Behind Enemy Lines: Colts

Ed Thompson, Scout.com NFL writer and a Colts team expert, answers some questions about JagNation's arch rival.

1. There seems to be somewhat of a trend recently with some of the more successful teams in the league (New England, Pittsburgh) of letting their free agents walk rather than overpaying. The Colts seem to have adopted this approach in the off-season. Do you think that they will be any worse in the short term with the losses of Cato June, Gilbert Gardner, Nick Harper, and Jason David?

Actually, the Colts have held to that standard for most of President Bill Polian's tenure. If you're not in the superstar range of a Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison or Dwight Freeney, you better be ready to accept a reasonable deal or they'll replace you with the guy they've been training for that eventuality for the past year or two. Indy has really done a remarkable job of practically developing their own farm system so they don't have to overpay players who provide solid or strong results.

The team made the moves two years ago for the eventual departure of Nick Harper and Jason David when they drafted Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden with their first- and second-round picks, respectively. Both have matured and are actually better hitters than the veterans. And they can make plays. Jackson made the game-sealing interception against New England in the AFC Championship game while Hayden pulled in the interception for a touchdown that broke the Bears' back in the Super Bowl. They're both ready.

Gilbert Gardner is a heck of a good guy, but he was already out of the picture in Indy before they entered the playoffs. The starting strongside linebacker was benched in favor of former middle linebacker Rob Morris, who actually played better there than he ever had in the middle. Morris is back as the incumbent, so the Colts really didn't lose a starter there.

Cato June was the biggest loss out of the group, but not so much for his playing ability as his emotional leadership on the field. But in terms of playing ability, the Colts groomed 2006 third-round pick Freddy Keiaho with some playing time last year and he's a real hitter who should thrive at weakside since he'll be free to roam and use his speed.

Honestly, I don't expect the Colts to miss a beat, and in fact, they should be a bit more physical and a bit faster out there with their new starters at cornerback.


2. The Colts obviously struggled quite a bit last year in the regular season with stopping the run. Getting Bob Sanders back from injury certainly helped, and they did get the problem corrected in the post-season by playing an extra man in the box against Kansas City and Baltimore. Have they corrected the run defense enough to play teams straight up (seven in the box) this season?

Sanders holds the key to that question. He missed all but four regular season games last season and in those games the Colts were 3-1. Tony Dungy's defense is set up to funnel the runners inside to Sanders -- or whoever has to replace him if he's on the sidelines. Dungy set it up the same way in Tampa Bay when he'd have his defense force the runners to another outstanding hitter, John Lynch.

Sanders simply levels ball carriers, so when he's in that defense looks formidable. When he's out, it's a crapshoot, although they've got an exciting pair of young safeties -- second-year player Antoine Bethea who teams up with Sanders back there as the other starter, and third-year player Matt Giordano. Bethea was the safety Jaguars fans saw dragging down Maurice Jones-Drew repeatedly in the two teams' first matchup. He's not the kind of tackler that will knock the runner into next week, but he's a scrappy battler who wraps up extremely well. Giordano is more the smack 'em style of safety who really matured a lot during his second year.

If Sanders stays healthy, along with a smooth integration of Keiaho at weakside, the Colts will show an improved run defense.


3. I thought the Colts had an outstanding draft, many experts see it otherwise. Which of the Colts draft picks do you think will make the most immediate impact, and which will end up being the best player?

Great question. I think without a doubt their top pick, wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez will have the most immediate impact. In fact, he has to.

With the Colts releasing sure-handed but oft-injured Brandon Stokley, they don't have a viable slot receiver unless they want to keep moving tight end Dallas Clark out there. Gonzalez is mature beyond his years and shouldn't have any problems jumping right in to that spot.

The best player will likely be Gonzalez as well, but the Colts appear to be hopeful that second-round pick Tony Ugoh out of Arkansas can be the heir to Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn's spot, and he's got the size and raw talent to pull it off. That said, they found themselves a real gem in Charlie Johnson, a sixth-rounder from the 2006 draft out of Oklahoma State who saw action with the starters during a few games during his rookie year.

Peyton Manning recently paid him a huge compliment saying that he had played so well during the Super Bowl that it was a while before he realized that the rookie was in for veteran Ryan Diem. Johnson could certainly get a look when Glenn, who's in the final year of his contract, moves on or retires.


4. Marvin Harrison hasn't really shown any signs of slowing down at the ripe old age of 34. It helps to have a quarterback that knows your every move, and can place the ball where it needs to be every time. That being said, Harrison will be 35 before the season starts, will father time begin to catch up with him?

I don't think it will be this year. But Reggie Wayne sure is closing the gap to the point where it's got to be tough for defenses to determine which guy is truly the number one receiver in Indy. Harrison is fanatical about his conditioning and his precision, so that part of his game won't change. And honestly, his quickness makes him more dangerous than his overall speed.

It's his ability to get those lean limbs of his moving and juking in ways that just leave defenders befuddled that gives him the separation he needs.

If he was relying mainly on speed to break away, I'd say he's got to start that decline. But I'll be surprised if it's this year.


5. The Colts have owned the division ever since its inception, but the Jaguars always play the Colts tough, and anyone who watched the second game between the two last season, would think that the Jaguars would have been the ones headed for a Super Bowl title. Do you think the Colts see the Jaguars as legitimate contenders for the AFC South title?

Absolutely. I don't think there's a team right now outside of the Patriots that the Colts have more respect for deep inside. Jacksonville always plays them tough and makes them work for every yard. And not too many teams can honestly lay claim to that statement the way the Jaguars can.

I don't know how many of Jacksonville's fans know this, but Maurice Jones-Drew was just two picks away from joining Joseph Addai in Indianapolis last year. Wouldn't that have been a heck of a one-two punch for Jacksonville to deal with for years to come? I learned of that fact at the end of the first day of the draft from one of my sources and reported it, and Polian confirmed that in a quote a few days after the magnificent rookie ran roughshod over Indy's defense. So the Colts certainly have respect for what Jones-Drew brings to the Jaguars offense.

Jacksonville is simply a quarterback and a couple of receivers away from having their best chance at knocking Indy off the throne. They've got the defense, offensive line and running attack in place. But if they're going to keep up with Manning & Company over the course of an entire season, they've got to do something about their passing game. I was shocked that they ignored their quarterback situation this offseason. What's that old saying about those who fail to learn from their mistakes?


Ed Thompson is a former sportswriter for The Gettysburg Times, he's also been published on numerous sports websites, in preseason NFL magazines, and has been interviewed during sports talk radio shows at ESPN, WIBC (Indianapolis), and Fox Sports Radio. Ed's interviews with NFL and college players have been published widely across the Scout.com network of pro and college sites and have been syndicated at FoxSports.com's NFL team pages. Ed's a member of the Professional Football Writers of America and the Sports Publishers Association.

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