Indianapolis Colts 2008 Preview Report

Manning

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 1st

2007 Record: 13-3 (1st AFC South)

Head Coach: Tony Dungy (7th year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Peyton Manning Thirty-two and approaching his 11th season as a pro. So far, he’s done alright.

RB: Joseph Addai Excellent fit in Tom Moore’s system. Might be one of the five best running backs in football.

WR: Reggie Wayne Coming off career-high 1,510-yard season. Has supplanted Harrison as Indy’s No. 1 receiver.

WR: Marvin Harrison Finally showing signs of mortality after a knee injury wiped out 11 games for him last year. Can you believe he’s almost 36?

WR: Anthony Gonzalez Looks like he’ll be a key figure in this offense for the next 10 years.

TE: Dallas Clark Became the highest paid TE in football over the offseason.

LT: Tony Ugoh Survived the fires of his rookie season. Skills are there and he’s proven capable of developing. Be patient–he’ll be a good one.

LG: Ryan Lilja Was chosen over Jake Scott to return in 2008. Excellent run-blocker, particularly at the second level.

C: Jeff Saturday Thirty-three and in the final year of his contract. Oh, and playing ahead of two rookie centers. Not slowing down, so could still return next season.

RG: Charlie Johnson Surprisingly was anointed the starter during minicamp. A better utility backup, but capable of surviving with good vets around him.

RT: Ryan Diem Huge frame and quick power makes him one of the elite RT’s in football. Highly underrated.

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QB: Jim Sorgi Nice guy but absolutely no one in the Hoosier State ever wants to see him have to take the field for the Colts.

RB: Dominic Rhodes A football speculator: Won a ring in Indy, went to Oakland for a year and made a quick $3.5 million, then humbly returned to Indy.

H-back: Jacob Tamme* Will line up in the backfield but is strictly a receiving option. He actually played WR at one point. He also long-snaps.

WR: Devin Aromashodu A picture of Indy’s health situation at wideout: if he’s on the field, then someone’s hurt. If he’s on the sideline, then everyone’s fine.

TE: Gijon Robinson* Will have a chance to contribute right away as an extra blocker on the line or out of the backfield.

OL: Mike Pollak* A center in college, will begin his career at G. Only a matter of time before he starts.

Defense

LDE: Robert Mathis So small, he almost looks like someone’s humorous Create-A-Player on the Madden video game. But he can sure play.

DT: Raheem Brock Serviceable player who is deserving of his reps in a rotation. Will occasionally draw a double team.

DT: Ed Johnson Undrafted a year ago because of character concerns, but has been well-behaved and, honestly, absolutely outstanding. The Colts rolled a seven here.

RDE: Dwight Freeney Perhaps the most destructive pass-rusher in football when healthy. How will he perform coming back from a Lisfranc (foot) injury?

LOLB: Tyjuan Hagler Shows a good burst. Can be physical and is effective in space. Must continue to build awareness as he develops in the system.

MLB: Gary Brackett Don’t be fooled by his pudginess. This guy is smart, productive against the run and adroit in pass defense.

ROLB: Freddy Keiaho Indy’s best LB; should really come into his own in 2008.

CB: Kelvin Hayden Lacks strength and will get picked on at times, but quickness makes him a good starter.

SS: Bob Sanders Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And now the game’s most well-compensated safety. Key for him, as always, is staying healthy.

FS: Antoine Bethea Went to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement last season. Doesn’t have dominating tools, but certainly does his job well.

CB: Marlin Jackson Physical presence who can play anywhere in the secondary. Colts like to slide him into the slot in nickel situations.

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DL: Jeff Thomas High-energy player who you can plug in on defense and stay above water.

LB: Clinton Session Flashed stimulating signs of potential as a fourth-round rookie last year. Will be a starter someday, maybe even this season.

NB: Tim Jennings Absurdly short (5’8″) but performs well when called upon because he trusts the Cover 2.

Key Acquisitions

RB Dominic Rhodes (Oak)

Key Losses

LB Rocky Boiman (Phi)

TE Bryan Fletcher

G Dylan Gandy

DT Dan Klecko (Phi)

DT Anthony McFarland

LB Rob Morris

G Jake Scott (Ten)

TE Ben Utecht (Cin)

This was the first time in several years that Indy did not take a major hit in free agency. It was wise to bring back Rhodes, especially for less than $1 million. Of the players lost, Fletcher and Gandy were the biggest surprises. Both were expected to have bigger roles in 2008 and both were suddenly given the ax after the first minicamp. Makes you wonder if the team knows something we don’t. Morris and McFarland are finished after knee injuries. Scott was solid for the team, but they couldn’t afford to keep both he and Ryan Lilja.

