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MEMBERS OF the Colts' defense understand what the fuss is about. But forgive them for not participating in the hand-wringing that's taking place throughout Indianapolis.
Yes, quarterback Peyton Manning's 10-year run of 160 consecutive starts might be halted in the season opener if he hasn't sufficiently recovered from surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee. But unlike some fans, Manning's teammates aren't walking around with sweaty palms and accelerated heart rates.
From the day Tony Dungy was hired as the Colts' coach in 2002, the aim was to build a defense that could sit at the grown-ups' table with Manning and the offense. That plan seemed to come to fruition during the playoffs two seasons ago, when the unit carried the team to its Super Bowl title while Manning threw seven interceptions—and only three touchdown passes—in Indianapolis's final four games.
But after allowing a league-low 262 points during the 2007 regular season, the unit slipped up in a 28--24 loss to the Chargers in the divisional playoffs, a team Indianapolis also lost to last November. The Colts had allowed three offensive touchdowns in one game just twice during the regular season but surrendered that many in the second half alone against a San Diego offense that played the fourth quarter without two of its stars, injured running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers.
Accordingly, as Indy's defense prepares for the upcoming season, it is motivated less by Manning's potential unavailability than by its own disappearance in the final two quarters of that January loss to the Chargers. "We all feel as though we left a game out there," says safety Antoine Bethea. "A lot of people are talking about San Diego having our number. We're not taking anything away from them. But I think as an organization we don't feel like we played our best ball [during] that game."
"The disappointing thing was that we had a lead in the fourth quarter and didn't hold it," says Dungy of the way last season ended. "If you're a defensive team, you want to be in that position in a playoff game. We had our chance, but we didn't get it done. [We have] a long way to go to get back to that situation, but we would like to be there again."
The pieces are in place for that to happen. The defense not only brings back every key contributor for the first time since Dungy arrived but will also benefit from the return of All-Pro end Dwight Freeney, a fierce pass rusher who missed the final seven games after surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury on his left foot last November. His return should create more playmaking opportunities for cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, who are entering their second season as full-time starters.
"One of the positives from last season was that some of the younger guys played well," says defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. "We expected that from Kelvin and Marlin, but we also had some surprises, particularly up front with [tackles] Ed Johnson and Keyunta Dawson."
Indianapolis's biggest concern at this point is injuries. Freeney and All-Pro safety Bob Sanders (who underwent off-season surgery on his right shoulder) were held out of the first month of training camp and practice so they could continue to rehab, and standout middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who led the team in tackles last season with 116, missed a good chunk of the preseason because of hip and groin ailments. (Another starter, outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, is expected to be out until October after tearing a pectoral muscle while lifting weights during the off-season.)
"If they come back like we think they will for the start of the season—and they stay healthy once they're back—I think we can be better than we were last year," Dungy says of the imminent returnees.