AFC South: Ernie Sims

Early thoughts on some key Colts scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13.

Thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive right and restricted free agents.

QB Kerry Collins – He may not have filed paperwork, but he’s retired.

QB Dan Orlovsky – Showed enough to be on a roster in the league as a third quarterback in a crowded situation or a backup somewhere with a sure-fire starter.

WR Pierre Garcon – He’s inconsistent, but this team needs a speed receiver for Andrew Luck and it’s better to keep the one they’ve been developing than going searching.

WR Anthony Gonzalez – Was completely in the doghouse at the end and could not get on the field. Probably needs to sign for a season, in Indy or elsewhere, and prove he can be healthy and contribute.

WR Reggie Wayne – Has said he’d stay and be honored to be part of a rebuild, but they’d have to be fair. Other teams will court him and somebody will pay him better than the Colts would if they pursued him, I suspect.

TE Jacob Tamme – Was quite a good receiving option for Peyton Manning in 2010, but how much of that was Manning? I think Tamme is a valuable piece they should want back and can certainly afford.

OT Ryan Diem – Did well to serve as a veteran example for a young line and was flexible, playing some guard. But his time is going to be up.

OG Mike Pollak – Has played a lot and not gotten a lot better. They got new tackles last year; it’s time for a new guard or two.

OC Jeff Saturday – If Manning is gone, it would make sense to turn the page with Saturday, too. Reportedly the Colts and at least one other team would like him in their front offices.

DE Robert Mathis – Will be a commodity, for sure. Never mind his age. He can help you rush the passer for the next three years. Colts should want to keep him, but will they pay what he costs?

LB Philip Wheeler – If the Colts are getting bigger on defense, they’ll probably move on here. He’s consistently failed to get in or stay in the lineup for extended stretches in a defense for which he’s better suited.

Other UFAs:

Tamme, Sims starting for Colts

December, 18, 2011
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Matt Hasselbeck will start at quarterback for the Titans as we expected, as he’s worked through the calf strain that knocked him out of last week’s loss to New Orleans.

But with Hasselbeck and Jake Locker (chest) dinged up, third quarterback Rusty Smith is active for the first time all season.

The Colts have two lineup changes.

Jacob Tamme starts at tight end in place of Dallas Clark.

Ernie Sims starts at strongside linebacker in place of Philip Wheeler.

Earlier, this post said Mike Pollak would start at left guard in place of Joe Reitz. But the Colts announced about 20 minutes before kickoff that was an error and that Reitz will start.

Titans:
Colts:
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

One side effect of the Texans being good: merchandise sales are up. Ronnie Crocker of the Houston Chronicle looks at the traffic at the pro shop and beyond.

A bye-week review of the offense from Nick Scurfield of the team’s web site.

Indianapolis Colts

If the Colts don’t win a game, Ernie Sims and Dan Orlovsky will be part of a winless team for the second time, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Indianapolis Star.

Who to root for if you’re a Colts’ backer, from Nate Dunlevy of 18to88.com. The wrinkle: These picks maximize the chances of the Colts getting the top draft pick.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Cornerback Rashean Mathis faces a cloudy future, says Tania Ganguli of the Jacksonville Times-Union. His contract is expiring and he just tore an ACL.

The Jaguars found answers at safety, says Gene Frenette of the T-U, who remembers how bad the position was a year ago.

Tennessee Titans

The quality of the Titans’ pass protection and their run blocking don’t match up, writes John Glennon of The Tennessean. The disparity between the two is the largest in the league.

Tennessee expects chippy play from the Falcons offensive line, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.
Curtis Painter, Aaron RodgersUS PresswireCurtis Painter's Colts, left, and Aaron Rodgers' Packers are on pace for historic seasons.
We’re past the halfway point and there’s a team with a zero in the loss column and a team with a zero in the win column.

We smelled a Double Coverage.

Is one of those zeros going to last? We got our AFC South and NFC North wizards together to talk it out.

