Colts Still Loaded On Offense
In a typical four-game preseason, the third game is often the most crucial, because it is the game in which teams play their starters for the most time — usually all of the first half and perhaps a drive or two into the third quarter. The Indianapolis Colts will provide the Vikings with a strong challenge, because their top-line players are as good as there are in the NFL.
When the Vikings last saw Indy, both teams were trying to secure a playoff spot on the final week of the regular season. The Colts hammered the Vikes 31-10 and all of those offensive stars are back and looking for more.
At quarterback, Peyton Manning has already become a franchise quarterback and he's just 25 and in his fourth season. He has become something of an ironman in his young career and can throw every pass in the book. He's an All-Pro and a cerebral student of the game who can beat teams several different ways and, in the event he should go down, the Colts went calling on veteran Mark Rypien to serve as his backup. Out of football for five years to tend to an ailing son, Rypien is back with renewed vigor and, in the early preseason, looked extremely effective, giving the Colts a winning track record and Super Bowl ring — something the homegrown players have yet to see — on his resume.
While Manning can do damage through the air, the Colts ground game isn't too shabby either. Edgerrin James has gained more than 4,400 yards in his first two seasons — only the second player in NFL history (Eric Dickerson being the other) to achieve that feat, and he has led the NFL in rushing in both seasons. When the Colts have the lead, James can milk the clock with run after run and is an adept pass receiver as well.
There is very little in the way of backup help because, to date, it hasn't been needed. Lennox Gordon and Abdul-Karim al Jabbar have served as his primary backups, but they combined to play in just 10 games last year. Jim Finn starts at fullback, but his job is merely to block.
The Colts receivers are led by Marvin Harrison, who has proved every bit as dangerous as Randy Moss. He gets double-teamed on almost every play, yet still catches 100 passes. Teams know they're coming, but Harrison finds ways to get open. If he had a player like Cris Carter to take the pressure off of him, anything could be possible.
The Colts hope rookie Reggie Wayne will be that player. A first-round pick out of Miami, he is a speed receiver who could force safeties to lay off Harrison. He isn't being handed a starting job, however, as former high draft picks Jerome Pathon and E.G. Green and speedy Terrence Wilkins, as well as XFL refugee Drew Haddad compete for the Nos. 2 and 3 jobs this season. Tight end is also a blessing with two of the game's best. Ken Dilger is a dominating blocker as well as a receiver and the Colts thought so much of Marcus Pollard that they made him the franchise player instead of risking the chance of losing him to free agency. With so many weapons, it's no wonder Manning is All-Pro.
The offensive line was one of four teams to have all five starters — tackles Adam Meadows and Tarik Glenn, guards Steve McKinney and Larry Moore and center Jeff Saturday — start all 16 games last year. They are a cohesive unit that has kept backups like tackle Waverly Jackson and guard Ben Gilbert on the waiting list. Depth is a concern, but this group is extremely young — Glenn and Meadows are the greybeards in their fifth seasons. If this group stays together, they could be a unit for the next five to 10 years.
While all is good on offense, defense remains a sore spot with the Colts and something the Vikings will try to exploit. The left side of the defense is new, with free agent tackle Christian Peter and left end Shawn King (returning from drug suspension) joining Ellis Johnson and Chad Bratzke. The Colts hope the new combination will pay dividends, since two backups — tackle Josh Williams and end Brad Scioli — started games last year. Depth was a problem last year, but that has been addressed.
Linebacker was supposed to be much improved with the drafting of middle linebacker Rob Morris last year, but injuries prevented him from starting a single game and the team suffered. Veterans Dwight Hollier and Cornelius Bennett are both gone, so Morris will be flanked by Marcus Washington and Mike Peterson (who was a full-time starter last year). Morris will be the key to the success of this unit, which has little depth — Josh Gentry and Mark Stockbauer are the top prospects at outside linebacker and both were non-roster invitees to camp.
The secondary remains a major concern. The unit was horrible last year and has lost starting corner Tyrone Poole and starting safety Jeff Belser. At the corners Jeff Burris and Musafah Muhammad are pencilled in as the starters, but are being pressed by youngsters David Macklin, Tony Blevins, Raymond Walls and Rodregis Brooks. At safety, it's even more dicey. Chad Cota is back at strong safety, but three rookies — projected starter Indrees Bashir, Cory Bird and Jason Doering — are slated to round out the top four candidates at the safety spots. That inexperience is bound to cause problems as they learn the pro game on the fly.
If the Vikings or the Colts are going to progress far this season, their respective defenses will have to step up their play and, with the offensive weapons both teams can throw at one another, this game promises to be a barn burner as long as the starters go — and maybe even more so when they sit down. VU
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