ESPN's John Clayton recently visited Colts training camp, and his evaluation of the defense has gotten more than a few fans a tad bit giddy:
The Colts could field one of their best defensive teams this season. Normally in camp, the Colts have a lot of starters standing on the sideline recovering from injuries. This might be the healthiest Colts defensive heading into camp. The most pleasant sight for Colts fans is safety Bob Sanders. Though a false report circulated before camp he might be facing a career-threatening injury, Sanders has been on the field for every practice and is running around like he was a couple of years ago.
The Colts know they can win games on offense, but they have developed enough good defensive play-makers through the draft to feel good about that unit as well.
The best defensive unit we've seen the Colts field in the Peyton Manning era was the defense in the 2006 playoffs and the 2007 regular season (pre-Dwight Freeney injury). Those defenses were dominant, and they both had one thing in common: There was a strong mix of veterans and young players.
In 2006, the Colts added veteran defensive tackle Anthony McFarland via trade and promoted long-time reserve middle linebacker Rob Morris to the starting SAM position. Also starting on the team were veteran corners Nick Harper and Jason David. These vets mixed in well with then-young players like Antoine Bethea, Bob Sanders, and nickel back Marlin Jackson. When the team transitioned into the 2007 season, many of the younger players were now Super Bowl champions, bristling with confidence. However, injuries robbed the Colts of a chance to repeat as champs in 2007, cutting down important vets like McFarland (knee injury in training camp), Rob Morris (knee injury Week Three), and Dwight Freeney (broken foot, Week Nine).
Since then, the Colts have mostly relied on young players to keep the defense going. Players like Daniel Muir, Jacob Lacey, Antonio Johnson, Philip Wheeler, and Jerraud Powers have needed to step in and play significant snaps despite not having much experience. For the most part, the results have been good. But, what has been lacking is that smart, veteran presence that the 2006 and pre-injury 2007 teams had.
With the the recent addition of Deshea Townsend, and the seemingly healthy return of Bob Sanders, the Colts now have the solid mix of experience and youth that could make this D special.
Reggie Hayes of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel wrote a great piece on Townsend a few days ago, and it warrant a highlight or two here:
Townsend, 34, unceremoniously discarded by the Steelers after 12 years with the team, didn't need much persuading. He accepted the chance to join the Colts in an area where they have some distinct youth and distinct need for depth.
If it's healthy, the Colts' secondary should be a good one. It includes former Pro Bowl players Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea and experienced Sanders replacement Melvin Bullitt at safeties, and veteran Kelvin Hayden and second-year players Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey at corners.
Where does Townsend fit? He's most likely to fill the role of fifth defensive back in the nickel package, replacing the departed Tim Jennings. But he also has the ability to play anywhere needed, and the savvy to do it well.
"I'm here to play, most definitely," Townsend said. "I'm competing, but I want to make sure the team is getting better if I'm not playing. … I'm looking to win a championship. There's no sense to be out in the heat running around if you're not doing it to win a championship."
Townsend has already been accepted into the team fold. I especially like the part in Hayes' story where Jerraud Powers tells Townsend he was 11 years old when Townsend was drafted in the fourth round of the 1998 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. For a guy like Powers, and for younger corners like Ray Fisher and Jacob Lacey, Townsend is someone they should latch onto. The man was a staple for some very dominant Pittsburgh Steelers teams in the last decade. He knows how to win in this league, and he knows how to do the little things that are needed to succeed playing corner in an aggressive-style of defense.
From Townsend himself:
"Coach (Jim) Caldwell and Mr. (Bill) Polian laid it out that ‘We have some young guys here who need some experience. Do you want the opportunity to come and share what it's all about, share some experience with these guys, show them it's important to care about defense and do it right?'"
For much of this off-season, people like me have been raising red flags over the issue of depth in the Colts secondary. Yes, starters Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers are quit good. Jacob Lacey is a solid nickel back. After those three, it was dicey. And based on Colts history the past three years, expecting Hayden and Powers to play all 16 games at corner was not realistic. Hayden has only started in 18 of 32 regular season games the past two season, and Powers missed four games last year.
Now, with Townsend in the mix, concerns over the availability of Hayden and Powers moving forward are calmed a bit. Townsend is no longer the player he once was, but if he is needed to start for a few games, he can fill in and be effective. Despite his "advanced" age as a corner (34), he started two games for the Steelers in 2009 and intercepted one pass while defending three others. He also racked up 24 tackles.
When you check out his player scouting report on SB Nation's page dedicated to Townsend, his strengths fit right in with what the Colts need:
Very experienced. Doesn't make dumb mistakes. Plays well as the deep corner in a Cover-3, where he can break on the ball before the pass is thrown. A sure tackler who gives a high effort against the run.
His negatives are what you would expect: He's old. He doesn't have great speed and he isn't going to run with someone man-to-man. In this defense, he doesn't have to. Yes, the Colts have played more man-to-man of late, but the base coverage packages for this defense are still Cover-2 and Cover-3. Both play to Townsend's abilities.
Finding a veteran like Townsend and adding him to a defense that already has young prospects like Jerry Hughes, Pat Angerer, and Mitch King provides the Colts with the right mix of talent and brains. This defense could be the strength of this team in 2010, and when you look at the skill players on offense, that's saying something.