The Colts report to training camp in a matter of days, and soon we will get our first glimpse of the new regime. With coaching changes and the departure of first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Marvin Harrison captivating all the offseason headlines, some important storylines have flown under the media radar.
Despite the attention to the new leadership, the team's overhaul of its linebacking corps could have the most impact on their success this season.
The Colts' well documented struggles in run defense last season were blamed primarily on the loss of their top two defensive tackles at the beginning of the 2008 campaign, but the linebackers were also inconsistent, particularly after middle linebacker Gary Brackett went down with an injury.
The team has made significant changes to the unit in the offseason; competitions for starting roles and general performance of the unit as a whole will definitely be an area to watch during training camp.
The Colts allowed two former starters at linebacker, Freddy Keiaho and Tyjaun Hagler to test free-agency and resigned both as expected backups. The team’s only major free agent acquisition this offseason was also a linebacker, former Carolina Panther Adam Seward.
The Colts also decided to move Clint Session from strong-side linebacker to the weak-side. This means the only linebacker position that is projected to have the same starter as last season is the middle linebacker spot that has been held by defensive captain Gary Brackett since the 2005 season.
The move for Session could pay big dividends. The Will linebacker in the Tampa-Two defense is often in a playmaking position because it is usually unblocked.
Fast players like Derrick Brooks and Lance Briggs have made this position famous, and linebackers that don’t get much acclaim in other systems, like Cato June, can have pro-bowl seasons on the weak side.
Success at the position depends on speed and range because the Will linebacker must frequently chase the play down from the back-side. Clint Session is a faster player than Keiaho, who started on the weak side last season; according to nfldraftscout.com Session ran a 4.57 40-yard dash compared to Keiaho’s 4.68 at their respective pro days.
Session made a habit of tackling runners in the backfield last season from the strong side where he frequently lined up against a tight end. He should excel in run defense where he will be free to roam.
However, Session’s coverage abilities will be tested at his new position. In the Tampa-Two system that the Colts employ, the middle linebacker generally drops into a deep middle zone on passing plays. This leaves a large gap in the coverage underneath in the middle of the field that the outside linebackers are responsible for.
The strong-side linebacker is usually lined up against a tight end and is expected to cover him while he is in his zone. The weak-side linebacker must have excellent range and extremely quick reactions in order to make plays on running backs running routes out of the backfield and wide receivers that find soft spots in the coverage underneath.
Session will have to show improved instincts this season in order to punish opposing offenses that run routes over the middle of the field.
While Session was a starter last season, the other outside linebacker position is very likely going to be occupied by one of last season’s reserves.
Sources close to the team project Philip Wheeler, a second year player out of Georgia Tech, to be the starting strong-side linebacker in 2009. I asked John Oehser of indyfootballreport.com about Wheeler during the Colts’ minicamp in June:
“Strong-side linebacker will almost certainly be his job to lose entering training camp, and I’d be surprised if he’s not the starter,” he reported.
At 6'2" and 240 lbs, Wheeler brings a little more size to the position than the Colts have had in the past, and if Larry Coyer does intend to blitz more frequently than Dungy’s teams did, Wheeler is a perfect prospect to do so.
In college, Wheeler started his career at defensive end and posted 19 sacks in his four years at Georgia Tech. His pass rushing experience also includes blitzing from the linebacker position; he had four sacks as a middle linebacker in his senior season.
He will have competition for the position from Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler, who both have more game experience than Wheeler. Keiaho was considered the best linebacker on the field when Brackett was forced to sit out the last four games of the regular season and the playoff loss to San Diego, so it was a bit of a surprise that the Colts let him test the free agent market and hesitated to resign him.
Although Wheeler may be an experienced blitzer, he will have to prove himself in pass coverage to keep the starting position. The Tampa-Two defense relies heavily on generating pressure from the defensive line, and although Larry Coyer implemented many creative blitz packages during his tenure with Denver, he will not need to blitz nearly as much with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis at his disposal.
Wheelers size should help him shed blockers and make tackles in run defense. The Colts have clearly put emphasis on increasing the overall size of the team, and this could allow the team to use less eight man fronts this season.
If Wheeler is a liability in pass coverage, he could still keep the starting position if he excels in run defense since he can be replaced by a nickle cornerback on obvious passing downs.
Although there are major upsides to the overhauled linebacker unit, there may be some growing pains for players adjusting to new roles. The scheme is quite possibly the simplest defensive style in existence, and Tony Dungy has said “if you can count to three, you can play in this defense.”
But gap control is critical and requires a trust in teammates that only comes through experience. Each player in the front seven is responsible for one gap in the Tampa-Two defense, and if a player overruns their gap even marginally, it can result in big plays for an opposing offense.
It will be important for the linebackers to gain some cohesion as a unit in training camp and preseason. If Gary Brackett can make a successful return from his injury, his experience and leadership should help Wheeler and Session get comfortable at their new positions.