Paul Kuharsky: For starters, Kevin, on behalf of those who follow the AFC South, we'd like to thank the NFC North representative for deeming us worthy to be a conversational partner. I mean, your teams are a combined 21-11 and mine are a measly 12-22. You are indeed very gracious.

Kevin Seifert: No problem, Paul. As the blogger for the NFL's most dominant division, I thought it would be interesting to see how the other half lives. Maybe those of us in the Black and Blue could learn something. Perhaps the untold value of mediocrity?

PK: More graciousness. The Colts and Jaguars thank you for the compliment. They haven’t been viewed as even mediocre in some time.

OK, we’re here to discuss what’s more likely, the Colts going winless or the Packers going undefeated. I think finishing a 16-game season with a zero in either the W or L column is equally hard. Over in the AFC South, we’ve actually seen the flip side of this. The 2009 Colts had a shot at an undefeated regular season, and they took their foot off the gas, pretty much sacrificing the final two games of the season in the name of resting and preserving people.

It was their prerogative of course. They said it wasn’t about going undefeated, it was about winning it all. I thought they were stubborn, acting as if they couldn’t conceivably do both and suggesting there would be no extra meaning to it. When they lost the Super Bowl to the Saints, it was all moot. It’s remarkable that just two seasons later, we’re talking about an 0-9 Colts team with a shot to go winless. Maybe karma is in play.

KS: There is no doubt that winning all 16 regular season games is a difficult task and requires some luck.

But I think it's harder to go 0-16, and I speak from experience.

You forget, Paul, that three years ago I covered a team that didn't win a game all year. The 2008 Detroit Lions were a terrible team, hitting rock bottom with poor drafts and mismanagement, but they proved how hard you have to work to lose 16 games.

Just one example: The margin of victory in the Lions' 12-10 loss at the Minnesota Vikings that year was a safety. It occurred when quarterback Dan Orlovsky forgot where he was on the field and ran out of the end zone -- by a solid three yards -- while attempting to elude a pass rush. It was the easiest sack of defensive end Jared Allen's life.

Even someone like you, who isn't averse to embarrassing yourself on camera for your blog readers, could probably have avoided a safety on that play.

The point is that even a historically bad team is liable to get its chances to win a game. A really good team has a better chance of limiting its chances of losing. Hopefully that makes sense to your AFC South people.

PK: I didn’t forget, Chief, I was setting you up. And I know Mr. Orlovsky personally, as he’s been with the Texans and is now on the very Colts team we are talking about. Imagine, he and linebacker Ernie Sims could be part of two winless teams in a four-season span. That’s not a very good line on the old resume.

Though they’ve given me little reason to believe it, I still think the Colts win a game “by accident” in their final seven. Many people seem to think the big chance comes with Jacksonville coming to town this weekend. But apparently those people have not seen the Jaguars’ defense, which is capable of squashing the Colts. Dwight Freeney might need to score for Indy to win.

I look through what the Colts have left after the Jags and I can’t pick one to win -- Carolina, at New England, at Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and at Jacksonville. Those games at New England and Baltimore were expected to be monster AFC contests when the schedule came out. Now they might be breathers for the Patriots and Ravens.

I love the Packers, but they have a far more difficult road to a singular season -- they could lose on Thanksgiving at Detroit, they could lose a week later on the road against the Giants. They could lose on Christmas to Chicago or on New Year’s to the Lions, though it’s awfully nice that those last two are at home.

KS: They also could have lost last week to the San Diego Chargers, or in Week 1 if Mark Ingram had gotten the New Orleans Saints one more yard or in Week 3 if Cam Newton had converted one more fourth down for the Carolina Panthers. The point is the Packers have demonstrated to everyone watching that they have the tools and guile to pull out victories of all shapes and sizes and regardless of the circumstances.

There has been a fair amount of consternation about their pass defense, and even Charles Woodson has spoken out about it. They've been giving up gobs of yards all season, but to this point, they've minimized the impact by grabbing an NFL-high 16 interceptions.

The concern is that the Packers could be done in by a more efficient and careful quarterback than the ones they've played so far. The list of remaining quarterbacks on their schedule includes these names: Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford (twice), Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler.

