Chinks in the Armor: Part II

In Part One, we identified some key areas where the Colts are vulnerable right now and could be vulnerable during the 2008 season. Part Two focuses on how other teams will attack these weaknesses and what Indianapolis can do to cover them up.

Tight End Depth:

After Dallas Clark, the Colts have a couple of practice squad players in Gijon Robinson and Zac Herold and two 2008 draft choices in fourth-round selection Jacob Tamme and sixth-round pick Tom Santi.

Tamme compares favorably to Clark and Santi to Ben Utecht, but neither has proven anything at the NFL level as yet. 

While few would admit to actually trying to injure a player on the other team, Clark will no doubt have a target on his back until he is eliminated or one of the young backups establishes himself in the second tight end role.

Indianapolis is one injury away from being perilously young at a critical position and their opponents know it.  There is very little the Colts can do to insulate Clark from injury and he's far too important to the offense to make wholesale changes — and it would be extraordinarily difficult for them to get Clark to change his game and "play it safe."

The team's only real course of action at this point is to cross their fingers and hope nothing happens to their franchise tight end.

In order to keep Clark fresh and cut down on the number of chances that opposing teams have to tee off on him, though, Indianapolis can certainly switch up their personnel groupings and put Santi in on more running plays as well as keeping him into block when pressure comes from the edges on passing plays.  Tamme can provide some fresh legs and the ability to stretch the seam as well.


The Colts' new right guard will need to help keep Peyton Manning upright
(AP Photo/John Russell)

The Right Guard position:

Although defensive coordinators have learned the hard way that the least effective way to attack Peyton Manning is to blitz him, they've also learned that the best way to make him uncomfortable is to pressure him up the middle.

Jim Caldwell put in a great deal of work with Manning prior to the 2006 season to work on the quarterback's lateral movement.

It has improved, but not by enough to allow Manning to escape defenders — and frustration — if pressure is consistent up the middle.

With an inexperienced guard in the heart of the offensive line, the possibility exists that an assignment will be missed on a stunt or a blitz and a man will come free.

If it happens frequently enough, the protection will need to be changed and the running back will need to be kept in to block.  With the running back focused on inside pressure, the tight end may need to stay in the formation until it can be determined if their is a blitzer coming from the outside.

The result could be seven Colts blocking four pass rushers and three guys in the pattern being covered by seven defenders.  That's a worst case scenario, but a scenario that could very well play itself out if the front office and staff fail to identify another diamond in the rough — a player that can perform at a high level from day one.

The Linebackers:

If no one gets hurt, Indianapolis should be OK.  That is a very big if, though, and things certainly didn't pan out that way last season.

This unit was a pleasant surprise last season, as the Colts discovered depth they didn't know they had and a number of backups stepped into the lineup and played at a very high level.

Those backups return this season, having gained valuable experience in 2007. But will they be better, worse, or the same in 2008?

Additionally, if the pass rush does not contribute as needed this season (see below) the Colts may be left with an average defensive line, average linebackers, and an excellent secondary.

That means that teams will focus on blocking the line, staying away from the secondary as much as possible, and attacking the linebackers and their lack of ideal range.

The Cover 2 has obvious and well-known holes and weaknesses that any offense can exploit if they are able to keep their quarterback upright and get the ball over the linebackers, but in front of the secondary.

Aside from getting to the quarterback before he has time to pull the trigger, the other option for Ron Meeks' unit is to vary coverages and mix things up just enough to keep offenses off-balance and force them into mistakes.

Blitzing is also a possibility, as rookie Philip Wheeler has a lot of upside as a pass rusher, but only if teams are able slow down Dwight Freeney and company. Which leads us to ...

The Pass Rush:

The Colts struggled to pressure the quarterback after Freeney was placed on injured reserve last season and, if he or Mathis misses considerable time, or Freeney is not 100 percent recovered from the Lisfranc injury that he sustained when the season starts, Indianapolis will need to start thinking outside the box in order to collapse the pocket.

Wheeler is a possibility, as is Bob Sanders, who crashed the pocket and collected three sacks in the first meeting against the Tennessee Titans last season.


Raheem Brock's versatility can be an asset for the Colts' defensive line
Getty Images/Elsa

Marcus Howard will likely be brought in a Mathis-type capacity as a pass rushing specialist.  Raheem Brock has some ability to get to the quarterback, as evidenced by the fact that he can play end in a pinch, but Ed Johnson is more of a run stuffer and Keyunta Dawson and Quinn Pitcock, while talented, are not known quantities yet.

Undrafted free agent Curtis Johnson may make the roster based simply on his ability to author big plays all over the field.

In previous iterations of this Dungy and Meeks-led defense, teams were forced into the "keep seven in to block four" situation that was detailed above as a worst case for the Colts offense.

The pass rush has not lost its potential potency, but it faces more question marks coming into this season than it has in a long time — probably since Freeney's rookie season in 2002, which was also before Mathis burst onto the scene.

Blitzes and different pressure schemes — even blitzing on the front end and changing coverages on the back end — are all things that this defense has done before; more frequently than ever without Freeney in 2007.

They can certainly go back to those tactics and employ as many of them as are necessary, but they would definitely prefer to have the opposing team keep a tight end and a running back in the formation to block their front four.

It all starts with the four down linemen in this defense, but the responsibility for making it all work falls on the shoulders of Mathis and Freeney.  How healthy (and capable) Freeney is and how well Mathis compliments Freeney, as well as carving out his own place as an accomplished pass rusher, will decide whether or not the coaches need to get creative on the back end.

That ultimately will decide the effectiveness of the defense as a whole in 2008.


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