The Indianapolis Colts certainly haven’t had the defenders that became household names like the offense has, but this list was a lot more fun to produce and actually produced some tough decisions, unlike the offense.
Without further delay, let’s take a look at the 11 members making up the best Colt defense since the Mayflower arrived in 1984.
DE Dwight Freeney
A pretty easy pick is Freeney at the DE spot. One of the best pass rushers of his generation, Freeney is also underrated at his ability to attack the run by chasing down backs across the field.
With the new scheme this year, he isn’t always lined up so wide that he looks like he’s covering a slot receiver, and that has taken away the ability for opposing offenses to run to his side.
Freeney is arguably the biggest game-changer the Indy defense has ever had, and a no-brainer on this roster.
DE Steve Emtman
Maybe Robert Mathis is technically the correct pick due to his overall contribution, but Steve Emtman deserves consideration for the contributions he made when healthy.
The first pick in the 1992 draft showed unbelievable talent, but was injured throughout his career.
He only had eight career sacks due to his frequent appearances on the IR, but when healthy, he could attack a running game and put fear into quarterbacks.
His only career interception came in South Florida and went for a touchdown, showing athleticism that was ahead of his time at the defensive end position.
Even bringing up the name around Colts fans leads to sighs and groans, wondering what might have been had he been able to play out a healthy career.
Honorable Mention: John Hand, Robert Mathis, Chad Bratzke, Donnell Thompson
DT Tony Siragusa
Siragusa’s 16½ sacks in his seven-year Indy tenure fired up an RCA Dome that was frequently quiet in those years.
However, as Manning has proven in recent weeks, sometimes the best way to judge a player is by what happens when he isn’t there. Coming off of two playoff appearances, “The Goose” was waived prior to the 1997 season.
The 1997 Colts went 3-13, and allowed 401 points, one of the worst marks in the history of the NFL. Opponents gashed the D-Line for 4.6 yards per carry, and 127 yards per game.
In 1996, with the fan favorite Siragusa, those number were a very respectable 334 points allowed, 3.8 yards per carry, and 110 yards per game, as the team earned their second consecutive wild-card berth.
There were more pieces absent than just Siragusa in 1997, but his ability to plug the run and allow the linebackers to flow freely to the ball easily secure him a spot on this list.
DT – Ellis Johnson
I had more trouble with this spot than any other spot on the roster. Lots of capable players have rotated through the Colts DT positions over the past 25 years, but few played at a very high level for extended periods of time.
I guess taking the abuse that a defensive tackle gets on Astroturf doesn’t yield itself to longevity.
With that said, Ellis Johnson is the Colts all-time leader in sacks from the tackle position, even if you subtract the games he started at end.
Like Siragusa, the run defense became more porous once Johnson left the club in 2002.
Honorable Mention: Montae Reagor, Harvey Armstrong
LB Gary Brackett
Brackett is on the list for leadership as much as talent, and he has displayed no shortage of either since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers.
Brackett was one takedown short from 2009 being his sixth straight campaign with at least 100 tackles.
He has benefited as much as anyone being under new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. Coyer has allowed Brackett to wander around a bit before the snap, and even to become effective as a blitzer.
Like all great players, he also has a knack for making a big play at a big time. He has three defensive touchdowns; one of the biggest was to spark a comeback win in Houston in 2008. His only interception this year sealed a win in Baltimore.
All winning teams have unsung heroes, and if Brackett keeps this up for too much longer, his song will be familiar all over the NFL.
LB Duane Bickett
Before Dwight Freeney went to Hawaii in 2003, Bickett was the last defensive Pro Bowler for the Horseshoes with his trip in 1987.
Bickett only missed three games in his tenure in Indianapolis from 1985 through 1993 (excluding the 1987 labor stoppage), and was extremely effective each year. He didn’t take plays, games, or seasons off.
He collected 50 sacks in Indianapolis, picked off nine passes, forced nine fumbles, and recovered another 14. He always seemed to be near the football, on either side of the line of scrimmage.
His 1,052 tackles during his tenure are still the most in team history. (Note: tackles were an unofficial statistic throughout most of NFL history, so this statistic can be misleading.)
He averaged almost eight tackles per game in Indy, before moving to Seattle in 1994. The Seahawks used him almost exclusively as a designated pass rusher, but in Indianapolis, he did everything anyone ever asked of him.
