There are few things more dangerous than a very good team faced with a must-win situation. That is what both the Vikings and Indianapolis Colts are posed with as they meet today at the Metrodome.
For the Colts, getting off to a fast start is commonplace. Over the previous four seasons, Indianapolis didn't lose a game in September or October. By the time somebody finally would beat the Colts, they had seven, eight or more wins already under their belts. That changed dramatically last Sunday when the Bears shocked the Colts in the first game at Lucas Oil Field. As a result, the Colts come into the Metrodome in desperate need of a win to avoid dropping to 0-2 which, in the always-tough AFC, would be putting them in a dicey situation early on despite both games being against non-conference opponents. For a team not used to losing – they've lost only 17 regular-season games over the past five seasons – facing that potential is likely going to have them coming to the Metrodome ready.
Whether they get the victory they crave will depend a lot on the performance of quarterback Peyton Manning. Already viewed as a lock for the Hall of Fame, Manning is like having a coach on the field. He is the only quarterback in the NFL that is allowed to call his own plays, something he does with regularity. He is a timing passer that is deadly on the short-drop slants to get a defense to tighten coverage and, once they pull the defense in, he is extremely accurate throwing the deep ball. He is acknowledged as the best pure field general in the league and, when he's on, he is almost unstoppable. Vikings fans know how deadly he can be. In two career games against the Vikings, he has thrown eight touchdown passes. His biggest concern has been a knee injury in which he had surgery to remove a bursa sac in training camp. He didn't play during the preseason and didn't look sharp in the season opener. Both he and head coach Tony Dungy maintain that he is fine, but in the opener, he was unable to operate the standard stretch play on running downs because his bad knee wouldn't allow him to run to the spot to make the exchange to his running backs. If he is limited in his movement, it will take away one of the weapons in his arsenal, but, even if he was playing on one leg, Manning would still be dangerous and a player for the Vikings defense to be concerned with.
Manning may get the headlines, but the Indy running game has been consistent and productive over the years. For several years, Edgerrin James was the primary running back. While robbed of much of his explosiveness from a knee injury, James still managed to gain 1,000 yards on the ground with regularity. When it came time to either give him a huge contract or allow him to explore free agency, the Colts chose the latter and used a first-round pick to select Joseph Addai in the first round. A solid runner and pass catcher, Addai is a dangerous back capable of taking any carry to the house. Last year, he was sidelined with injuries for three games and the Colts didn't have the proper depth to make up for his absence. That has changed with the re-signing of Dominic Rhodes. Rhodes, who was the starter during the Colts championship season of 2006, left via free agency to the Raiders last year, but, when the Raiders used their first-round draft pick on Darren McFadden in April, Rhodes became expendable. While not as explosive as Addai, Rhodes is a valuable backup much in the same way Chester Taylor is for the Vikings. He has proved capable of being a 20-carry-a-game runner and he proved that by replacing Addai Sunday when he got banged up against the Bears. Rookie Mike Hart and recently signed former Seahawk Justin Forsett round out the backfield, but Forsett's value will be as the kickoff and punt returner – positions he has already been slated atop the depth chart at. Look for the majority of the Colts rushing attempts to go to Addai with Rhodes picking up the slack where needed.
When it comes to receivers, few teams boast a trio at the top like the Colts. For more than a decade, Marvin Harrison has been the go-to guy for Manning, but he missed much of last season. That opened the door for Reggie Wayne to take his rightful place as the new big-play receiver. His 10 receptions in Week 1 may be portent of things to come. While neither Wayne nor Harrison are big or physical, both run excellent routes, sell double-moves and find ways to get behind the defense. As adept as Manning is at reading defenses, so too are Wayne and Harrison. They find soft spots in zone coverage and know when to take a cornerback deep. Second-year man Anthony Gonzalez was a first-round pick last year and proved extremely valuable when Harrison went down early in the season. He fits in the offense because he was one of the best route runners in the wide receiver class of 2007 and has quickly built a rapport with Manning. Rounding out the receivers are second-year man Roy Hall, a teammate of Gonzalez at Ohio State, and rookie Pierre Garcon. But Hall missed all of practice this week with a knee injury, so Garcon will likely be the only wide receiver available beyond the Big Three.
Tight end is a strange position for the Colts, since all but Dallas Clark double as fullback/H-back/tight end hybrids. Clark's strength is getting a strong release off the snap and stretching a defense with the deep pass. He can create mismatches with linebackers and is a constant threat to make a catch for significant yardage. He was injured last week against the Bears, so his playing status is up in the air – officially he's been called a "game-time decision" – which could come back to haunt the Colts. None of the three backup tight ends has any playing experience. Gijon Robinson spent last year on the practice squad and Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi are both rookies. Tamme has already been ruled out with an ankle injury. If Clark can't go, the contribution from the tight ends in the passing game may be severely curtailed.
