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Thursday, August 28, 2008
Scouts Inc.: New center of attention for Colts

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd

Anytime a team must replace an All-Pro it puts added pressure on the rest of the team, especially if it is on the offensive line at center. The Indianapolis Colts must deal with such a situation as 10-year veteran Jeff Saturday will be out for at least six weeks with a knee injury. His replacement on the line is still unknown.

Offensive line coach Howard Mudd wants rookie C Steve Justice to start in Saturday's place. If Justice fails to seize the spot, G Ryan Lilja could stabilize the position but would force Mudd to shuffle the offensive line.

This has to be a bit of a concern for the Colts offense because, in addition to having a new center, Peyton Manning has not worked with either player during the preseason. Had Manning had time to become familiar with Justice or Lilja, it would be a different story. However, Manning's knee injury has kept him off the field for much of the preseason.

Saturday and Manning have worked together nearly their entire careers. Saturday takes care of protections, identifies the middle linebacker, adjusts the blocking patterns based on the defensive line's movement and makes sure no defender has a free lane to the ball. It remains to be seen how Justice or Lilja would handle all that.

The Colts should still be able to have an up-tempo offense but Manning will need to be more in tune with the protections to help his new center. Manning is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league and he can handle the added pressure, but the fact that he is coming off an injury makes it even that much more difficult.

Justice or Lilja will be thrown into the fire during the first few weeks of the season, especially against Chiacgo DT Tommie Harris in Week 1, Minnesota DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams in Week 2 and Jacksonville DT John Henderson in Week 3.

With Manning sure to have trouble moving in the pocket and the new center lacking experience at the position in the NFL, don't be surprised if opponents target the Colts' interior protection. The shortest distance to the quarterback always is up the middle, so defensive coordinators often respond with pressure packages designed to exploit situations such as this.

A simple inside game -- say, the right defensive tackle attacks the A gap, the left tackle loops around the right tackle and a blitzing linebacker comes through the free alley vacated by the left tackle -- will put a lot of pressure on the Colts' center to protect the hobbled Manning.

To counter these pressure defenses and help Justice or Lilja, the Colts could use double-teams and provide extra help from a guard or a running back. Whoever gets the job will have to spend plenty of time in the film room to soften the blow of losing Saturday.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.