Outlook: Once again the Indianapolis Colts are one of the top offensive teams in the league. In 2004 they ranked second in the NFL in yards per game with 405 yards per game (116 rushing and 289 passing) and had a 4,500 yard passer, three…yes three 1,000 yard receivers and a 1,500 yard rusher.
The problems lie on the defensive side of the ball. The defense was ranked 29th in the league last season and the team continues to have problems with their arch-nemesis the New England Patriots. The Colts started the season with a loss in Foxboro, Mass. to the Patriots and that loss prevented them from obtaining home field advantage during the playoffs.
This season they face the Patriots on the road yet again on November 7th and the Colts are hoping they can get that giant monkey off their back.
Quarterback: QB Peyton Manning is simply the best quarterback in the NFL, bar none. He is one of the most cerebral quarterbacks to ever take a snap in the history of the league and his precise passing sets him above all the rest. His one drawback is his lack of good mobility, but he has quick feet and excellent pocket presence which more than make up for that.
In 2004, Manning was almost perfect setting league records with a 121.1 passer rating and 49 touchdown passes in the season. His 4,557 yards and ten interceptions were also career bests. The scary thing is, even with his record setting touchdown numbers, he had 15 other possible TD passes that were either overthrown or dropped.
Manning has won the last two league MVP titles (sharing the title in 2003 with Tennessee's Steve McNair) and even though he is practically flawless, he is driven to be the perfect passer. One area of concentration for Manning in 2005 will be the seven interceptions he threw in the red zone. He can't break his own record this season if that trend continues.
Manning has started every game of his NFL career (112 straight), but should he go down for any length of time the Colts could be in trouble. Second-year QB Jim Sorgi looked good in his only extended work as a rookie, but he won't keep defensive coordinators awake at night.
The third QB is five-year veteran Travis Brown who has only attempted 52 passes in five seasons.
Running Backs: The Colts are blessed with two running backs that can be successful in their system and both Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes could have huge season because of their contract statuses.
James signed his tender offer of $8.1 million because he was tagged by the team as their franchise player. Because the contract is for just this season, he could be looking at unrestricted free agency and one last big contract.
In 2004 James rushed for 1,548 yards (a 4.6 yard average) and nine touchdowns. What makes him even more of a threat are his abilities in the passing-game. He also caught 51 passes for 483 yards and was a valuable outlet for Manning.
James runs hard between the tackles and even after some knee troubles he still has a nice burst to the outside. He is a tireless runner and also an excellent blocker when asked to pass protect. In 2004 James also joined Hall-of-Famers Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson, along with Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes as the only players in NFL history with at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage in at least three seasons. Nice company.
Rhodes can't match James' completeness as a runner, but he is tough and very decisive and he has a burst to get to the second level. His problem has been staying healthy as he has suffered a knee injury and has past shoulder problems.
In February, the Colts signed Rhodes to a two-year contract extension, seemingly hedging their bets that James may ask too much for them to retain his services. Rhodes would be the likely successor to James if that scenario comes to fruition.
The Colts don't employ a true fullback into their system and rely on fourth-year pro James Mungro to fill the void. He is a decent runner and a willing blocker, but he isn't very big (214 pounds).
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: Fans should take a close look at the wideouts on the Colts roster, because they may never see an array of talent like this again on the same roster for some time.
Marvin Harrison gets most of the press and rightly so, but Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokely have each ramped up their games enough to warrant Pro Bowl consideration.
Harrison has started all but five games during his outstanding nine-year career. His catches and yards have decreased the last two seasons after setting an NFL-record of 143 catches in a season in 2002. That is more a testament to Wayne and Stokely's emergence as options for Manning than it is a statement about Harrison's declining abilities.
On the contrary, Harrison still has plenty of speed, is quick out of his breaks and possesses excellent hands. His only knock is his 6-foot, 175 pound frame. He has some problems with press coverage, but those problems aren't really factors for him. He led the team with 86 receptions and had 1,113 yards and a team-high 15 touchdowns.
Wayne had career highs with 77 receptions, a team-leading 1,210 yards and 12 touchdowns. Wayne has improved his route-running and technique and he has very soft hands. He also has the ability to make things happen after the catch with his open field running.
While Wayne and Harrison terrify defensive coordinators on the outside, Stokely kills them from the slot. Stokely is fearless and his talents complement the Wayne and Harrison perfectly. He finished third on the team with 68 receptions for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The fourth and fifth receivers are also nice options when called upon. Walters is a mighty-mite who is excellent in the slot. He is ultra-quick and he has very soft hands. Moorehead has the size (6'3) that the others lack and he works very well in the red zone.
At tight end, the release of Marcus Pollard will be offset by the presence of Dallas Clark. Clark has excellent skills after the catch – he averaged 16.9 yards per catch last season – but he isn't a great blocker and he needs to be a little more consistent. If he improves in those two areas Manning will have a fourth outstanding target to go to.
Ben Hartsock was used primarily as a blocker last season, but he has good hands. Unproven Ben Utecht and Bryan Fletcher both showed well at the offseason mini-camps. Their emergence as players could help the Colts when they go to two tight end sets.
Offensive Line: This group finally got some recognition last season and it was well deserved. In seven seasons, Manning has only been sacked 139 times in 112 games. LT Tarik Glenn received a long-overdue Pro Bowl berth and his nomination brought attention to an unheralded unit.
Glenn along with RT Ryan Diem form one of the best tackle tandems in the league. Both are excellent pass blockers and above average in the running game. Indy's patented running play, the stretch play, wouldn't be as successful without these two bookends. They, along with the tight ends seal the corner allowing the running back to get outside easily.
C Jeff Saturday is one of the league's best pivot men. He is smart and makes all of the line calls.
