Not even a four-game winning streak, a Sunday victory in which the defense authored perhaps its most consistent performance of the year or even a bye might keep the Indianapolis Colts from doing this week what they seem to do almost every week: shuffle the deck in a secondary unit disrupted by injuries.
On Tuesday, the Colts lost cornerback Donald Strickland, who had started the first four games before sitting out Sunday's victory over the Oakland Raiders, for the balance of the season. The versatile second-year veteran, who also had played some at safety because of the shortage of ambulatory defensive backs, has been slowed for more than a month by a shoulder injury and was placed on injured reserve.
He gutted out the first four games, but the pain has not subsided and he almost certainly will require surgery to repair the damage.
"It just got to the point," said coach Tony Dungy, "where [the shoulder] had to be addressed."
The loss of Strickland means the Indianapolis defensive staff, accustomed by now to divining various secondary combinations based on physical availability, will have to go back to the drawing board again. If there is a positive in all the different combinations the Colts have been forced to deploy this year -- and finding a plus is, granted, a bit of a stretch -- it's that the team's young defensive backs are logging considerable on-the-job training.
"Yeah, to be honest, I'm getting a lot more [playing time] than I ever thought I would," allowed rookie cornerback Jason David, an undersized fifth-round draft pick who was projected mostly as a special teams player. "It's like being thrown into the fire, but I'm loving it, really. When they call your number, you've got to be ready to produce."
With eight different starters in the secondary through five games, the Colts have called a lot of numbers. For the most part, their young players have responded well and have been able to play efficiently enough to hold things together. There have been anticipated stretches of inconsistent play, both as a unit and individually.
David is a prime example of the resiliency the unit has demonstrated to this point. An easy and inviting target, not only because he is a rookie but also because he's just 5 feet 8 and weights 160 pounds, David nonetheless has made some huge plays. At Tennessee three weeks ago, he had a huge pass defensed on a third-down play. In the shootout victory over Green Bay, he made the signature play, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble. And this past Sunday, he scored his first touchdown in the NFL on a 34-yard interception return.
"The young guys, they've stepped up when we needed them most," acknowledged left cornerback Nick Harper, the only player in the bunch to have started all five games.
The Colts have used four combinations in the starting lineup, and the quartet that was projected as the top unit in the spring hasn't played a single down together. Yet, if possible, it seems things might actually get better soon for the secondary.
Third-year cornerback Joseph Jefferson, who missed the entire 2003 season after double hernia surgery and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in August, might return to the practice field this week. A player held in high regard by the staff because of his aggressive nature and rare size, Jefferson could push for a starting spot if fully recovered.
Starting strong safety Mike Doss, who has not played since suffering a hamstring strain in the season-opening loss at New England, is expected to resume practicing. And second-round pick Bob Sanders, the Colts' highest-drafted player this spring, might finally make his debut. The former Iowa star missed all of camp in a contract dispute, then has needed time to rehabilitate a stress fracture in his foot suffered at the end of last season.
The potential comebacks of Doss and Sanders, coupled with the return of Idrees Bashir this past Sunday, could provide Indianapolis the three-safety rotation for which coaches planned in the offseason. It would be, for sure, a much-welcomed situation.
"We've played a little bit of secondary roulette here the first [five] weeks and managed to hold the fort," conceded Harper, who many felt would be pushed by Jefferson for his starting job. "It would be nice, most definitely, to have all our bullets back again."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.