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Sooner or later, the Colts will have to confront the unimaginable: winning without Peyton Manning carrying the team. For the first time since the Clinton Administration, the franchise has a glimpse of that future. The uncertainty looming over the health of the four-time MVP, who is recovering from neck surgery and will miss the entire preseason, prompted the front office to sign 38-year-old Kerry Collins as insurance for any prolonged absence. Regardless of when Manning returns, the Colts appear more vulnerable than they have in years.
But more than their franchise quarterback separates the Colts from another run deep into January. Team owner Jim Irsay said it all with a tweet during the preseason: "defense has 2 pick it up, big time!"
An inconsistent—soft, really—defense, which allowed its most yards per game (353.7) and points (24.3) since 2001, was the big reason why the Colts finished with their worst record in nine seasons and needed wins in their last four games just to sneak into the playoffs. "Last year we weren't horrible, but we didn't have close to that same consistency [we've had in the past]," says defensive end Dwight Freeney. "We need to get back to being dominant every game, and it all starts with getting more pressure on the quarterback."
The Colts' front office rarely spends on free agents, but this off-season they opened the wallet for a trio of former first-round picks whose approval ratings have sunk more than your congressman's: defensive tackle Tommie Harris (from the Bears), defensive end Jamaal Anderson (Falcons) and linebacker Ernie Sims (Eagles). The signings were aimed at bolstering a defensive front seven that tied for 23rd in the league in sacks, with Freeney and Robert Mathis accounting for 21 of the team's 30. The Colts need more production from defensive end and 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes, who is already being declared a bust after a poor rookie year—team vice chairman Bill Polian admitted on a radio show that Indy should have used the pick on an offensive tackle. "The game felt really fast last year," says Hughes, who worked on short-burst drills to improve his explosiveness off the edge. "They say you have to be a pitcher, not a thrower, and right now I'm working on adding pitches—adding more moves—to my repertoire."
The biggest difference-makers in camp have been Harris and Sims, "two veterans who have really energized the defense," says Freeney. "People have kind of forgotten about them, but when they're healthy they can be as good as anyone. And they're healthy." The Colts believe both will thrive in the team's Tampa Two scheme, which relies on speedy, agile players who can take advantage of the fast Lucas Oil turf or drop 10 to 12 yards into coverage. Sims, 26, is a 6-foot, 230-pound fleet-footed linebacker in the mold, at his best, of Derrick Brooks; he excelled in the Tampa Two in Detroit (420 tackles in four seasons) before struggling in Philadelphia's 3--4 defense last year. Harris, 28, has been slowed by knee injuries for the last two seasons—"I'm feeling great," he insisted during camp, "and ready to prove I have a lot left in the tank"—but the 6'3", 295-pound lineman was a three-time Pro Bowler in Lovie Smith's Tampa Two in Chicago. "This team was the best fit for me," says Harris, who auditioned for the Patriots before coming to Indy. "I wanted to be somewhere where guys get up the field."
Last year the Colts, who survived a tsunami of injuries (21 players on the injured reserve list), were saved by an offense that—despite losing wideouts Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie and tight end Dallas Clark for significant time—was a juggernaut, ranking fourth in the league in yards and points. But the core of the offense is aging quickly. Manning, who set a career high in completions and passing yards and agreed to a five-year, $90 million extension in the off-season, is 35. Five-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday is 36, while Clark and wide receiver Reggie Wayne are 32.
The clock is ticking in Indianapolis. The Colts as we know them won't have many more chances to prove that they are more than the NFL's version of the Atlanta Braves, with just one Super Bowl win in the Manning era despite appearing in 11 postseasons. With Lucas Oil Stadium as the site of this year's NFL title game, they'll have the chance to be the first team to win the Lombardi Trophy on their home turf. But the Colts will need to do more than pray for a healthy quarterback. Says Freeney, "We know the defense needs to step up for this to be a championship team."
WITH 2010 STATS