2008 Draft

Rd Sel Player Position School

2 59 Mike Pollak G/C Arizona State

3 93 Philip Wheeler OLB Georgia Tech

4 127 Jacob Tamme TE Kentucky

5 161 Marcus Howard LB Georgia

6 196 Tom Santi TE Virginia

6 201 Steve Justice C Wake Forest

6 202 Mike Hart RB Michigan

6 205 Pierre Garcon WR Mount Union

7 236 Jamey Richard OL Buffalo

Pollak was an All-Pac 10 center his senior season, but like most Colt interior linemen, he’ll break in at guard first. He may stay there in the long haul, considering that Justice, despite being drafted late, is regarded as one of the preeminent center prospects. Wheeler can play all three linebacker spots, and his athleticism makes him a great fit for the Cover 2. He’ll start some day. Tamme is a receiving weapon while Santi can block. Hart was a star in college but he’ll have to fight just to make this roster.

2008 Indianapolis Colts Preview Report

The system is set up to prevent this. It’s designed to create parity and equality. This is what the people behind it champion to the masses. There are 32 teams that operate under a socialistic form of government that calls itself the NFL (National Football League). A more accurate title would be the PRPF (People’s Republic of Pro Football).

In the PRPF, revenue a team earns goes into a pot, where it is then redistributed in a more proportionate fashion. Money a team spends on player payroll must not exceed $116 million in the year 2008. They call this the salary cap. In the PRPF, teams that achieve the most success are rewarded with a lower draft position and harder schedule the following season. Teams that do the best in the draft eventually are forced to give up the highest number of quality players in free agency. Otherwise, they’d go over that cap. This is the system.

There is the belief that the key in pro football is to operate within the system and beat the other 31 teams. It’s not. Rather, the key in pro football is to beat the system. Beating the other teams happens naturally from there. Some clubs know this. Few understand it. And even fewer actually do it.

The Indianapolis Colts are one of the few. They beat the pro football system the same way Rockefeller, Carnegie and Mellon beat the free market system: by perfecting their own system within the system.

For the Colts, it’s about minimizing risk. It all starts at the top with a stable owner in Jim Irsay. A man of honorable character and self-assurance, Irsay has thrived by leasing control of this franchise to those who know football. Mainly, team president Bill Polian.

Polian has one of the sharpest football minds in the world. Best known as the orchestrater of the Buffalo Bills runner-up teams in the early 90s, he joined the Colts in ’98. Over time, Indy’s system has been installed.

Polian’s inaugural year in Indianapolis presented a fate-altering decision: use the first overall pick in the draft on Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, or spend it on Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf? Polian later said that, in his mind, there was never really much question about it. He was four years ahead of everyone else in this sense.

When Manning joined the Colts, their system’s only human component was put in place. It remains that way today. The 11th-year quarterback is the only person that the Colts are dependent on; the rest of their system is theory-based.

Polian has an unwavering commitment to the system. So do the people he works with. Offensively, it centers around flexibility and complexity. Everything runs through Manning and is overseen by coordinator Tom Moore. The mission is to figure out exactly what a defense is doing and then go to the playbook and counter it. You may have noticed that this all takes place at the line of scrimmage.

The playbook itself is a system, crafted in a fashion that demands speed at the receiver position, patience and vision from the running back and endurance and mobility along the offensive line.

Finding the right men to execute it is up to Polian. If you’re a college player and your skills meet the system’s demands, Polian is willing to look at you. If your skills don’t meet the demands, then you cease to exist. When Polian looks at players, he has his staff help filter out the ones incapable of handling the system’s flexibility and complexity. He also filters out any players with serious red flags on character. If you are one of the few who make it through, you have a chance to be drafted.

If you’re a skill position player, Polian drafts you in Round One. This is where he found Manning, receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez, tight end Dallas Clark and running back Joseph Addai. If you work along the offensive line, you’re usually drafted on the second day. If you’re really talented, Polian might take you in the second round, as he did left tackle Tony Ugoh and guard/center Mike Pollak. But for the most part, you’re going to be drafted late. And you’ll likely be allowed to leave after your first contract expires. When it comes to paying high-priced second contracts, Polian’s system is like fantasy football: it prioritizes the skill players.

