Postcard from camp: Colts
Expect the Colts defense to be more aggressive under new coordinator
Second-year wide receiver Pierre Garcon has been turning heads at camp
Colts drafted Donald Brown to push Joseph Addai in the run game
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Peter King had to say about the Colts' camp in Terre Haute, Ind. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
SETTING THE SCENE
The Colts do what every team in the NFL should do. They train just far enough from home (78 miles southwest of Indianapolis) at a bucolic campus (the prestigious Rose-Hulman Institute, home of the Fightin' Engineers, where Advanced Calculus is a cake class), with excellent sight lines for fans at the main field and an adjacent practice field. Moreover, the team has the ability to interact with fans (Peyton Manning and Jim Caldwell both signed extensively for fans after the first practice of the day).
"It's great to get away here,'' Manning said. Not all players feel the same about leaving their home bases, but I cannot repeat it enough: For team unity and the ability of fans to get close to their team, training camp away from home, but not too far away, is ideal.
1. The Colts will be a more aggressive defense under new coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. What does that mean -- 50 percent less two-deep coverage and 30 percent more blitzing? I don't know, but I'm guessing that's close. Caldwell was cryptic when I asked him about it between practices, simply saying most of what the Colts will play this year was stuff already in the playbook, but the defenses will just be called in different frequency this year. Coyer (who might be the only NFL coach who smokes a pipe) certainly likes to blitz more than Dungy, so look for more than the 30 sacks they had a year ago.
2. Peyton Manning is still seeking with his new receivers the comfort zone he had with his old ones. For years on passing downs (and lots of others), he had Reggie Wayne split left, Marvin Harrison split right, and Brandon Stokley and then Dallas Clark in the slot. This year, the Colts are likely to go one of two ways with their offensive sets: Wayne left and Anthony Gonzalez right, with Clark and rookie third-round pick Austin Collie in the slot; or Wayne left, second-year Division-III find Pierre Garcon right, with Gonzalez and Clark in the slot. I think Manning favors Gonzalez outside to start, because he spent two days a week during the offseason working individually with him at the Colts' training facility, perfecting their precision and timing on all the routes he used to throw to Harrison in his sleep.
3. I really liked Pierre Garcon. There was a play in the afternoon practice, with the Colts in the red zone, when Garcon, lined up in Harrison's traditional wide-right spot, cut toward the post with defensive backs Matt Giordano and Nick Graham bumping him before the ball came. Garcon ignored the traffic and caught the laser from Manning. At 6-foot and 210, he's a little thicker than Harrison, and probably straight-ahead faster than Harrison was, but not as quick.
He's a great story, a south Florida kid who had to go to military school in Vermont because of grades, then went to Ohio powerhouse Mount Union College because had no Division I football options. Last year the Colts picked him in the sixth round and basically had him redshirt the season. Now he knows Wayne's left spot and the right receiver spot as well, and if he's reliable, Manning's going to him, because Manning's made such a living throwing to the right. He'll do so again with Gonzalez and Garcon -- one or the other, or both -- out there.
NEW FACE, NEW PLACE
Frank Reich, quarterback coach. Well, Reich was here last year too, but as an offensive staff assistant with no positional authority. Now his role is different -- he's running the quarterback meetings instead of Jim Caldwell. "That's been the biggest adjustment for me,'' said Manning. Whereas Caldwell was a fast-talker and high-energy man in installation meetings and tape-reviewing sessions, Reich is more pensive and deliberate. Manning's happy to have Reich -- who played for 14 years, mostly as an NFL backup -- as his conscience.
Not much will change in how Manning plays or how he learns, but if possible, his comfort level will increase, because now he's got the trusted Reich as his day-to-day teacher and Caldwell, who he respects a lot, as his overseer. "I like a guy who's played the game, here in my 12th year, learning from a guy who played for a while,'' Manning told me. "He's been through it. He knows what I'm going through. He's very thoughtful, and he's got a calm way about him that's going to be good for me, and he was a semi-kind of a coach during his career.''
