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 Tuesday, September 7
Indy really gets defensive
By Dylan Barmmer
Pro Football Weekly

 You'll excuse the Colts for getting defensive after a second straight 3-13 season.

Edgerrin James
Edgerrin James
Last year: 3-13, fifth place in AFC East
Key returnees:: QB Peyton Manning (326-for-575, 3,739 yards, 26 TDs, 28 INTs); TE Ken Dilger (31 rec., 303 yards); WR Marvin Harrison (59 rec., 776 yards, 7 TDs).
New faces: DE Chad Bratzke (Giants), S Chad Cota (Saints), DE Shawn King (Panthers), LB Cornelius Bennett (Falcons), QB Steve Walsh
New places: RB Marshall Faulk (Rams), DE Al Fontenot (Chargers), WR Torrance Small (Eagles), P Chris Gardocki (Browns)
Watch out: RB Edgerrin James is out to prove Colts wisely passed on Ricky Williams.
Better than '98: Manning finished strong and should make fewer mistakes than rookie season.
Worse than '98: Colts still lack depth in secondary.
-- Scripps Howard News Service

"It's so much different from last year," second-year quarterback Peyton Manning said of a revamped Colts defense that could feature as many as six new starters. "They are much more aggressive. They are mixing up their coverages more, making the receivers and (me) be a little sharper mentally.

"The fact that our defense is better is going to make our offense better this season."

While Manning, who set just about every NFL rookie passing record last season, and a young, dynamic offense provided reasons for hope amid the darkness that was last season, the Indianapolis defense was as atrocious as they come. That meant added headaches for the always-demanding Jim Mora, who made his name as an NFL coach with what club president Bill Polian likes to call "rock-ribbed" defense.

This season the veteran coach has much more to work with, thanks to Polian's spending spree in free agency, the addition of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and some shrewd maneuvering in April's draft.

New starting DEs Chad Bratzke and Shawn King bring boatloads of talent and athleticism with their hefty price tags. (Bratzke's signing bonus alone was $9 million.)

In veteran LB Cornelius Bennett and SS Chad Cota, the Colts now possess the toughness and leadership they lacked last season. Second-round pick Mike Peterson may step in right away at weak-side linebacker, and fifth-rounder Brad Scioli should provide depth along a defensive line that is worlds removed from last season's rag-tag bunch.

While the offense returns proven playmakers such as Manning, WR Marvin Harrison and TEs Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard, it must overcome the loss of multidimensional RB Marshall Faulk, whose 2,227 total yards led the NFL and accounted for 43.5 percent of the Colts' offensive output.

The Colts think they have a bigger version of Faulk in 6-foot, 216-pound Edgerrin James, who was tabbed with the fourth overall pick in the draft. James sure made the Colts look correct in his pro debut, rushing for 77 yards and two scores in the first half of a preseason romp over New Orleans on Aug. 21. If James can shoulder the load, and the defense can shore up its many holes, the Colts might make some noise in the ultra-competitive AFC East. If not, it will be another very long, lost season.

Here's a position-by-position look at Indianapolis' roster:

Manning blew up the record books as a rookie, passing for a club-record 3,739 yards and a rookie-record 26 TDs while taking every snap from center. But Manning also managed only a 3-13 record and tossed an NFL-high 28 interceptions.

In his second pro season, the intensely competitive and studious Manning should only get better, especially at reading opposing defenses and avoiding forced throws. He must also display more leadership, as the Colts offense is one of the youngest in the league. Veteran backup Steve Walsh was brought in late in training camp to provide much-needed depth. Grade: B

They've added defensive ends Chad Bratzke and Shawn King, linebacker Cornelius Bennett and safety Chad Cota. Those are all defensive players, and all are projected starters. And defense was the area where Indianapolis was really hurting the most. They needed to solidify their defensive line and their linebackers, and they did a great job of doing that.

The real question is how will all those new players mesh together as a defensive unit. If they blend well, this team could be one of the NFL's most improved clubs. On the flip side, however, the Colts are in the toughest division in the league, the AFC East, so that will continue to make things difficult.

Running backs
Indy took a major gamble by dealing the electric Faulk to St. Louis. Besides leading the NFL in total yards last season, Faulk caught a club-record 86 passes. James will be asked to do just about everything in offensive coordinator Tom Moore's eclectic offense. James has all the tools to make Colts fans forget about Faulk, but a three-week holdout from his first training camp only adds to the pressure and threat of injury.

The Colts brought in speedy veteran Vaughn Hebron to replace Darick Holmes, who fractured his fibula in preseason action, but Hebron retired soon after joining the club. Veteran FB Scott Greene will be counted on to contribute, and the club sees promise in second-year FB Charles Kirby. Dilger might again be asked to share some FB duties. Grade: B-

Fourth-year burner Harrison leads a promising receiving corps that also features second-year pros Jerome Pathon and E.G. Green.

Free-agent addition Lake Dawson (6-2, 207) is the only big target of the bunch, but he hasn't played since 1997 because of chronic knee problems. In Dilger and Pollard, the Colts possess one of the most versatile and athletic TE combos in the league. Look for the bruising Dilger to catch more passes this season. Grade: B+

Offensive linemen
Much continuity remains, but the unit is overwhelmed by youth. Surprise starting C Larry Moore and OLG Steve McKinney have just one pro season apiece under their belts, and OLT Tarik Glenn and ORT Adam Meadows are entering their third seasons.

Second-year pro Waverly Jackson will be asked to man the ORG spot, where Indy lost veteran Tony Mandarich to injury (he has since been cut) and promising third-round draft pick Brandon Burlsworth to a fatal car accident.

While the young unit allowed just 22 sacks of Manning last season -- down from 62 the year before -- consistent success in the running game never came. The training-camp demotion of eight-year veteran C Jay Leeuwenburg raised eyebrows. Grade: B-

Defensive linemen
After last year's makeshift unit struggled to both stop the run and attack the passer, the Colts invested heavily in a pair of promising defensive ends. The biggest investment comes in former Giants DRE Bratzke, who parlayed a 11-sack season into a six-year, $30 million contract. Bratzke will be complemented by former Panthers DLE King, who has struggled to live up to his promise.

The interior of the line looks solid with play-making DRT Ellis Johnson and overachieving DLT Tony McCoy. Johnson and McCoy led the club in sacks last season with eight and six, respectively. Expect Scioli, DE Mark Thomas and DTs Bernard Whittington and Larry Chester to see significant time on a unit that looks to be improved exponentially over last season. Grade: B+

When the Colts open against Buffalo, they might do so with three new starters at linebacker. Even so, there are no guarantees of success. Five-time Pro Bowl OLB Bennett brings savvy and leadership to the young group, though time has slowed him. The MLB spot will belong to either Michael Barber or gritty Carolina export Jeff Brady, who is already familiar with Fangio's attacking system.

The other OLB spot will be held down by inconsistent veteran Andre Royal or promising rookie Peterson. The Colts' second-round pick out of Florida could develop into the best Indianapolis 'backer in years. Grade: C

Defensive backs
The safety spots look rock-solid with SS Cota and FS Jason Belser backed up by versatile veteran Tito Wooten. High-priced veteran CBs Tyrone Poole and Jeff Burris have drawn criticism and penalty flags since their arrival before last season.

With a much-improved pass rush, the duo should -- and must -- improve its consistency and play-making ability. Last year's secondary had just six interceptions. Grade: B

Special teams
Lack of speed and play-making ability on both coverage and return units last season led to everything from fumbled kickoffs to long returns by opponents. Hebron would have provided a solid kick-return game, but now the spot is up for grabs, just as the punt-return spot was as the preseason neared its close.

Players such as Peterson and Cota should increase the overall athleticism on special teams, but speed is still a concern. Cannon-legged kicker Mike Vanderjagt must prove that last year's stellar season was far from a fluke. Punter Chris Gardocki will be missed; rookie Hunter Smith is the likely replacement. Grade: C+

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