2009 Colts Mini-Camp: The Defense

We talked offense. We dissected special teams. Now, we chew the virtual fat on the defense.

Just like the special teams, the Colts are working with a new coordinator as we move forward into the Jim Caldwell era. Gone is longtime coordinator Ron Meeks, who is now coaching for the Carolina Panthers. Early reports say players in Carolina like Meeks and are responding well to him. The same is true for new Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer with Indy's players. Whether it's defensive captain Gary Brackett or super-star Dwight Freeney, Colts players are taken by Coyer's knowledge and experience.

"Larry has a lot of energy. He’s an older gentleman, but he has a wealth of football knowledge," Brackett said. "You’re just blown away every time you meet with him. You’d better have a notebook because there will be a lot being said."

Reading between the lines, the Colts will run the same base Tampa 2 defense they've had since 2002. The wrinkles they will add are likely new blitz and coverage packages aimed at generating more turnovers.

 

Defensive Ends

The Colts sport the best DE tandem in football with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Both are Pro Bowlers. Both are studs. Both are effective stopping the run, despite what many an idiot pundit who doesn't watch the games says. Raheem Brock is the under-the-radar DE who often gets little recognition for just how very good he is rushing the passer and stopping the run. He can also switch inside to defensive tackle, though his days as a DT are likely over. Remember, Brock was the starting DT during Indy's Super Bowl run in 2006, but the wear and tear of playing DT at 275 pounds is making Brock susceptible to more nagging injuries.

Likely, the starting DEs will be Freeney and Brock, with Mathis coming in to play significant nsaps at both LE and RE.

Backing up the three headed monster are promising second year players Marcus Howard and Curtis Johnson. Both players are lighting quick speed rushers, in particular Howard. Howard is actually faster than Freeney, and the Colts' defensive line John Teerlick is developing Howard into another Robert Mathis. In very limited playing time last year, Howard amassed 1.5 sacks and 19 tackles. He needs to develop a few pass rushing moves before he can showcase his true potential, but Howard has all the talent to develop into a special player.

Due to the development of Howard and Johnson, no one player at defensive end is on the "hot seat." The Colts typically carry five DEs on the active roster, and they seem very happy with the five DEs they currently have.

One to Watch: Marcus Howard

On the Hot Seat: No one

 

Defensive Tackle

"Defensive tackle" is very nearly a four letter word with Colts fans. For eight years, this team has tried to find consistency at the DT position, but ultimately failed. Booger McFarland was the best DT this club has ever had, but his career ended in 2007 when he blew out his knee just two days into training camp. 

In 2009, the Colts decided to shift their focus to fixing the DT dilemma. Despite the hard, tough play of Eric Foster, Keyunta Dawson, and Antonio "Mookie" Johnson last year, the Colts were not happy with how well the DT position played.Their first action was to draft two promising young tackles from two big time college football programs. Fili Moala was drafted in round two to play the under tackle spot, which requires the tackle to penetrate the gaps in the o-line and create havoc in the opponent's backfield. The other tackle taken was Terrance Taylor. Taylor is more of a traditional "nose tackle," or over tackle in the Tampa 2 scheme. His job will be to occupy multiple blockers so that the other tackle and the DEs can pressure th opponent's backfield. Of the two, Moala could have the biggest immediate impact. Barring some kind of setback, look for him to start Week One.

The other key moves the Colts made on draft day were rookie free agent signings. Indy signed talented rookie DTs in Adrian Grady and Pat Kuntz. Both are "under tackle"-types, using speed, leverage, and quickness to generate pressure. Of the two, Grady seems to have the most talent. Grady's knock is he's battled injuries all throughout. Kuntz is a tough kid who plays 100% all the time. He could quickly become a coach's favorite.

The final move the Colts made to shore up the DT spot is the re-signing of Ed Johnson, a player they had kicked off their team back in September 2008. Big Ed's second go-around with the Colts could see him doing what he did before: Playing over tackle, and playing it well. In 2007, Ed Johnson started every game at DT, replacing Booger McFarland, who worked with Ed dissecting game film while he tried to rehab his knee. The Colts run defense was outstanding when Big Ed played DT. With his head seemingly screwed on straight, Big Ed could return to being a dominant force in the middle for this Colts defense.

Now, all the players I just touched on did not play for Indy in 2008, save for Ed Johnson (who played just one game). Prior to Indy adding these players, they already had four DTs on the roster, each with significant playing time logged in 2008. Raheem Brock also played several snaps at DT, but with the pool of talent now injected into this team, Brock's days at DT are likely over. For a time, he was the best DT Indy had.

Antonio "Mookie" Johnson was signed from the Tennessee Titans practice squad last November. He was thrust into the starting lineup almost immediately, and quickly showcased his talents as a nose tackle. Considering he had all of seven days to learn the defense before he started, I'd say Mookie played outstanding. With a full off-season and training camp under his belt, Mookie could very well retain his starting DT spot. The team is also very high on second year man Eric Foster. Foster seems a natural under tackle but had to play nose tackle much of 2008 due to injuries to other players. At 270 pounds, Foster did his best to hold his own, but often was not successful. He might have more success and development as a under tackle.

