Too many plays are getting beyond Colt linebackers also. This team has been pushed around on defense since that 2005 season.  Without the enforcer in Bob Sanders forcing turnovers where do they go from here? Secondary is poor and needs an overhaul now….

Overall: In all seriousness this team should have been overtaken by one of the up and coming teams in the AFC South yet they weren’t.  They went as far as they could with a roster that equaled Super Bowl Champion Green Bay with 16 on the Injured Reserve.  The Colts needed to be healthy to compete in the playoffs and very few teams are healthy at that time of the year.  Yet we’re supposed to be talking of 2011…. Its imperative that they use 2 of their first 3 picks on a speed receiver and an every down back. With Manning there to keep defensive pressure off of a resurgent running game this team could get out to twelve wins again.  They cannot throw the football 679 times again in the upcoming season, eventually he will be hit and in his mid 30s can be hurt.

Manning’s situation in 2011 reminds us of San Francisco’s Steve Young’s in 1999.  The team had deteriorated through age around him yet as he mastered the craft of quarterbacking, the team won (3-1) and everything seemed fine until a late reaction to an Aneas Williams blitz and …………  We hope that doesn’t happen obviously yet one can only go to the well so many times.  A good running back and receiver and this team is 12-4 with a solid performance.  If Manning were to get injured this team wouldn’t go 4-12, he’s that valuable to this team.  If they stand pat this team should miss the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2001 and their Super Bowl window with Manning will close.