20 Questions: The Indianapolis Colts' 2009 AFC South Preview

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20 Questions: The Indianapolis Colts' 2009 AFC South Preview
(Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

In five days, the Colts will kickoff their 2009 season at home against the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ideally, a team less than a week from its opener shouldn't have any questions about their roster. However, as talented as the Colts are overall, there are some questions that remain.

So, let's play 20 questions concerning the Colts and how they stack up in the AFC South Division.

 

20. Is Jim Caldwell ready to step into the shoes of a coaching legend?

Regardless of how you personally feel about Tony Dungy, the man left Indianapolis a legend. Things like that happen when you help give the city it's first Super Bowl victory. As for Caldwell, he has to be ready.

Usually when a coach leaves, it's because he had a poor record with a bad team. Dungy left on his terms, so the pressure is on Caldwell to step in and keep the momentum going.

Even though the Colts have been winning for years (for me, that's a wife and four kids ago!), the window has certainly not closed on this team. Only four Colts have over nine years' experience, and one of them, Peyton Manning, is certainly still in his prime.

The fact is this team has the talent to win for several more years. Caldwell must produce or Irsay will be forced to make a move soon before Manning is too old.

Frankly, for Irsay to name Dungy's successor a year before Dungy left is a good indication that the Colts feel secure in Caldwell's leadership.

 

19. Who's new to the team that we should be watching in '09?

I'd love to say first round pick Donald Brown, but I think it's time I admit my bromance for Austin Collie. The fourth-round pick has impressed me with his work ethic, and ability to quickly learn the Colts' offense. He'll make plays in the slot and I think he could be a darkhorse fantasy candidate by season's end.

That's not to say Brown is a slouch. In fact, I expect Brown to be a very productive rookie. But as a first rounder, there's a level of expectation in regards to his production. Few would have though Collie would be productive as a rookie as just a fourth round pick.

 

18. You mentioned fantasy football. So who's someone that is a must have for our leagues? Who should we stay away from?

We'll assume Manning is out of the equation here because he's a solid choice every year he plays.

As far as who you must have, Dallas Clark is the name that comes instantly to mind. Clark has long been overshadowed in the AFC by the likes of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.

However, as Manning and the lesser experienced receivers get to know each other, Clark should blossom this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get his first 1,000-yard season of his career. Get him if you can. I believe only Jason Witten of Dallas will have a better year.

Now, it's not that I have anything against Anthony Gonzalez, but the third year wide out has something to prove. I've seen his name listed too many times as a breakout player to think that may actually be a curse.

Gonzalez didn't exactly set the world on fire during the preseason. That's not a sign of impending doom, but Gonzalez has to be a consistent No. 2 for Manning to keep defenses from rolling to Reggie Wayne's side. I think Gonzalez will eventually be good, but I wouldn't count on him to be a quality No. 2 fantasy receiver just yet.

And just as a side note, this is the first year since the Clinton administration that I haven't had a Colt on my team...and this is one year I'd really like to be a homer. Just a hunch.

 

17. Who finishes last in the AFC South this year?

Jacksonville. They have the most question marks. Maurice Jones-Drew is suddenly the offense there. Well, as a Colts fan, I remember what happened when Joseph Addai became the running game here. Addai couldn't do it. MJD is more durable than Addai, but still, it's a lot to ask of him to be the offense.

For some reason, everyone believes that David Garrard will bound back from his 2008 debacle. How do we know that wasn't the real him and that 2007 was a mirage? SI's Peter King raved about Garrard's deep touchdown pass in the preseason to Troy Williamson against the Bucs.

What I saw was Garrard trying the same play later on. He stood in the pocket long enough to make a ham sandwich...and eat it. Garrard got sacked. He still holds the ball too long.

What? Jacksonville just called. They reminded me they spent draft picks this year to sure up the offensive line. Shame they have been mediocre at best.

The defense isn't as scary once Marcus Stroud left the line. Mike Peterson is gone now too.

The best thing that could happen to this team is that finally get rid of Jack Del Rio, who has been inconsistent at best since taking the Jaguar reins.

 

16. Any truth to the rumor that you had an inclusive interview set up with Bob Sanders, but he was injured on the way to the meeting?

No comment.

Seriously though, the Colts have to been secretly rumbling about the mega-contract Sanders signed at the end of the 2007 season. $20 million guaranteed is a lot for a half time player.

I love Sanders' play and intensity. There's no denying his impact when he's in the lineup.

If you look at his stats, he has always alternated his healthy seasons with an injury plagued one. Last year, he missed over half the season. History tells you this season should be a good one, but Sanders is already a question mark until week five.

If this makes two consecutive seasons of Sanders being sidelined a majority of the time, how much more can the Colts take?

Of course, I reserve the right to immediately jump back on the Sanders bandwagon if he comes back and repeats his 2006 playoff performance. And maybe, that's what the Colts always hope for as well.