It wasn’t until a few years after Tony Dungy arrived before the defensive system became fine-tuned. Dungy brought along his own system from Tampa Bay, called the Cover 2. It’s a zone-based scheme built around speed. This attribute–speed–serves as the first filter when Polian and company evaluate defensive personnel. If you don’t have it, you’ll never be a Colt.

From there it’s simple, really. The Colts evaluate all the speedy players, then decide which ones along the front seven tend to make the most plays, and which ones in the secondary tend to give up the fewest. From that pool, they draft.

If you play in Indy’s defensive system, you’ll be coached well. And you’ll probably succeed. But there is an underlining cruelty that comes with it: lack of appreciation. Unless you have Hall of Fame potential, the Colts aren’t going to break the bank to keep you around. You could even be a Pro Bowler–they’ll still show you the door. That’s what happens when the franchise’s main system ranks the offensive system higher than the defensive system, and the bigger system hovering over the main system enforces a salary cap law. Get it?

It’s worse if you’re a linebacker or cornerback because, in Dungy’s Cover 2, the demands on your position are relatively simple, which makes you extremely replaceable. When you leave the Colts, they’ll hardly notice because they already drafted your replacement a few years ago. It’s like getting dumped and seeing your ex immediately start dating someone else. This year, for the first time since 2003, the Colts return all 11 starters on defense. That’s merely a coincidence.

Hold onto your questions about Indy’s system. In fact, forget them. The system is impermeable. And the Colts know it. Any concerns you voice will only draw a nonchalant response along the lines of “doesn’t matter.” Go ahead, try to press the issue:

What about injuries? There have been lots. All are survivable as long as No. 18 is not the victim.

Chemistry concerns? Taken care of by the filters.

Bad draft picks? Again, the filters.

It seems like the defensive system often results in poor run defense for the Colts. Is that true? Yep. In fact, it was the worst in the league in the ’06 Super Bowl season. It always seems to correct itself in the right moments though.

Okay:what if coaches leave? Few ever do.

What about Dungy? Yeah, he’ll be gone soon–probably next year. But his replacement (Jim Caldwell) is already here. And Dungy’s system will stay, too.

Does the system survive in a small market? Oh now you’re just reaching. This team has national appeal. Besides, haven’t you seen the new $675 million Lucas Oil Stadium? You don’t think that will help the bottom line?

Okay, so why only one Super Bowl in this system? Ah! Good question. No answer. Perhaps that’s why football fans stay intrigued.

Offense

Never before has the Colts offense entered a season with its biggest question mark being wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Peyton Manning’s career-long favorite target is coming off a forgettable 2007 in which he missed 11 games with a ruptured bursa sac (sounds gross, but it actually just means “sore knee.”) Harrison’s offseason wasn’t much better. He spent most of his hours rehabilitating the knee, and in May he was questioned in a Philadelphia shooting that took place outside a bar that he owns. (The gun used in the shooting was registered to Harrison. He has not been charged.)

Such distractions are foreign for the taciturn veteran. The legal issues are likely to sort themselves out. The knee is another concern. Harrison turns 36 in August and plays a style of football that is utterly dependent on his ability to cut and change directions. Should he not be ready to contribute, you’ll see second-year pro Anthony Gonzalez take over outside.

Gonzalez is tailor-made for this offense and is poised to inherit a starting job in the near future. The Colts, however, would rather not have to rush him into the No. 2 spot. Such a scenario would be problematic because of the gaping hole it would leave in the slot. Indy’s depth at wide receiver and tight end is unusually thin this season. Third-year pro Devin Aromashodu, second-year pro Roy Hall and sixth-round rookie Pierre Garcon are the bottom-feeder wideouts likely to make the 53-man roster.

In the past, the No. 2 tight end has helped fill a void in the passing game when starter Dallas Clark flexes out into the slot. But when Clark stands up this year, the tight end spot will be manned not by veterans Bryan Fletcher and Ben Utecht, but by rookies Jacob Tamme (fourth round) and Tom Santi (sixth round). Tamme is a converted wide receiver, while Santi is a de facto fullback.

Keep all this in perspective. There isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t take Indy’s insecure receiving depth if it meant having Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in the starting lineup. The 29-year-old Wayne has evolved into Manning’s preferred target. He’s coming off a season in which he caught 104 balls for 1,510 yards and 10 scores, despite facing more double teams than he’d ever seen before. Aside from occasionally cutting off a route, Wayne is exquisite. Clark is nearly as valuable. While his numbers pale in comparison, he is an everydown X-factor. Tom Moore does a masterful job of using the tight end in ways that constantly command a defense’s attention.