The guys seemingly left out in the cold are Daniel Muir and Keyunta Dawson. Muir is an over tackle who spent much of 2008 hurt. Dawson is the whipping boy for many a Colts fan. At roughly 255 pounds, he is a very small DT. But, despite what people think, Dawson has played very well despite the fact he had no true nose tackle playing next to him. The team might consider moving Dawson to DE, as it is doubtful they will retain him as a DT.

With so much talent in the DT position, it is hard to imagine the run defense not improving in 2009. The big question is "Who will play?"

One to Watch: Fili Moala

On the Hot Seat: Keyunta Dawson

 

Linebackers

The Colts entered 2008 with Freddy Keiaho at WILL, Gary Brackett at MIKE, and Tyjuan Hagler at SAM. They ended 2008 with Tyjaun Hagler at WILL, Freddy Keiaho at MIKE, and Clint Session at SAM. In 2009, the starting linebackers heading into camp are Clint Session at WILL, Gary Brackett at MIKE, and second year player Philip Wheeler at SAM.

This means one-time starters Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler are now back-ups.

The Colts also dabbled in free agency a bit, which is extremely rare given that they NEVER signed a free agent linebacker during the entire Tony Dungy era. Indy signed reserve linebacker Adam Seward to back-up at MIKE and SAM. With Hagler, Keiaho, and now Seward, the Colts have one of the deepest corps of linebackers this blogger has ever seen in his three years covering the Colts for SB Nation. With both Seward and Wheeler, the Colts also have a bit more size at the SAM spot. Both backers are 6'2, 240-245 pounds.

The Colts also have speedy Michael Okwo, who they poached from the Chicago Bears, and solid WILL linebacker Jordan Senn (who is a good special teams player as well. The team also signed Ramon Humber, Mike Tauiliili, and Tyrell Sales. Humber and Sales seem like camp fodder, but the team seems to like Tauiliili (though I think the team's jersey and marketing department don't).

One to Watch: Philip Wheeler

On the Hot Seat: Ramon Humber and Tyrell Sales

 

Cornerbacks

The Colts are VERY deep at cornerback, though they have some guys who need to start proving they can do something to help this team. They also have two significant players returning from major knee surgery, and their status come week one will go a long way to determining just how deep the corner position is.

The Colts re-signed Kelvin Hayden to a big contract this off-season. Hayden is the best corner on the roster. He's big, physical, and can run with anyone. He can also tackle and is a threat to score anytime he gets his hands on the football. Just ask the Bears. Returning, rather dramatically, from major knee surgery is Marlin Jackson. Jackson blew out his knee last year but, astonishingly, he is now running with the team and participating in OTAs. Hayden and Jackson, when healthy, are an excellent corner tandem able to match-up with most receivers.

The nickel back spot, so critical to a Tampa 2 defense, has Tim Jennings penciled in. Jennings started several games last year after Marlin Jackson was hurt. Jennings will likely face stiff competition from another player returning from injury: T.J. Rushing. Rushing developed into a pretty good nickel corner in 2007, but missed all of 2008 after a knee injury in training camp. The Colts also drafted Jerraud Powers in round three of the draft this year, indicating  the Colts expect big things from him. Third round picks are expected to make immediate impacts, not simply sit on the sidelines and learn.

The two guys who really need to show something are`Dante Hughes and Michael Coe. Coe has battled injuries for two years, and missed all of 2008. Hughes is the one who REALLY needs to step up. He looked very good in 2007 as a rookie, but seemed to find his way into Tony Dungy's doghouse in 2008. Hughes and Coe need to show they have something to offer this team or both 2007 picks could be camp casualties. Guys like Nick Graham and Travis Key are camp fodder. Brandon Foster is a good special teams player but he hasn't shown much ability to cover anyone.

One to Watch: Jerraud Powers

On the Hot Seat: Michael Coe and Dante Hughes

 

Safeties

Like the cornerback position, the Colts are stacked at safety. Like the DE position, they have two starters who are Pro Bowlers. Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea could be the best safety tandem in football. Bob, when healthy, is the best safety, period. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are great players, but neither has Bob's ability to flat out destroy ball carriers. Bob Sanders scares people when they run near him. Bob's problem is he cannot stay healthy. He's missed significant portions of the 2004, 2006, and 2008 seasons. With Bob, it seems odd-numbered seasons are his healthiest.

Backing up both safety spots is Melvin Bullitt, who could start for many teams and play at a Pro Bowl level. Bullitt is a speed demon who hits like a boxer. Larry Coyer will likely implement coverage packages in 2009 that feature Bob, Antoine, and Melvin on the field together. 

Matt Giordano is also a back-up safety for this team that could start for many other teams. Giordano is more suited for strong safety, but he can run with anyone and is known as a violent hitter. Because this area is so deep with high quality talent, no one player is really on the hot seat. Indeed, if anyone is under the microscope, it's Bob Sanders. He needs to play a full season healthy again.

One to Watch: Melvin Bullitt

On the Hot Seat: No one

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