15. What are the must see games of the 2009 Colts' schedule?

There are several.

The annual slug match with the New England Patriots is, frankly, the best must see game of every NFL schedule. Yes, the Steelers and Ravens are a great rivalry, but I like to see the occasional touchdown now and then.

The Patriots-Colts throwdown features the two best quarterbacks of this generation leading two high powered offenses. Both have underrated defenses that are capable of swaying the game to one side's favor.

I think NBC started promoting this game two months ago.

Still, this isn't the only marquee game on the Colts' schedule.

I'm excited about the week three match up in the desert with the Arizona Cardinals. Warner and Manning should make for an entertaining shootout.

The two tilts with the Tennessee Titans are always good football as well. Titans coach Jeff Fisher game plans against the Colts better than anyone in the league, save Belichick.

Five of the last six games have been decided by 10 points or less. Plus, with the Titans knocking the Colts off their lofty AFC South throne, there's a lot at stake this year.

Finally, the other matchup that intrigues me are the games against the Houston Texans. I like this Texans team. They have some playmakers on defense and some talented offensive players.

The Texans have only beaten the Colts once in their franchise's history, but last season's games were memorable.

Who can forget Sage Rosenfels' collapse in the game at Houston? And the rematch in Indianapolis was a hard fought six point Colts win. This is rapidly becoming a very good rivalry.

 

14. Out of those remaining three, then, who finishes third in the AFC South?

Houston, but with an asterisk. I would not be surprised to see Houston finish second in the division. The only real question I see with this team is at quarterback. If Schaub can stay healthy, I think they can finish second.

However, Schaub has yet to play more than 11 games in a season since joining the Texans. In five games, do you see Rex Grossman leading this team to a winning record?

No.

So until Schaub shows me he can make it to that 12th game and beyond, they have to stay third, but this is the most dangerous the Texans have ever been.

 

13. What's the worst game on the Colts' schedule?

The game at Baltimore. No, not because of the matchup. I love the matchup of the great Colts' offense vs. the great Ravens' defense (incidentally, Jim Mora was the Colts' coach the last time Indianapolis lost this game).

No, it's for the incessant ramblings of some, not all, Ravens' fans about how Indianapolis stole their beloved Colts. The Colts were in Baltimore for 30 years. They've now been in Indianapolis for 25.

It's time to move on. The Ravens are a great franchise with a Super Bowl title of their own. Embrace them, and give the Mayflower sob story a rest.

 

12. Who's the Colts' defensive MVP?

Gary Brackett. True Colts fans know Brackett's worth to the team. The usually sturdy Brackett missed the last four games of 2008 due to a leg injury.

In that time, the Colts has their worst defensive performance, yardage wise, of the season against the Jaguars. They also surrendered over 300 yards of offense to the 0-16 destined Detroit Lions. Even out four games, Brackett still had 113 tackles.

Brackett is the leader of this defense. Dwight Freeney and Sanders get the headlines, but the Colts are run by Brackett's play.

Considering he's the one consistent player with significant experience in the linebacking core, Brackett's presence on the field is vital to the Colts success.

 

11. And the offensive MVP?

You finally get a canned answer. It's Manning. However, Colts fans should be excited about seeing Manning under center from the beginning this year.

The ever-competitive Manning is sure to want to get the Colts off to the fast starts they enjoyed from 2005-2007, and not the stumbling they had in 2008 as Manning's knee healed.

If it's even possible, Manning may be more prepared to start this season than ever before.

10. Who is the real Addai, the 2008 one or the 2006 one?

I truly believe it's the 2006 one. In 2006, Addai and Rhodes split the carries and combined for a lethal running combination. Their 2006 stat lines? 1722 yards and 12 touchdowns. Throw in 76 catches and the one-two punch of Addai and Rhodes was very effective.

In 2007, Rhodes left for the Black Hole of Oakland and Addai was left to carry the burden alone. Addai got nine less yards than he did in 2006, but he had 35 more carries. His average per rush dropped from 4.8 to 4.1.

Injuries made his 2008 stats dip even more.

When Brown was drafted in the first round this year, many wondered if it meant the end of Addai in a Colts' uniform.

I think Brown was drafted to make Addai better. Addai will no longer be asked to be the Colts' beast of burden. A fresher Addai will be a more productive Addai. Look for the Addai/Brown combination to put up numbers similar to the Addai/Rhodes combo of 2006.

 

9. Which Colts' player will have the least impact in 2009?

Easy, Curtis Painter. The Colts obviously see some sort of future in Painter. The Purdue product showed some mobility in the preseason and he has a strong arm. However, Painter has as much chance to see the field in 2009 as Jeff George does.

Manning has missed one snap of his entire career, and even if the unthinkable happens, Jim Sorgi has an impressive 89.9 career QB rating and a six to one touchdown/interception ratio.

Learn, Painter, just learn.

