This offseason, the outside of Lucas Oil Stadium underwent some renovations. The giant picture of Dwight Freeney came down, as did the giant picture of the Colts' horseshoe logo. In their places, the pictures of kicker Adam Vinateri and safety Antoine Bethea were put up, signifying their importance to the ball club and the legacy that they have already created.
Both of those aspects are true of Bethea, and he is especially important to the Colts' success in 2013, so much so that he is the number 9 player on our list of the 13 players most important to the Colts in 2013. Some would argue that Bethea isn't even the most important safety to the Colts' success this year and that instead LaRon Landry is, but I would argue against that and really, there's not much of a debate.
Last season, Antoine Bethea wasn't his usual self. He had a down year and played downright bad at times. If it weren't for the fact that it was Tom Zbikowski starting alongside him, more people might have realized it and talked about it. Still, he racked up 100 tackles, 2 sacks, and 7 passes defensed while starting all 16 games (plus the playoff game). If he plays the same way he did in 2012, however, it's safe to say that more people will realize it and the Colts' secondary will have some serious struggles. The good thing is that Bethea's track record is that of great play, not poor play. And I absolutely think that Bethea can get back to the level of play that put his name amongst the top NFL safeties.
Drafted by the Colts in the 6th round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Bethea had an impressive rookie season, racking up 90 tackles, 4 passes defensed, and an interception. He followed that up with 65 tackles, 8 passes defensed, and 4 picks in 2007, and from then on he has been downright great in the Colts' secondary. From 2008-2011, Bethea topped 100 tackles in 3 of the 4 seasons and coming in just shy of 100 with 95 in the other season (2009). He defensed 21 passes and picked off 7 more in that time span, including another 4 interception season in 2009, and he also forced 5 fumbles. In 2011, he totaled an incredible 139 tackles as a safety. In fact, tracking numbers from the 2009 season through the 2011 season, Pro Football Focus found that Antoine Bethea had the most tackles amongst all safeties in the league in that time span with 311 total tackles (Tyvon Branch was second with 299 tackles).
Those numbers show two things: 1) Antoine Bethea is an incredible player who racks up incredible numbers for a safety, and 2) the Colts defense over that time period was really bad.
In a response to the PFF numbers, Brad Wells wrote last offseason that, "Antoine Bethea might just be the best safety the Indianapolis Colts have ever had. Yes, better than Bob Sanders. Unlike Sanders, who was so brittle it was almost comical, Bethea always plays."
And that is perhaps what is most impressive about Antoine Bethea - that, while playing at a physical position, he always is out there every week. In fact, the last time that he missed a game was December 30, 2007 against the Tennessee Titans. Since then, he has played in 87 straight games (including playoffs). He's always out there. And this year, the Colts need him to always be out there. They already have plenty of injury concerns at the other safety spot with Landry, so having a guy like the super dependable Bethea at the other spot is very welcome. But in order for the Colts' secondary to take the next step in 2013 like they want to, Bethea needs to do more than just get on the field - he needs to play well. And for most of his career, he has played like one of the league's premier safeties, though somewhat unheralded (making 2 pro bowls, in 2007 and 2009).
And there's plenty reason to think that Bethea will play up to that level again, if for no other reason that he's playing under a contract year - and I'm not sure if the Colts have plans to re-sign him at the moment. That all could change with a great season, and not only that, but the Colts' secondary would once again be anchored by the ever dependable, great play from the safety position in Antoine Bethea. He recently wrote the "Ten Things I Think I Think" column for the Monday Morning Quarterback and he wrote that, "I think we're going to keep building this monster."
If he plays well again like we're accustomed to Bethea playing, not only will they keep building the monster, but we'll see a defense that is really beginning to look like a monster too.
Check out our list counting down the 13 most important players to the Colts' success in 2013:
9. Antoine Bethea, safety