So if the Packers don't do anything to improve their pass defense, that leaves the Lions and Giants as probably the best candidates to beat them. That assumes, of course, that Stafford and/or Manning not only play mistake-free but also match Aaron Rodgers in a score-fest. The Packers are averaging 34.4 points per game.

PK: I think the Colts' best stretch of play might actually be behind them. They nearly found a way to beat Pittsburgh in Week 3 but lost by 3, they were in it late in Tampa Bay on a Monday night but lost by a touchdown, they were in range of Kansas City but lost by four.

Every week is a new deal. We just saw the Dolphins emerge from a similar quagmire and win in Kansas City. The Colts could stumble into a game where things align for them. My gut still says they will, because 0-16 is so hard.

So my verdict: The Colts are more likely to go 0-16 than the Packers are to go 16-0. But I don’t think we’re seeing either.

You?

KS: We can agree on that: Neither is happening. But on the relative scale, I like the chances of Rodgers throwing a touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in Week 17 and sealing a perfect season more than the chances of Dan Orlovsky running out of the back of the end zone again.

Just a guess.
Jamaal Anderson Frank Victores/US PresswireJamaal Anderson has become a steady run-stopper for the Colts this season, collecting 13 tackles.
When a defensive lineman is drafted in the top 10 and isn’t an influential pass-rusher, he’s often labeled a bust.

Atlanta spent the eighth overall pick on Jamaal Anderson in 2007 and he started 60 games for the Falcons over four years. Four-and-a-half sacks later, he was considered a failure and sent packing.

But when the setting and expectations change, so can a player. With the Indianapolis Colts, Anderson has not been a disappointing first-rounder who doesn’t rush well enough. He has been a versatile run-stopper who has helped improve the front and taken a bit off the plate of Robert Mathis. Sometimes Anderson kicks inside as a tackle in nickel situations.

There is nothing to rave about on an 0-8 team, but Anderson is doing enough to rehabilitate his career and position himself for another contract with the Colts or someone else after the season.

“One of my downfalls was my lack of ability to rush the passer, so I thought what better than to come in under two great pass-rushers like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis?” Anderson said. “I’ve learned a lot from these guys and even though the season isn’t going like we want it to go, I feel like I am getting better week by week.”

A guy with a first-round pedigree usually gets a thorough look after he becomes available. The 2011 Colts didn’t view him like the 2008 Falcons did. And because of some of his physical qualities he will be attractive to some team after this season, a team that could get the sort of reward the Falcons wanted.

“I like Anderson,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “He can be a big base defensive end for the Colts in short-yardage situations or on run downs, but also can move inside to defensive tackle and give them the athletic ability they want from that position.

“Everyone considered Anderson a bust with Atlanta because he wasn’t a big sack guy. But he always played the run real well. If he would have been a second-round pick, everyone would consider him a solid football player. He was a good pickup for the Colts. In fact, their defensive line in general is pretty strong.”

Anderson sounds like a person who has things in perspective. He still recalls a conversation he had early in his NFL career with Michael Strahan.

“At the defensive end position, you might see a guy who has a huge impact his first year, but it’s highly unlikely it happens,” Anderson said. "My second year I met Michael Strahan in California. He said he remembered watching me on TV playing in college [at Arkansas] and the first thing he said was, ‘This guy looks exactly like me.’

“I took that as an honor, a guy like that saying he saw the same qualities. I remember him talking about his first few years in the league and how he had no idea what he was doing out there, how he couldn’t get the type of production he wanted. But he got about into his fourth year and that’s when he somewhat skyrocketed.”

Could a similar course be ahead for Anderson?

[+] EnlargeJamaal Anderson
AP Photo/Dave MartinAfter being drafted eighth overall in 2007, Jamaal Anderson struggled to meet expectations during four seasons in Atlanta.
I don’t think he’s anticipating becoming a sack master. But he is only 25. He chose the Colts because he wanted to work with Freeney and Mathis and under respected defensive line coach John Teerlinck. And he believes he can be a productive player with developing upside no matter what others may think.

