Defense remains biggest question for Colts

The offense will be strong in Indy, but the defense remains a question mark.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Tom James | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

It's hard to question the Colts' well-stocked offense, which ranked third in the NFL last season and features league co-MVP Peyton Manning as maestro.

But there are questions on defense, a unit that tied for 20th against the run in 2003 and lost several key contributors.

Gone are DE Chad Bratzke, CB Walt Harris, CB David Macklin and SLB Marcus Washington, and Indianapolis is still sorting through its replacement options.

But already possessing one of the NFL's most potent offensive attacks, the biggest issue facing the Colts is a defense that must continue to improve.

Indianapolis has struggled slowing down power-running offenses the last two seasons, and questions persist. Can second-year WLB Cato June get the job done on the right side, where he takes over for David Thornton, who moved to the "Sam" LB spot to replace Washington? And will the secondary, which could have three new starters, become the team's Achilles' heel?

Quarterbacks: You can't get much better than having Manning at the helm of the Colts' offense. Manning shared the league's Most Valuable Player award with Steve McNair in 2003, and he could be even better this year, which is scary. Among his goals this year are to complete 70 percent of his passes and throw single-digit interceptions. Is that even possible? Sit and watch. There's not a lot of experience behind Manning. Cory Sauter is the top backup and has been average in the preseason. Former Georgia Tech QB Joe Hamilton and rookie Jim Sorgi are the options as the team's third quarterback. Grade: A.

Running backs: A healthy tandem of Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes could make the Indianapolis offense even more unstoppable. James looks more and more like the runner who won back-to-back NFL rushing titles before a knee injury in 2002. And Rhodes, who ran for 1,104 yards as a rookie but has been ridden by injuries, can give Indianapolis a complementary back who can give the Colts a change of pace. James Mungro is a good inside-the-tackles runner. Mungro and undrafted free agent rookie Ran Carthon figure to get some work in short-yardage situations. Grade: A.

Receivers: You start with Marvin Harrison, add rising star Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Aaron Moorehead and Brad Pyatt to the mix and you have one of the deepest WR corps in the NFL. Troy Walters will miss at least the first three months of the season with a broken right arm. The Colts will use their depth by implementing three- and four-WR formations regularly. Wayne rarely sees double-teams with Harrison on the other side, and Stokley, when healthy, has been impressive from the slot. The Colts are also blessed with great depth at tight end. Marcus Pollard is a proven veteran who can still make big plays downfield. Dallas Clark is healthy after breaking his leg a year ago and will give the Colts yet another reliable receiver and blocker. Clark has very good speed and nice hands. Rookie Ben Hartsock, a good blocker, has quickly grasped the Indianapolis offensive scheme and could become a major contributor early in the year. Grade: A.

Offensive linemen: It's hard to believe, but not one Colts offensive lineman has made the Pro Bowl the last three seasons. Underappreciated and undervalued, C Jeff Saturday, OLT Tarik Glenn, ORT Ryan Diem, and OGs Rick DeMulling and Tupe Peko, who is competing with Steve Sciullo for the starting ORG spot, simply get the job done. Glenn is off to an uncharacteristically slow start after reporting to training camp more than 20 pounds overweight. Saturday is heady and gets undersold by media for his role in the Colts' check-with-me offense. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: DRE Dwight Freeney continues to be the bright spot. Freeney has become one of the NFL's best pass rushers over the past two seasons, but he wants to be known just as much for his overall play. DT Josh Williams signed a contract extension in the offseason but has struggled with injuries. DT Larry Tripplett has been inconsistent at best. The same could be said for DT Montae Reagor and DLE Raheem Brock. Veteran Brad Scioli takes over Bratzke's role as an outside-inside presence and utility lineman. Robert Mathis, a situational pass rusher, also has some upside. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: MLB Rob Morris remains the starter inside, but there are changes on both sides of him. Thornton moves from the right side to the LOLB or strong-side spot. June, a former college safety at Michigan, steps in as the new starter on the other side. Thornton had a fine season in '03, leading the team in tackles, and is packed with potential. Third-round draft pick Gilbert Gardner will be slowed by a high ankle sprain but could eventually push June for playing time. Gary Brackett and Jim Nelson will be situational players. Morris takes a lot of hits for not being a Ray Lewis or Zach Thomas type of middle linebacker, but the Colts' former top draft pick has been a steady player when healthy. C-plus.

Defensive backs: FS Idrees Bashir and CB Nick Harper are the veterans in a talented but largely inexperienced group. SS Mike Doss and CB Donald Strickland are in their second seasons in the league. CB Joseph Jefferson has been hurt for most of his three years, but the coaching staff is high on him and will give him a chance to start. Rookies Jason David and Von Hutchins should help at cornerback, and David has a chance to steal time as the nickel CB. Top pick Bob Sanders had yet to report to the team at presstime and is recovering from a foot injury, so his playing time could be limited. But there are those who view Sanders as an upgrade over Bashir, who is recovering from torn rib cartilage. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: PK Mike Vanderjagt and P Hunter Smith give Indianapolis the starting point for strong special-teams play. Vanderjagt was perfect on extra points and field goals in 2004 and has hit 41 straight FG attempts in the regular season. The only knock has been the consistency of distance on his kickoffs. Seventh-round pick David Kimball was brought in to help shore up the kickoff situation, but he has struggled in the preseason. Smith has become one of the better situational punters in the NFL and is a superb holder for Vanderjagt. A sore elbow caused some problems for LS Justin Snow in 2003, but he appears to be fully recovered. Pyatt had a good rookie year returning kickoffs until a neck injury sidelined him. He has very good in-line speed and is a threat to break big returns. Grade: A.

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