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As the patriots' defensive backs snuffed the Colts' Super Bowl dreams in the AFC Championship Game last January, the members of the Indianapolis secondary could only watch--and admire. Coming into the game, the Colts had torched the Broncos and the Chiefs for a total of 79 points with an offense that appeared to be unstoppable: Peyton Manning had thrown for 681 yards and eight touchdowns. The Colts had yet to punt.
Then the Patriots' bruising, big-play pass defenders crashed the party, imposing their will on the Indianapolis receivers while picking off Manning four times in a 24--14 win. "What those guys did that day was impressive," cornerback Nick Harper recalls. "But it hurt, because this team was good enough to win it all. We need to force more turnovers, make quarterbacks adjust to us. When the young guys get comfortable in the defense, we'll be fine."
The young guys--second-year cornerback Donald Strickland, second-year safety Mike Doss and fourth-year free safety Idrees Bashir--are getting their chance. Going with potential over experience, Indianapolis released eight-year corner Walt Harris and chose not to re-sign fellow starting corner David Macklin. Reshaping the NFL's fifth-ranked pass defense is a gamble, but it's a bet defensive-minded coach Tony Dungy is willing to make, based on his belief in the simplicity of his Cover 2 scheme: It's so easy, anyone can execute it, especially with speedy young legs.
Ever the optimist, Dungy seems unfazed by the shakeup. "I like the kids," he says. "They have more of a tendency to believe what you're saying. Our young guys have done everything we've asked. We need more big plays, and it'll be the young guys who make that happen."
Passing for the group's wizened sage is Harper, 29, who began his pro career with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. A year patrolling the CFL's wider field and deeper end zones was well spent; Harper honed his ability to close on a receiver, a must in Dungy's scheme. "They say the sideline and the end zones are a corner's best friends, but not up there," Harper says. "In the CFL you have to have the speed to recover or you're done. It made me a better player."
He signed with Indianapolis as a free agent in 2001 and broke through last season with four interceptions. But as a team the Colts managed only 15 interceptions, 14th best in the league. "I'm fired up," Harper says, "but now I've got to produce like a Number 1." Harper looked impressive in camp, as did Strickland, a speedster out of Colorado who started eight games as a rookie. Third-year nickel corner Joseph Jefferson will also see significant playing time.
After arriving from Ohio State with a reputation as a devastating hitter, Doss had a solid rookie season, but he appeared a step slow and uncomfortable at times in coverage. So he spent the off-season working out at the speed camp of fellow Buckeye alum Cris Carter. "I can definitely feel the difference," says Doss, who picked off one pass last season. "I want to be more of a ball hawk. I want more turnovers. I knew I had to get better. I think I did."
If the offense gets any better, the defense shouldn't be under as much pressure to produce. A year ago Manning, the league's co-MVP, threw for 4,267 yards and 29 touchdowns and completed a career-high 67% of his passes. All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison fell short of 100 catches for the first time in five years but only because of the emergence of No. 2 receiver Reggie Wayne and the late-season surge of Brandon Stokley, who had 11 catches for 223 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason. The rushing attack also figures to improve, with both Edgerrin James and backup Dominic Rhodes another year removed from the ACL surgeries that sidelined them in 2001 and '02, respectively.
Such offensive potency makes Indianapolis as dangerous as any team in the league. But the Colts don't have the luxury of patience, not after signing Manning to a $98 million contract in the off-season, complete with a $34.5 million signing bonus. The deal will make re-signing both Harrison and James exceedingly difficult when their contracts expire after this year. The time is now for that trio of Colts. If only it were all up to them. --J.E.