“It definitely stings,” he said of being regarded as a bust. “It’s not a label you like to have on your name. I remember my first couple years, it was definitely frustrating for me. I was hurt by it, that’s the easiest way to say it. But you have to be able to find your role and you have to be able to come into yourself.

“When Atlanta let me go I had plenty of phone calls from other teams who obviously saw something in me. I don’t look at myself as a bust, I look at myself as a player that’s getting better game by game and year by year and I am going to continue to do that.”

He’d like to remain with the Colts beyond this season. He loves that Teerlinck is still working with him as a pass-rusher and said it’s beyond weird to have joined such a good franchise and now be part of a winless team.

Anderson, defensive end Tyler Brayton (another run-stopper) and linebacker Ernie Sims were the sort of veteran free-agent additions Indianapolis doesn’t usually make. Vice chairman Bill Polian said during the preseason that a market flooded with more free agents than usual after a lockout and a new CBA created a unique situation that left such players available.

He’s not thinking about it now, but Anderson said he’d certainly like a chance to remain with the Colts in 2012.

With Peyton Manning back, big free-agent issues sorted out and the Colts given time to fix a terrible secondary, I’d like to see what Anderson could offer to a better version of the team.

Breaking down Colts as they break down

October, 27, 2011
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Peyton ManningDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Colts were clearly ill-prepared for life without star quarterback Peyton Manning.
It’s ugly in Indianapolis.

At 0-7, the Colts are talking about sticking together, improving and giving themselves a chance to win.

But as they prepare for a trip to Nashville for a Sunday meeting with the Titans at LP Field, they are a severely broken team. Where they would be with Peyton Manning is an interesting hypothetical question, but we’re dealing with realities. And those realities are the sort that will test the franchise’s stitching -- seamwork that might not hold together when this is all over.

Who’s at fault? Everyone’s got a hand in it, but let’s look at the Colts from a couple of angles.

A big cover-up: It’s not a secret that Manning has helped cover up a lot of flaws and allowed the franchise to under-address certain areas.

The Colts during the Manning era have never been much concerned with size, always valuing speed and instincts more. They’ve never worried about stocking special teams with any veteran backups, in part because they spend their money on stars or adding a high-quality return man. They’ve settled for being below average running the ball. And they’ve won despite a general inability to stop the run.

Without their four-time MVP running the offense, all those things are magnified in ways they’ve never been before.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re built to have Manning at the controls, and he’s been there all the time from the very beginning in 1998 until opening day this season.

There are maybe two teams and markets in the league that would not trade for what the Colts have done since 1999. Twelve consecutive playoff seasons followed by one complete dud? Where do I sign up for that?

[+] EnlargeJacob Lacey
Michael Hickey/US PresswirePersonnel decisions by the Colts put cornerback Jacob Lacey, 27, in a prominent role in a secondary that has struggled this season.
Construct questions: That said, regardless of a serious neck surgery to the star quarterback, what exactly was the plan in the secondary? Is an evaluation that leaves Jacob Lacey, Terrence Johnson, Kevin Thomas and Chris Rucker as cornerbacks Nos. 2 through 5 good enough? Absolutely not.

The Colts get credit for adding a couple of outside veterans this season -- linebacker Ernie Sims, and defensive ends Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton. But the drafting has dropped off.

Set aside the most recent class, as it’s too early to judge.

The Colts drafted 41 players from 2005 through 2010. I count one star, safety Antoine Bethea, and two guys who can become stars, linebacker Pat Angerer and receiver Austin Collie (if he’s working with Manning). Running back Joseph Addai is a good fit who does more than people think. And receiver Pierre Garcon and cornerback Jerraud Powers have been pretty solid starters.

Sure, the Colts drafted higher in the five years before. Still, those classes produced five guys who rank among the best players of their generation at their positions: tight end Dallas Clark, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, safety Bob Sanders, and receiver Reggie Wayne. The next tier provided steady starters on the offensive line (Jake Scott, Ryan Diem) and at linebacker (David Thornton).