The big question on the offensive line will be the availability of center Jeff Saturday. Injured during the preseason, Saturday missed the season opener. His replacement, rookie Steve Justice, was abused by the Bears, so it will be imperative for the Colts to get him back. The Colts found replacements on the left side of the offensive line in third-year guard Charlie Johnson and second-year tackle Tony Ugoh and are hoping for the same at right guard in third-year man Daniel Federkell. Aside from Saturday, the only tried-and-true veteran on the O-line is right tackle Ryan Diem, and he has battled injuries of own over the last couple of seasons. The Colts have been the envy of the league for their ability to find and groom talent, but, if Saturday can't go, their inexperience on the offensive line may be too much for the veteran talent of the Vikings. This is a battle that in which the Vikings should have the upper hand.
It's no secret that the Colts have made their name on offense, but the defense is underrated. Built in the mold that Dungy created, this is an undersized group, especially up front, but one that can take over games. The Colts boast a pair of very good defensive ends in Dwight Freeney and Raheem Brock. Freeney missed much of last season with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot. He is back at near full strength and could be his dominating self once again. The Colts got excellent production from sixth-year man Robert Mathis last year and he will share time at both end spots if needed. In the middle, the Colts proved to be a team of their word about player conduct. When starting defensive tackle Ed Johnson was arrested and charged with marijuana possession, the Colts didn't wait for the league to hand out punishment. They acted on their own and released him. Brock, who was playing tackle, may move back into that spot because the Colts have very little depth or experience at the position with second-year man Keyunta Dawson and rookie Eric Foster at the tackle spots. With backup Daniel Muir out with a knee injury, the thin depth at tackle gets even worse. Unless the Colts bring in a veteran, this could be a problem spot that will be exposed by opponents, much like the Bears did last week when rookie Matt Forte went off for more than 100 yards rushing in his NFL debut. While Brock wasn't immediately expected to be moved back to tackle, don't be surprised to see him there Sunday – more out of necessity than choice.
The linebacker corps of the Colts also took a hit when starting outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler was put in the physically-unable-to-perform list. Gary Brackett is the man to watch here. Although he looks stumpy and overweight, he finds his way through the garbage consistently and finds the ball carrier. He may not look the part of the prototype linebacker, but his tackle numbers speak for themselves. On the right side, Freddy Keiaho had to replace Cato June last year and far exceeded expectations. He showed a lot of big-play ability and is an excellent wrap-up tackler who does just about everything well. Like most of the Colts defenders, he isn't a de-cleater, but he does his job well. Filling in for Hagler is second-year man Clint Session. An extremely active, aggressive player, he got only one start as a rookie, but his coaches rave that he is a star in the making. With Hagler down for the first half of the season, Session may take his job and never give it up. Depth is extremely thin here, with second-year waiver pickup Buster Davis and rookies Phillip Wheeler and Jordan Senn providing backup help at the three LB positions. If any of the starters get hurt, the Colts defense could be in even more trouble.
Many believe the secondary is the primary strength of the Colts defense and it is led by Pro Bowler Bob Sanders. A monster hitter who patrols the middle of the field and is fearless in run support, Sanders has earned the reputation as one of the true tough guys in the NFL. He isn't afraid to lay people out and, as Defensive Player of the Year, his ability to play like a linebacker from the safety position makes him a guy to keep a close eye on during the game. You can bet he's going to want to lay a big hit on Adrian Peterson. Fellow safety Antoine Bethea is no weak link – like Sanders, he went to the Pro Bowl last year as well. He is excellent in covering the deep pass and makes tackles everywhere on the field. At cornerback, the Colts love Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden – both of whom are in their fourth season in the league. Both standing six feet tall and, weighing about 195, they can play physical press coverage and force receivers off their routes. They will be another strong test for the Vikings receivers, who got manhandled by Charles Woodson and Al Harris last week. When the Vikings go with three or four receivers, fifth-year man Keiwan Ratliff and third-year pro Tim Jennings will get the call. Ratliff was a former starter, but missed all but one game last year due to injury and Jennings made four starts last year, so the depth here is very solid.
The Colts are one of the few teams that have been able to keep all their superstar players that they wanted when it came time for them to hit the free-agent market, re-signing Manning, Wayne, Harrison, Freeney and Sanders to long-term contracts. However, that has come with a price. Of the eight rookies taken in the draft, seven of them made the 53-man roster, including four sixth-round picks. The depth of the Colts has been tested and, despite having a great five-year track record of winning 12 games or more each year, this doesn't have the look of a dominant team. If one or two key players should get injured, the Colts could come back to the pack this season. Manning is still one of the best quarterbacks out there and it is expected that he will be able to put up points, but with the many questions on defense and depth being so thin, the Vikings have a good chance of pulling off what many might view as an upset on their home field.
Preview: Colts talented, but thin
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