Charlie Bernstein: The Colts have been ravaged by injuries lately with Dwight Freeney, Tony Ugoh, Dallas Clark, and Marvin Harrison going down, among others. Freeney is obviously on the IR, but how effective do you think Ugoh and Harrison will be Sunday?
Eric Hartz: It's difficult to say, because the Colts have been pretty tight-lipped since the injuries have started to really pile up. But it sounds like Ugoh has been practicing this week, which is a good sign. The offensive line could use the boost, especially with injuries to Ryan Diem and Charlie Johnson.
As for Harrison, Bill Polian has stressed that his knee is structurally OK, but the inflamed bursa sacs around the knee have continued to flare up and give him trouble. He ran some routes on Monday, but he sat out practice again on Wednesday, and it's looking more and more like he won't play against the Jaguars. If Harrison is able to play, I expect the Colts to be very careful with him — as they have been since the injury.
Bernstein: The Colts have been great at plugging guys in when someone is hurt, and not really losing much on the field. How much does the loss of Dwight Freeney really effect the Indianapolis defense?
Hartz: There hasn't really been a significant dropoff in the defense's performance since Freeney went down, which is a positive sign. Freeney hasn't racked up sack totals for the last couple of years, but he was always the person opposing offenses had to account for first.
His constant pressure speeds the pace of the game up, and speed is what the Indianapolis defense is built for. Without him, offenses can focus on other matchups first, and with more time to let plays develop, can potentially exploit the Colts defense.
Do the Colts still have a very good defense without Freeney? Yes, they do. Does his loss have the potential to hurt the team in the long run? Almost certainly. But this is a championship team, and that championship mentality has a way of producing better efforts than one might expect from the guys that are plugged in.
Bernstein: Peyton Manning is widely considered as the best, or second-best quarterback in football, depending on who you talk to. Manning is having a down year statistically, and has thrown 22 touchdowns and 19 interceptions over the last 15 games dating back to last season for a QB rating right around 85. Is the dropoff in stats because of the injuries to Harrison, or is Manning possibly past his peak?
Hartz: That's an interesting statistic and question. It's never occurred to me before that the 31-year-old Manning could possibly be past his prime, especially this season when we've been watching 38-year-old Brett Favre continue to torch defenses. I personally believe that Favre and Manning are cut from a similar cloth, and think Manning will have many more years of high production.
I think you do have to attribute some of Manning's recent struggles to the injuries to his receivers, particularly go-to guys like Harrison and Clark. But Manning has been so good for so long that I think it's reasonable to expect a little catching up by the rest of the league — especially in the AFC South. Both Jacksonville and Tennessee have developed their current teams around strong running games and solid defenses, designed to keep Manning off the field and make things difficult when he is on it.
In a league full of workaholic coaches and world-class athletes, it's tough to dominate for an extended period of time. Manning may never have a statistical season like 2004 again, but if we've learned anything from watching him, it's that he'll put in the necessary work to stay ahead of the competition — even when he does lose a step or two.
Bernstein: Jacksonville will likely try to throw the ball early in the game Sunday, especially if the Colts go with a cover one defense with Bob Sanders in the box to stop the run. The Jaguars receivers seem to be getting better each week. How good is the Indianapolis secondary if they are left out on an island?
Hartz: I've been really impressed with the Colts' young corners, Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden. Both are tough, fast and physical, and it's easy to see why the Colts felt that Nick Harper and Jason David were expendable in free agency in the offseason. Jackson and Hayden are simply better in almost every single way.
That said, even more responsibility will be put on them this weekend and for the rest of the season because of Freeney's injury. When a quarterback gets a little extra time in the pocket, that's often when you see coverage break down. With David Garrard and the Jaguars' receivers hitting their stride, it certainly will be a matchup to watch Sunday.
Bernstein: Dallas Clark is in the top handful of tight ends in the NFL. Is he really that great, or does the Colts offensive system make him appear great? Or is it possibly both?
Hartz: I think it's a combination of both. The Colts obviously saw what they were looking for when they took Clark in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft. His size, hands, speed and toughness would make him a good tight end on almost any team.
It's Clark's versatility that has set him apart.With Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at receiver for the Colts, Indianapolis is always going to be able to get some favorable receiving matchups on the inside. And Clark's ability to play in the slot, at tight end, in the backfield or split wide make him a real headache for defensive coaches who are already focused on shutting down the Colts' star receivers on the outside.