That list is more than a third of a starting team, a big-time core. As those guys age or disappear, I'm not seeing a core in waiting.

Colts president-turned-vice chairman Bill Polian said recently on his radio show that they needed to have done better recently, particularly at defensive tackle and cornerback.

And there is a domino effect to the problem. Find Tarik Glenn’s ultimate replacement at left tackle in 2007, and you don’t need to use your top pick in 2011 on Anthony Castonzo. Hit on Donald Brown in the first round in 2009, and Delone Carter might not be necessary in the fourth round in 2011.

The Polians: Bill Polian has been pulling back and yielding responsibility to his son, GM Chris Polian. (Chris politely declined to be interviewed for this story.)

We don’t yet have much tape on Chris Polian, so to speak. Bill Polian is a good talent evaluator who has had success in three NFL stops and has done well to build a team with which Manning has won. But Bill Polian also has overseen those recent draft drop-offs.

His strong-willed personality is part of what has made him good at his job, and his big-picture assessment of important league issues is as intelligent as anyone’s. He’s got clout and influence that extend beyond Indianapolis.

Stylistically, he’s a stubborn and demanding boss. There are indications from within that, without the steady stream of personnel hits he provided earlier in his tenure, some inside the building are tiring of the way things are run.

Bill Polian recently talked about how Curtis Painter's play vindicates the team for having faith in him, but failed to mention that faith was so strong that the team signed Kerry Collins to a $4 million contract shortly before the season started and handed him the starting job.

I suspect Bill Polian has the backing of owner Jim Irsay for as long as he wants it. That would ensure safety for Chris Polian, too.

Bill Polian made the Manning-over-Ryan Leaf call in 1998. Because of the way Leaf busted, people forget that was a coin flip at the time, that Leaf was regarded as a big-time prospect just as much as Manning was. Polian called it correctly, built a team that’s been to two Super Bowls and won one, got a new stadium built, and greatly enhanced the value of Irsay’s franchise.

Cryptic messages: Further complicating things is Irsay, who clearly gets a kick out of being the center of NFL attention in the Twitter-verse but has undermined some of his people with it.

He announced the team added Collins while coach Jim Caldwell was conducting his daily news conference. It did Caldwell no favors, as he appeared completely out of the loop.

Most recently, following the 62-7 loss in New Orleans on Sunday night, Irsay provided this gem:
“Titanic collapse, apologies 2 all ColtsNation...problems identifiable;solutions in progress but complex in nature/ better days will rise again”

A day later, he added:
"Just because you perceive problems on the horizon,and you possess solutions..doesn't mean they are avoidable and implementation is instant"

Solutions in progress, but complex in nature. That sounds to me like what would be written in big silver letters on the lobby wall of a consulting company on a TV show. Or a clever, but far-too-long name for a band.

It also sounds like change is going to come.

Caldwell
Caldwell
Coaching questions: While Bill Polian recently said that adding Jim Tressel to the staff as a replay consultant was Caldwell’s idea, it’s a weird-looking move that’s made some of us wonder whether a bigger role awaits the former Ohio State coach.

Caldwell does a nice job managing personalities, looking at things philosophically and staying on message. I believe he’s a good teacher, and his patient, quiet style is generally healthy for a team with a good share of veteran stars.

But he has blind spots, too, and is hardly a strategy master. There are bound to be significant changes at the conclusion of what’s sure to be a dreadful season, and he’ll be at the front of the line.

If he does the best job we can remember at holding a terrible, ineffective team together, is that enough? I’d guess not.

Injuries: This team gets hurt too much. There is a huge element of bad luck to it, of course. But is there something bigger at work as well?

Last season as quality players went down, Manning helped some role players such as tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White emerge. This season, guys such as linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt were lost for the season early, and there's been a revolving door on the offensive line because of injuries.

The Colts are constantly testing their depth and shuffling the back end of their roster. There is only so much shuffling a depth chart can handle.

I believe they need to attempt some change that might have a positive effect on their overall health -- whether it be adopting new training philosophies, altering how they evaluate prospects or changing personnel philosophies.