 

8. What formation would you like to see the Colts in this year?

Imagine this. The Colts face a key third down. In comes Addai and Brown. Manning is in the shotgun, with the running backs flanking him. Wayne is wide left, Gonzalez is wide right. Clark is in the slot. Who does the defense cover? Remind me to fire up Madden 2010 to test this out when I'm done.

Seriously though, with Pierre Garcon and Collie also showing some potential in the passing game, the Colts will feature some very attractive spread formations. There's a lot here to give defense's fits all season long. 

 

7. Okay, we are saving the tough questions for the end. Will the Colts finally stop the run this year?

Obviously, Jones-Drew and the Jags provide the first test, but for the first time since Booger McFarland was here, there's reason to hope.

The Colts boast nearly three quarters of a ton at the defensive tackle position. The Colts will finally have a rotation of near or above 300 pounders to constantly plug up the center of the line.

Ed Johnson, back after being cut for violating team policy, looks to prove he belongs back in the league. Starting with him is Antonio Johnson. The Colts snagged this Johnson from the Titans' practice squad last year and it was a great pickup. Even when the reserves come in, the bulk stays.

This may actually help out the Colts' undersized linebacking corps. In the past, the smaller defensive line would get pushed back and the linebackers couldn't get out of the blocks to make plays. With a bigger line taking up space, the speed of the linebackers should enable them to make plays, assuming their tackling has improved.

The space eaters will also allow the Colts' strength, the great rush end duo of Freeney and Robert Mathis, to do what they do best...get around the tackles and into the backfield.

 

6. Defense sounds good. Does the offense have any other concerns?

I've stated before that no unit on the Colts' roster has more to prove than the offensive line. The line caught a lot of slack for the poor rushing performance last year. However, both Jeff Saturday and Ryan Lilja start the year healthy which will greatly improve the overall line's play.

The only real concern is at the left tackle position. Charlie Johnson is the starter for now. If he falters, Tony Ugoh will get a chance to win his spot back. Hopefully the Colts have their answer in one of these two players. If one of them can step up and be the anchor on the left side of the line, the line will be vastly improved from 2008.

5. So if the Colts' have a true Achilles' heel, what is it?

The return game. Anyone remember Clarence Verdin? It seems the last time the Colts had a real breakaway threat was when this little speedster was running backwards 20 yards to gain 40.

Sure, there's been the occasional highlight with Terrence Wilkins somewhat recently, but the Colts have suffered with a poor return game for much of Manning's career.

The Colts need to have a return game that can at least give Manning and the offense consistently decent field position.

The coverage units have also been suspect at times. This team will have great balance if it can limit the number of short drives it gives to the opposition, while giving Manning and company good field position.

 

4. Much as been said of the Colts' coaching changes. Outside of Caldwell, which change is most significant?

Without a doubt, it's the hire of defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer. Coyer brings a blitzing philosophy to Indianapolis. The Colts, quite simply, have not been a blitzing team under Dungy. Last season, the Colts were near the bottom in opponents time of possession and third down conversion.

Priority number one for Coyer is to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and limit the number of possessions they have. If Coyer can do this, imagine what the offense could do with the ball more often than before?

The Colts need to escape their bend, but don't break philosophy. The defense has the speed to get after people, and hopefully Coyer's schemes produce results this year.

 

3. So, back to the AFC South. Who's second?

The Titans. It seems a lot of people are split on who will win this division between the Colts and the Titans this year, but the Colts have an edge in one significant area.

Schedule.

The Colts, with a second place schedule, avoid teams like San Diego and Pittsburgh in the regular season. The Titans do not.

In fact, the Titans open the season in the worst possible way, at Pittsburgh on opening night. No defending champ has lost this opening season game.

Remember when the Colts opened the season against the Saints after winning the Super Bowl? New Orleans never stood a chance.

Throw in the fact that the Steelers will remember the terrible towel incident from last season, and it's easy to see how the Titans season can start off on the wrong foot.

Also, the Titans lost more than the Colts did in the off-season. While Tennessee still boasts a talented defense, teams had to gameplan for Albert Haynesworth.

Without a game-changing defensive force, the Titans lose some of the intimidation factor they had last year.

That, and it's asking an awful lot for soon-to-be 37 year old Kerry Collins to repeat the magic of 2008.

 

2. That means the Colts win the division?

Yes, this should be their division to lose. Remember, the Titans ended up winning the division by just one game. This was after the Colts' had spotted them a four game lead after Indianapolis stumbled out of the gate.

The Colts are healthier and have a chance to set the pace early on. And we know how this team performs if they can get a division lead early in the season.

 

1. So just how far can this team go?

Obviously, they are a Super Bowl contender.

This team isn't without its fair share of questions.

But, if the offensive line gels...

If the defense can get off the field...

And if the running game is consistent...

This is a team that can play in Miami come February. And we all remember who won the last Super Bowl in Miami

Right?

Oh, sorry, my 20 questions are up.

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