New position no problem for Morris

Rob Morris had never played strongside linebacker. But his insertion into the starting lineup at the strongside spot was key to the Colts' defensive turnaround, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: February 2, 2007, 3:45 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He doesn't recall the exact date, but Rob Morris can remember the day, a Wednesday, when assistant coach Mike Murphy told him he was the Indianapolis Colts' new starting strongside linebacker for the upcoming Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I can remember because I recall thinking, 'Wow, I've got five days to learn a position I've never played before in my life.' It was exciting because it meant I was going to start. But to say I wasn't a little bit apprehensive about it, well, that would be a lie," Morris admitted early this week as he and the Colts continued preparations for Super Bowl XLI, a game that will mark just his seventh start at strongside linebacker.

Rob Morris
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRob Morris was a first-round pick in 2000.
It has been, Morris conceded, an accelerated learning curve for him. But his solid play has helped the Indianapolis defense turn the corner in the playoffs after an ugly regular season in which the unit ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing yards surrendered.

Fact is, with all the attention paid to the return of free safety Bob Sanders to the lineup after a season in which knee surgery limited him to four starts, the contribution Morris has made in remedying the Colts' shoddy run defense has been largely overlooked.

Except by his teammates and coaches.

"Stability, that's what he's brought," weakside linebacker Cato June said. "Stability and just being in the right place, making the basic plays that have to be made."

Morris, 32, was the Colts' first-round selection in the 2000 draft, and the former Brigham Young star became the starting middle linebacker in his second season. Over the next four seasons, Morris started all but four games and averaged 114.3 tackles. But in 2005, he lost his job to Gary Brackett in spring minicamp. Morris made the transition to being a backup and special-teams standout and was forced to sign one-year, minimum salary contracts.

Then came the fateful meeting with Murphy -- the date was actually Dec. 13 -- and Morris was suddenly a starter again. Albeit on a unit that was floundering, and whose Super Bowl aspirations appeared dismal because of its inability to stop the run.

"There was some pressure, sure, because we weren't playing well, and here I was trying to learn a new position like I was cramming for some final exam in college," Morris said. "But I just figured, and I know this is kind of cliché, 'Hey, it's still just football. Find the guy with the ball and tackle him.' Playing the strongside, you get a different angle, there's a different perspective. But I got a lot of help from [Brackett] and just made the best of it."

Making the best of it has been plenty good enough for a Colts defense that has experienced one of the game's great reversals of fortune in the playoffs.

In his three regular-season starts, Morris registered 25 tackles, including a 10-tackle game at Houston in his second starting assignment at strongside linebacker. Morris has 17 tackles, trailing only Brackett and June, in the Colts' three playoff victories.

The void created by the poor play of Gilbert Gardner, whose deficiencies were blatant over the first 13 games of the season, has been sufficiently filled.

"I don't want to say we turned to [Morris] out of desperation," said defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, "but we had to do something and we didn't have a lot of options. The other guy was giving us nothing and we couldn't keep getting that kind of performance if we were going to play the way we needed to play. Rob is a veteran. He's a pro. He's started a lot of games in this league and made a lot of tackles. Everything we do is predicated on getting people to the football, and Rob gets to the ball."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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