Commentary

Bob Sanders returning to warp speed

The oft-injured Colts safety appears healthier, part of an improved defense

Originally Published: August 5, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Bob SandersAP Photo/Michael ConroyColts strong safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year who has started just eight games the past two seasons due to injuries, seems to be in prime shape this summer.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- The last time the Indianapolis Colts trained at Anderson College, Peyton Manning was the first pick in the 1998 draft and was holding out when camp opened.

His agent, Tom Condon, was trying to work out a contract but talks were tense. Manning sat in New Orleans waiting for a result when his ears started to ring. Marshall Faulk wanted him.

In practice, Faulk crashed into one of the quarterbacks holding Manning's spot when the quarterback's footwork countered Faulk's path to the ball. Manning heard that Faulk demanded that Colts management get him Manning. Within hours, the holdout ended and Manning caught a flight to Indianapolis and the next morning was on a van to Anderson.

Jim Mora, then the head coach of the Colts, spotted Manning upon arrival. Practice was going on and the team was working on a non-padded blitz drill. Manning wasn't prepared for anything, but Mora waved him onto the field and into the huddle. Manning and the Colts have never looked back. He's been running the Colts' offense since.

Compared to the Colts' recent training camps in Terre Haute, Ind., Anderson is a much hotter location. With fewer trees around the practice field, the heat index can creep into the triple digits. While the Colts are built for speed on defense and brains on offense, camp is Anderson is different than the old days.

The Colts trained in Anderson from 1984 to 1998, then moved away before returning this summer. Locals remember the days of former Colts coach Frank Kush, who during his early 1980s' tenure would drill players to exhaustion twice a day in the heat. Now the Colts have more walkthroughs and hold the extra hitting in reserve.

The Colts finished 3-13 in Manning's rookie season. They've been a playoff contender every year since and head into this season as defending AFC champions intent on returning to the Super Bowl.

Here are the three observations from Colts camp:

• The biggest question is how will the Colts use wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez now that he has recovered from knee problems that plagued him last season. Manning and coach Jim Caldwell consider this problem delightful.

The Colts went into last season not knowing what to expect out of Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, who were pressed into service after the release of Marvin Harrison and the season-opening knee injury to Gonzalez. What looked to be a two-deep receiving corps last year is now four-deep, including No. 1 receiver Reggie Wayne.

To run the Colts' three-receiver offense, Manning says the offense really needs four top receivers because of injuries. The Colts have four good ones.

Gonzalez, who was drafted to work out of the slot, is back running first team at the right receiver spot. Garcon is working with him. Both will play a lot. Collie, a rookie last season, was a major surprise as the slot receiver and seems to be set for that role.

Gonzalez can work all three spots while Garcon, a big receiver with deep speed and run-after-the-catch ability, fits in best on the right side. For the first time in years, the Colts can thrive even if one receiver is down. The biggest surprise is the appearance of Wayne. Though some thought he would hold out to get an upgraded contract, Wayne reported to camp in incredible shape. Wayne decided to shed 14 pounds to get some extra quickness. He's now 191 pounds and moving great.

• The Colts have made changes in wake of GM Bill Polian's criticism of the offensive line after the Super Bowl XLIV loss to the New Orleans Saints. Face it, the line didn't block well on running plays. Long-time offensive line coach Howard Mudd retired.

For the offense to work at its best, the Colts need the threat of a running game. The stretch play helps Manning's ability to complete play-action passes, and the Colts haven't been able to run the stretch play well since running back Joseph Addai 's second season in 2007. The problem isn't the halfbacks. Addai and Donald Brown form one of the better 1-2 backfield duos in the league.

The plan this season is to get a little bigger along the offensive line without sacrificing athleticism. Tony Ugoh, who failed after a couple of seasons at left tackle, has moved into the starting left guard spot. He's been good there in camp. Mike Pollak, a second-round pick in 2008, is being tried at right guard.

Manning wants more balance in the offense. For that to happen, the offensive line has to open more holes on short-yardage plays and early downs. The pass blocking is fine. Caldwell calls the running game a point of emphasis this summer. Polian notes that the lack of a running game wasn't a major problem because the Colts went to the Super Bowl last season. Nevertheless, improvement is needed.

• The Colts could field one of their best defensive teams this season. Normally in camp, the Colts have a lot of starters standing on the sideline recovering from injuries. This might be the healthiest Colts defensive heading into camp. The most pleasant sight for Colts fans is safety Bob Sanders. Though a false report circulated before camp he might be facing a career-threatening injury, Sanders has been on the field for every practice and is running around like he was a couple of years ago.

Defensive end Dwight Freeney reported to camp in great shape, doing his spin moves and driving offensive tackles crazy. An interesting player to watch is Jerry Hughes, a defensive end taken in the first round. Hughes is being groomed to be a future starter and that could happen soon if the Colts can't keep Robert Mathis, who becomes a free agent after 2011. Hughes has the low-to-ground style that works well in the Colts' pass-rushing defense.

The healthy return of Kelvin Hayden at cornerback helps. Last year, the Colts developed a future Pro Bowl corner in Jerraud Powers, a third-round pick from 2009 who might have been one of the steals of that draft. Hayden and Powers form a good starting tandem but the Colts need to work on developing more solid backups.

In case Sanders suffers another injury, the Colts have the confidence of having reached the Super Bowl with Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullett handling the safety spots last season.

The Colts know they can win games on offense, but they have developed enough good defensive play-makers through the draft to feel good about that unit as well.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer