ANDERSON, Ind. -- Lost in the whirlwind of Peyton Manning's MVP season last year was the emergence of a defensive force in the AFC.
Under the direction of new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, the Indianapolis Colts quietly became one of the league's top defensive units.
Last season, the Colts won seven games by seven points or fewer, and those nail-biters were routinely sealed by a big defensive play late in the game.
From the hard-hitting short-yardage stops against powerful running backs to the opportunistic turnovers generated by their aggressive pass rushes, the Colts repeatedly found ways to win games behind an upstart defense that often played with a host of backups filling key roles.
Melvin Bullitt, Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey were a few of the unsung heroes who provided big plays for the Colts at critical times last season. With Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden and few other stars set to reclaim their starting spots, the Colts have a deep squad capable of suffocating opponents utilizing a multi-faceted approach.
Coyer, who in 10 years as an NFL coordinator has guided his defensive units to seven top-10 finishes in scoring defense, tweaked the team's Tampa 2 scheme to incorporate a more diverse coverage package. Rather than sitting in soft zone coverage and waiting for quarterbacks to make mistakes late in drives, Coyer ratcheted up the pressure more often to force turnovers.
Though he still uses key elements of the team's long-held scheme within the red zone, the added variety on defense made the Colts more difficult to attack in the middle of the field.
With another year to refine his defensive package and more weapons added to his arsenal, people should be looking at the Colts as the NFL's next defensive power.
» Injuries are starting to take a toll on the Colts' beleaguered offensive line. The unit recently lost two starters (C Jeff Saturday and LT Charlie Johnson) to injury, and the potential long-term absences significantly weakens the team's front line. Saturday, who is scheduled to miss two to six weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery, has been a fixture along the line for years, and his ability to make all of the pre-snap adjustments keys the Colts' no-huddle attack. Although his potential replacements (Jamey Richard or Mike Pollak) are solid players, they lack the leadership and intangibles that the 11-year veteran brings to the table.
Johnson's injury is even more troublesome because he was responsible for protecting Peyton Manning's blindside. His absence forces Tony Ugoh onto the field, which has been problematic for the team in the past. The former second-round draft pick has been a disappointment since entering the league, and his presence is unlikely to inspire a lot of confidence from Manning. Last season, the Colts surrendered the fewest sacks in the league, so it is imperative the team's replacements step up their respective games to ensure the Colts get off to a fast start.
» Anthony Gonzalez is set to return after missing most of last season nursing an injury, but it will be interesting to see what his role will be after the surprising emergence of Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon last year. Gonzalez, who had 57 receptions for 664 yards and four touchdowns in 2008, previously served as the Colts' third receiver during his first two seasons before landing a starting role last year. However, Garcon's penchant for playmaking makes him a natural fit as the No. 2 receiver opposite Reggie Wayne, so Gonzalez will have to unseat Collie for playing time as the slot receiver. While conventional wisdom would suggest the Colts will use more four-receiver sets to take advantage of their superior depth at receiver, the presence of tight end Dallas Clark makes that an unlikely long-term tactic. Regardless of how Gonzalez's role eventually shakes out, it is clear the Colts will sport a deeper and more versatile pass attack in 2010.
» One of the players under the microscope this preseason will be Curtis Painter. The second-year quarterback is listed as Manning's backup, but his spotty performance in two games last season has raised questions about his ability to run the offense in the event of an injury. Painter, who completed only 28.6 percent (8 of 28 for 83 yards) of his passes and tossed two interceptions in two games, struggled with his accuracy, decision-making and execution.
Coach Jim Caldwell, however, expressed confidence that Painter would be fine if pressed into duty. He pointed out Painter's exceptional tools -- size, arm strength and athleticism -- as positives, and suggested that more opportunities in the preseason would result in better play. Unlike his predecessor, Jim Sorgi, who saw plenty of action in blowout victories, the Colts played a number of close games that prevented Painter from getting valuable time in mop-up duty. Given his relative inexperience at the position, expect Painter to see significant action in the preseason to bring him up to speed.
» The Colts' running game has ranked among the league's worst units the past few seasons, but Joseph Addai and Donald Brown are eager to prove the team can run the ball effectively. In speaking with the duo after practice, both intimated that the Colts' meager output is the result of limited opportunities, rather than ineptitude. The Colts averaged only 22.9 rushing attempts per game a season ago, which ranked second-to-last in the league, and the team only had two games with 30 or more carries. Of course, the presence of a four-time MVP under center would lead most coordinators to lean on the passing game, and Manning's freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage could have contributed to the duo's scant opportunities. With Manning enjoying such a stellar year through the air, his reluctance to hand the ball off to one of his runners is understandable. However, with more teams intent on slowing down the Colts' potent aerial attack, Manning might be forced to lean more on his running game this year.
» The Colts' newfound depth at defensive end might encourage Coyer to experiment with some different combinations in his pressure packages. Jerry Hughes and John Chick have flashed intriguing rush skills during camp, and they could fill key roles as situational pass rushers behind Pro Bowlers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. In addition to serving as rotational players, the duo could find themselves on the field with Freeney and Mathis as part of a "speed rush" on long-yardage situations. More teams have started putting their four best rushers on the field to maximize their potential, and the Colts could be next in line to experiment.
Watching Manning direct the Colts' offense is like an orchestra conductor during practice. The four-time MVP has complete control of his offense, and watching him operate it with such precision is a thing of beauty.