With the free agent loss of Rick DeMulling and the offseason release of Tupe Peko the Colts will be looking for new faces in camp to take their place. Jake Scott is most assuredly going to be one of those players as his emergence made Peko expendable. The other guard spot will be a camp competition between Ryan Lilja and rookies Dylan Gandy and Rob Hunt. At the very least, the two youngsters will provide nice depth.
Joaquin Gonzalez, acquired in free agency, and Makoa Freitas add experienced depth at the tackle spots.
Defensive Line: Last season this unit struggled to stop the run, but were excellent at getting pressure on the passer. Their biggest problem? Their lack of size. Their heaviest player is DT Larry Triplett at 295 pounds and it remains to be seen if they can be more stout against the run.
The unquestioned star of this group is fourth-year DE Dwight Freeney. Freeney's 16 sacks led the league and he continues to add pass rushing moves to his repertoire. He has a quick first step, excellent speed off the corner and a relentless desire the get to the passer. Offenses like to use a back to chip at him or double team him on pass plays, but now he has a decent supporting cast that can take advantage of the mismatches.
Raheem Brock is the starter opposite Freeney and he is solid against the run and the pass. He registered 6.5 sacks along with 47 tackles. On passing downs he moves inside to make good use of his size. Robert Mathis is the designated pass-rusher, seeing limited snaps but still registering 10.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Tackles Montae Reagor, Johnathan Welsch and Jason Stewart along with Triplett rotate throughout the game to keep themselves fresh and the hope is it will allow them to hold up better against the run.
Linebackers: This unit needs to pick up its game and quickly. Starting strongside LB David Thornton is entering his third as a regular player and starting weakside LB Cato June is in his second season as a starter.
June is an excellent tackler finishing first on the team with 128 tackles, and had one QB pressure, two interceptions, five passes defensed. He is strong at the point of attack, but he lacks explosiveness and does not rush the passer well.
Thornton fell off in his tackling, from 158 in 2003 to 98 last year, but he still is an excellent strongside backer. He plays the run very well and is solid in coverage. Like June, he struggles rushing the passer and can get lost in traffic at times.
Starting MLB Rob Morris was allowed to test the market in free agency but was re-signed shortly thereafter. He will be challenged in camp by unproven Gary Brackett. Morris is a tackling maching posting over 100 tackles in three of his five seasons, but he only had 94 last season. Morris' problem is he is a liability in coverage and with so many teams going to three receiver sets he sees limited snaps.
Bracket has played in 31 regular season games, but he might be better suited for spot duty rather than as a starter. He finished 2004 with 21 tackles and two interceptions.
The team has largely untested depth, but that will likely change this year. Kendyll Pope and Gilbert Gardner were expected to contribute as rookies, but injuries limited Gardner to 11 games and Pope to two. Another promising player, Keyon Whiteside, who is athletic and fast, missed nine games with a knee injury.
Rookie Tyjuan Hagler is a solid tackler and he can run. He's the type of player who can really excel in Dungy's defensive system.
At the very least, all the younger linebackers will contribute extensively on special teams.
Defensive Backs: This unit could look vastly different when the team takes the field to start the season. First-round selection Marlin Jackson is expected to start on one side but the other side is up for grabs.
Jackson is physical and has great instincts, but he lacks top speed. However, he is tailor-made for Dungy's cover-two system.
The other corner spot, along with the nickel and dime corners will be determined in camp. Jason David impressed coaches as a rookie last season with his skills, but he was abused later in the season. David finished with 51 tackles, four interceptions, one for a touchdown and 15 passes defensed. Donald Strickland is the most versatile of the group, able to cover the slot or outside receivers.
The other corner spots are going to be a competition between second-rounder Kelvin Hayden and veterans Nick Harper and Donald Strickland.
The starting safeties are set with Mike Doss at strong safety and Bob Sanders at free safety. Behind them there are questions.
Doss is excellent in run support, but he lacks the speed and quickness to be effective in pass-coverage. He has a nose for the ball and loves to deliver big hits. Doss finished with 48 tackles, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. Sanders is small by normal free safety standards, but he likes to deliver blows to wideouts coming across the middle. He isn't great in coverage and it remains to be seen if he can be the ballhawk needed in the deep third.
Matt Giordano, a fourth-rounder from Cal, is the best option at the backup spots, but he isn't known for his coverage abilities. He has a lot of the same skills that Doss and Sanders bring to the table.
Special Teams: The Colts have the luxury of one of the best kicker-punter duos in the entire league as both K Mike Vanderjagt and P Hunter Smith return.
Vanderjagt is one of the most accurate kickers in the league and he has a very strong leg. He has hit on 57 of 62 attempts (91.9%) over the past two seasons and has missed on only three of 21 attempts beyond 40 yards over that same time. His only struggle has been his kickoffs, but the team drafted Dave Rayner in the sixth round of the draft to address that issue.
Even though Smith has a strong leg, he rarely has to use it because the offense is so good. He usually has to work with a short field and he has proven to be adept at dropping kicks inside the 20, putting 41 in that range with only six touchbacks last season.
Rhodes handles the kickoff returns and Walters the punts. Both are above-average returners and they constantly get positive yardage for the offense – not that it needs it.
The coverage units are a different story. The Colts ranked last in the league with 13.6 yards allow per punt, but the hope is with the added youth and speed the coverage units will be much improved.
Final Projection: The Colts have two big questions to answer this season. Can they improve on defense and can they get the Patriots-jinx off their backs?
If they can answer both of those questions in the affirmative they have a chance to be in Detroit in early April. If not, they could have problems in the postseason yet again.
With Manning leading the offense and a solid front four on defense the Colts will be in every game and no lead will be safe against them. The window should stay open for several seasons with this core of players, but they need to take advantage of it.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opponent Preview: The Indianapolis Colts
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