Donald Brown, running back, UConn. Using the 27th pick in the draft on a running back was a major surprise because of the presence of in-his-prime Joseph Addai, a first-round pick in 2006. But the Colts were 31st in the NFL in rushing last year, averaging 3.4 yards per rush, and just being around the team for one day, I could see how painful the incompetent run game was.
"You can't have a glaring weakness and be a championship team,'' said the owner, Jim Irsay, on the sideline of the afternoon practice. "We didn't run the ball well enough, and it came back to haunt us.''
So here came Brown, who averaged 5.4 yards per rush in three starting seasons at UConn. Watching him here, Brown showed good hands and a strong burst. Addai is still the number one back, but it won't hurt him to have a strong back pushing him, because if Addai isn't somewhere in the 4.0 range, the Colts think they're too good everywhere else to be tied to an under-producing running back.
Manning, healthy, not favoring his 13-month-old surgically repaired knee. I sat with him for a while between practices, looked at the knee, and couldn't tell anything was amiss. Watching him for much of a two-hour padded afternoon practice, I knew he was fine.
ON THE MENU
I noticed a beeline toward the chicken stir-fry in line at the Rose-Hulman cafeteria, where the Colts eat, so I gave it a go. Small chicken strips with bok choy and broccoli over steamed rice, in a light sesame/soy dressing. It was fabulous, a little sweeter than most chicken stir-frys, with the crunchy broccoli that signifies you're eating something good and not something just green for show. I could eat that five days a week. Had a lettuce-and-carrot salad from the salad bar (lettuce was a little brown around the edges) with the raspberry vinaigrette. "Are we an 'A?' '' the anxious food-services manager asked me, because Rose-Hulman knows my stupid gig. Almost. Overall grade: A-minus.
The defensive line's going to be stouter. One change in going from the Tony Dungy/Ron Meeks defense to Larry Coyer's size up front. Instead of the 270ish-pound tackles, there are five tackles contending for spots who weigh 295 or more.
Speaking of a stout defensive line, Ed Johnson's back. Last year, the 296-pound Johnson was stopped by the cops and marijuana was found in his car. He never failed a drug test, but Dungy had given him a chance after a troubled Penn State career, and pot in the car was the last straw. So Johnson was cut and spent the year out of football in Detroit, waiting for someone to call. That didn't happen until Caldwell reached out after the season. That chance came with Dungy's blessing, and here he is. The Colts were 24th against the run last year, and if I could make one prediction about this team, it's that Indy will be better against the run, and largely because of Johnson's presence.
We have a pockmark on Bill Polian's legacy: Tony Ugoh has lost his right tackle job. In 2007, the Colts traded their fourth-round pick in '07 and first-round pick in '08 to San Francisco for the 42nd overall pick, choosing Ugoh to replace the suddenly-retired Tarik Glenn. And as soon as journeyman Charlie Johnson was rehabbed from a pectoral injury and returned Monday, he was installed over Ugoh on the first team, protecting Manning's blind side. Everyone said all the right things about Ugoh, but the fact is this is a stunning demotion. Johnson's a hold-the-fort guy, and I'm told the decision was made because Ugoh might play 50 snaps a game fine and get beat on five others, or lose focus or make an assignment error. That's four too many for a team that can't afford to get Manning hurt.
The Colts have a bit of an inferiority complex. For years Indy's been the king of the hill in the conference, along with New England. Now the Patriots, Steelers and Chargers are all seen as their superiors, and the Titans their equals. It's one of those things the players are hit with every day. They feel the outside world thinks time is passing them by, and they've all filed it away as motivation.
If I'm the Colts, I don't love the schedule. How about Miami, Arizona and Tennessee on the road in the first five weeks, and a Jan. 3 finale at Buffalo? I see the Colts as an 11- or 12-win team with Manning healthy from the start, but I don't think it'll be easy getting there.
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