The Colts will continue to work out of a single-back offense in 2008, and with the return of Dominic Rhodes, they’ll likely return to the two-man rotation that helped guide them to a Lombardi Trophy two years ago. Playing behind Joseph Addai, Rhodes won’t see nearly as many touches as he did when he was the starter in ’06. Addai is a great enough weapon to warrant 20 touches a game, but with Rhodes, Kenton Keith (who struggles in pass pro but runs with good power) and maybe even sixth-round rookie Mike Hart, there is no reason for the third-year star to shoulder a heavy load before January.

The front five masterfully allows Manning and the offense to function. Much of the credit belongs to offensive line coach Howard Mudd. Mudd’s genius is what permits Polian to get away with using predominantly late-round picks on O-linemen.

Two of Indy’s five starting linemen were actually “no-round picks.” Ten years ago, center Jeff Saturday came into the league as a rookie free agent out of North Carolina. He has since gone to two Pro Bowls. Left guard Ryan Lilja was undrafted out of Kansas State back in ’04. He was recently given a well-deserved five-year, $20 million contract.

The investment in Lilja came at the expense of starting guard Jake Scott, who signed with division foe Tennessee. It was thought that Dylan Gandy would replace Scott, but Gandy was abruptly released after the team’s first minicamp. This leaves third-year veteran Charlie Johnson competing with second-round draft pick Mike Pollak for the starting duties. No doubt the Colts would like to see Pollak earn the job, but they won’t hesitate to go with the ex-tackle Johnson.

On the outsides, second-year player Tony Ugoh is a star in the making. At 6’5″, 301 pounds, Ugoh has an athletic frame with long arms that give him an edge in all facets as a blocker. He improved his technique as a rookie and started to show confidence late in the season. Mudd has worked closely with his pupil and should have a Pro Bowler in Ugoh by 2010.

Right tackle Ryan Diem is less heralded but more dominant. At 6’6″, 320 he’s difficult for defenders to see around, which means if he doesn’t get beat off the first step, the battle is his.

Defense

Would you believe this group gave up the fewest points in football last season? And, despite its bend-but-don’t-break mentality, it surrendered the third fewest yards. Here’s the kicker: the Colts did all this despite having a depleted pass-rush that registered only 28 sacks (tied for 26th most in the NFL).

Those familiar with Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks know that this Cover 2 scheme is predicated on pressuring the quarterback. Colts defensive linemen have long been instructed to play the pass first and the run second. Sometimes they’re even told to play pass, play pass once more, and then, if there’s time left over, go ahead and play run.

Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are two of the paramount pass-rushers in the game. Both are coming off injury-marred ’07 campaigns. Mathis missed time with a knee sprain. Freeney was lost in Week 10 with a more-alarming Lisfranc injury. Freeney had just 3.5 sacks at that point, after a ho-hum 5.5-sack total in 2006. However, his statistics always come with a grain a salt, considering the amount of attention opposing offensive lines direct to him.

Backup ends Jeff Thomas and Jeff Charleston are both try-hard guys who can fill in when either starter is out. The Colts are also shifting second-year pro Keyunta Dawson back to his original defensive end spot, giving them three good options off the bench.

Inside, Meeks will use a four-man rotation featuring starters Ed Johnson and Raheem Brock, and backups Quinn Pitcock and Darrell Reid. Johnson is a promising talent who became the team’s lottery prize when Anthony McFarland went down last August with a torn ACL. The Colts discovered that the undrafted kid from Penn State had an unusually quick first step for someone weighing nearly 300 pounds. They also saw in Johnson the type of motor and agility that their system covets.

If Johnson continues to develop, the Colts will have a very formidable front line. Brock is a tenured veteran who makes plays when he has to. Pitcock, a third-round pick a year ago, is a starter in waiting, thanks to upper-body strength that amplifies his leverage at the point of attack. Reid is underwhelming but capable of filling in while other guys catch their breath.

The entire linebacking core is undersized–think Vern Troyer–but faster than sound. Their responsibility is to run to the ball before blockers can get a hand on them. Middle man Gary Brackett is the most productive of the bunch, though outside stud Freddy Keiaho is the most fearsome. Keiaho has great play recognition and is dominant when untouched. He doesn’t have Brackett’s intuition in pass defense (Brackett led the team with four picks last season) but he’s good enough to play in the nickel packages.