LB Jeff Herrod
Herrod left Indy the same off-season as Siragusa, and his absence was just as responsible for the 1997 tailspin.
Herrod made a splash in his rookie year of 1988, when he sacked Jim Kelly on a fourth down that appeared at the time to have put the Colts in the playoffs in the season’s final game.
Unfortunately for the Colts and Herrod, the Browns rallied from trailing 23-7 to beat Houston a few minutes later, and the Colts were denied.
Herrod, however, wasn’t done. He played both the left and right inside linebacker at times in a 3-4. He played middle, strongside and weakside linebacker in a 4-3. He blitzed, he covered, and always made tackles.
Herrod’s 1,036 tackles trail only Bickett in Indy’s history.
Honorable Mention: David Thorton, Quentin Coryatt
CB Marlin Jackson
Ok, it might be difficult to put someone who has only appeared in 55 career NFL games (regular season) on the list, especially when we has played almost as many games at safety as he has at corner.
However, it a traditionally weak position for the Colts franchise, and Jackson has made enough big plays in the course of 55 games to give fans the feel that he’s been around much longer.
Jackson was always a versatile player, and after playing primarily in nickel packages his rookie season, was obviously ready to see work on every down in 2006.
The question, however, is whether it would be at corner or at safety. He played safety in 2006, but found a home at corner in 2007.
Jackson is not only capable in coverage, but a very big hitter and can close the corner on a tailback extremely well. This allows him to make plays anywhere on his half of the field. In fact, since 2005, only Gary Brackett and Antoine Bethea have more tackles.
A few more season like the healthy 2006 and 2007 seasons, and this pick won’t be questioned at all. Of course, the fact he came up with the biggest interception in Colts history doesn’t hurt either. Colts fans won’t forget that one for a while, and neither will Tom Brady.
CB Eugene Daniel
Fans who starting watching in the late 1990’s probably wouldn’t agree with this pick, as toward the end of his 14-year career he had lost a step and started to get picked on a bit by opposing quarterbacks.
Those who saw him in the late 1980’s saw a different Daniel. They saw the man who tied for the league lead in interceptions in his sophomore season in 1985.
He picked off 38 in his career (35 with Indy in 13 seasons), which is still the Indianapolis Colts all-time mark.
Daniel also played the most games as a defender for the Colts, a record that includes the Baltimore days. Until someone can knock him out of the record books, he can’t be knocked out of this list.
Honorable Mention: Nick Harper, Kelvin Hayden
S Bob Sanders
After reading the write-up of Steve Emtman above, most Colts fans will sigh and hope the same is not said of Bob Sanders in another decade.
Sanders can’t get through a whole season healthy, but when he’s played he shows why is a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Not only that, but he was at his best where some of his teams were at their worst.
While probably not considerably better than average against the pass, Sanders is an unbeliever run stopper from the safety position. It almost becomes the equivalent of playing a 4-4 defense, as quickly as Sanders can get to, and then close, an open hole.
The teams in the middle part of the last decade were very good teams, but lacked an ability to stop the run between the tackles.
With the lead, the Colts could afford to overlook this, but when behind, it was exposed to the most novice of football observers. A healthy Sanders, however, was often enough to keep this weakness from costing the team wins.
Hopefully, he’ll play out a few completely healthy seasons, and remove any doubt that he is the best safety to patrol the Indianapolis turf.
S Mike Prior
Second only to Daniel in Indianapolis Colts interceptions, and sixth on the franchise roll in tackles, Prior came to Indianapolis in 1987 as a replacement player during the labor stoppage.
He had been out of football in 1986, after playing special teams for Tampa Bay in 1985. The Colts liked what he brought during the strike, and correctly left him on the roster when the union came back.
Prior did a little bit of everything for the Colts. He actually caught a pair of passes on special team trick plays in Indy.
He was the “hands” punt returner either protecting a lead or fielding a punt near the Colts red zone. His specialty was finding the ball, and he lead the team in tackles seemingly every game in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Prior also found the end zone in a thrilling December win over the Cleveland Browns in 1990, taking a Bernie Kosar pass back 58 yards to win the game in overtime.
The fact he joined the club as a scab may have limited his popularity in the locker room, but his popularity among Colts fans was not questioned.
Honorable Mention: Antoine Bethea, Chad Cota
Next Up: The special teams, front office, and others.