If there is a weak link, it’s Tyjuan Hagler. Unquestionably gifted enough to start, the third-year vet must continue to build his knowledge in this system. Backup Clint Session was extremely impressive in limited action as a rookie last season and is chomping at the bit to crack the starting 11. So is third-round pick Philip Wheeler, a versatile prospect out of Georgia Tech who will inherit a starting job when Keiaho and Brackett become free agents after next season.

Regardless of what the linebackers do, no player is as important to Indy’s run defense as strong safety Bob Sanders. The 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is coming off his first injury-free season as a pro. At 5’8″, 206 pounds, bumps and bruises–even the occasional break–are inevitable for Sanders, given his reckless style of play. But it’s imperative that he make that style of play available to the team by staying on the field. Without Sanders, the gorgeous Colts D becomes a girl with no makeup on.

Sanders is good in coverage, though Indy relies more on free safety Antoine Bethea in this sense. Bethea, while not a playmaker, has the necessary speed to handle his help coverage duties. Still, the onus is on the cornerbacks to be physical and adept in their individual responsibilities. This is especially true for Kelvin Hayden, who starts on the left side where Sanders often blitzes from. Hayden has a good feel for breaking on the ball, which is why offenses must be judicious with the number of hook and out-patterns they show him. The way to go after Hayden is to overpower him with physical receivers.

The opposite is true when attacking right cornerback Marlin Jackson. The former first-round pick is an aggressive defender who explodes into the point of attack. He doesn’t have the fast feet of an elite cover corner, but he’s very comfortable operating in zone.

Jackson is a wonderful tackler, having played safety early in his career. The Colts spend an awful lot of time in nickel. In these situations, Jackson slides into the slot, where he can be more active against the run. Third-year pro Tim Jennings then mans the outside. Bethea tends to cheat his coverage toward Jennings, especially deep downfield. Jennings, though, deserves some credit for discouraging quarterbacks from throwing to his side.

The depth is alright in the defensive backfield. Matt Giordano can perform at both safety positions. Cornerback Dante Hughes has only played special teams thus far, but he was a third-round pick a year ago. Michael Coe has seen minor action.

Special Teams

You may have heard that kicker Adam Vinatieri is clutch. Vinatieri was, however, 0-3 on field goals longer than 40 yards last season. Hunter Smith continues to enjoy the chillest job in football: punting for the Colts offense.

T.J. Rushing is the return specialist. He handled his duties well last season, averaging 23.0 yards on kickoffs and 13.1 on punts (including a 90-yard touchdown). The Colts coverage units as a whole need work. Last season, Indy finished last in defending punt returns and 29th in defending kick returns.

Bottom Line

It’s a given that this team will be a contender in late January. The Colts are one of the few teams in football that can use the regular season as a tune-up for the playoffs. Ultimately, their success may hinge on how well the offense can handle aggressive 3-4 fronts (which they’ll see from AFC powers New England, San Diego, Cleveland and Pittsburgh).

Myth Buster

Left tackle Tony Ugoh is a liability

Ugoh was phenomenal last season considering he wasn’t expected to be thrown to the wolves right away. Indy gave him very little tight end help early in the year and entrusted him with Manning’s blindside on Day One.

The area where the second-rounder did struggle at times was in run-blocking. Ugoh took a little while to fully understand the timing of the Colts’ stretch handoff, and he initially looked uncomfortable in space. However, this changed as the year wore on.

Heading into this season, Ugoh remains an extremely gifted athlete under the auspices of an extremely gifted O-line coach (Howard Mudd). He’ll only continue to improve.

Open Thought

Lucas Oil Stadium is a lavish venue, but we seem to have struck the nadir of the stadium naming rights craze. These days, anything with the word “oil” in it makes everyone uneasy. It’s impossible to say the word and not feel your morale drop. Exacerbating the “oil” issue with the stadium is the name Lucas in front of it. It’s too personal of a name–it only seems to add to the sting. You can just hear the people now saying, Wait, wait, wait. Who is Lucas? What is this oil he has? Is he to blame for high gas prices?


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One Response to “Indianapolis Colts 2008 Preview Report”

  1. Jerie O'Connor says:

    What no mention of surgury on QB Peyton Manning that supposedly will lay him up for 4 to 6 weeks?