It's easy to ask them to figure out why they tend to suffer so many injuries, and it's hard to find an answer. But some sort of shift is due, even as we know it comes with no guarantee of better health.

When the current approach is failing, it's OK to try something else. It's not admitting some sort of failure; it's merely part of a necessary process of evaluating and revising operations.

Suck for Luck: Given a chance to draft Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, I think the Colts would. Bill Polian can give Chris Polian the guy expected to be the NFL's next great quarterback, and Chris Polian's legacy would be built on a fantastic cornerstone.

But there is no losing on purpose to get in position for Luck. You think Wayne or Mathis is interested in such a master plan?

Said veteran center and team tone-setter Jeff Saturday: “I'll steal a Robert Mathis quote: 'I ain't sucking for anybody.'”

Rapid Reaction: Texans 34, Colts 7

September, 11, 2011
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HOUSTON -- Thoughts on the Texans’ 34-7 rout of the Colts at Reliant Stadium.

What it means: The Texans bolted out to a 1-0 start over the Colts last season, but this one was different. We saw what a good team can do against Indianapolis minus Peyton Manning. The Texans sailed, and the Colts struggled. It’s hard to call any Houston game a turning point, but this is one we might look back to as a pivot point for control of the AFC South.

What I liked: Matt Schaub-to-Andre Johnson was virtually can’t-miss after an early interception of a pass that slid through Johnson’s hands. Derrick Ward and Ben Tate both ran effectively. Jacoby Jones showed smarts and speed on a 79-yard punt return for a score. The Texans’ new 3-4 defense found consistent pressure that made life very tough on Kerry Collins. End Antonio Smith was especially effective.

What I didn’t like: Collins was just shaky, handing away two fumbles in a short span early on, once on a sack, once on a fumbled snap. Unless the protection was perfect, he was messy and there were only a handful of snaps where the protection was perfect. Indianapolis’ defense simply didn’t show any ability to bottle up the run, and receivers consistently found space between defenders to collect Schaub’s passes.

Who to worry about: Colts linebackers. Gary Brackett suffered a shoulder sprain when he was tackled at the end of an interception return. The Colts played bad defense with him. Without him, they’d really have a hole. Ernie Sims suffered a knee sprain early in the game, which meant undrafted rookie Adrian Moten saw time in the nickel package.

One good thing about the Colts: They didn’t quit, showing some life in the second half even though they knew it was over. Reggie Wayne was in the middle of it. Jeff Saturday fought hard to recover Collins’ third fumble at the bottom of a pile.

One bad thing about the Texans: With Arian Foster (hamstring) already hurt, Ward left the game with an ankle injury. Tate and Steve Slaton provide nice depth, but any team down its top two running backs has questions.

What’s next: The Colts try to recover when they host Cleveland. The Texans try to keep things going in Miami. The rematch between Houston and Indy is at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 22.

Indianapolis Colts cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
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Check here for a complete list of the Indianapolis Colts' roster moves.

Surprise moves: Tommie Harris seemed to play well enough to stick, but the former first-round defensive tackle apparently wanted to be treated like the team’s top defensive linemen and the team didn’t like the attitude. Defensive end John Chick had solid games but couldn’t get past Jerry Hughes. Undrafted rookie tight end Mike McNeill made it, as did four others who were not April selections: running backs Darren Evans and Chad Spann, linebacker Adrian Moten and safety Joe Lefeged.

No-brainers: Veteran additions on defense made good impressions in the preseason and are sticking around -- ends Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton and linebacker Ernie Sims. Anthony Gonzalez may be injury prone, but none of the other options at receiver is a better player.

What’s next: They’ve got only four defensive tackles in Fili Moala, Antonio Johnson, Eric Foster and Drake Nevis. It could be a spot where they look to add or upgrade on Foster. Offensive linemen Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard will have to prove they deserved to stick ahead of Kyle DeVan.

Kerry Collins does fine in Colts debut

September, 1, 2011
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Quarterback Kerry Collins first game as a member of the Indianapolis Colts was not about the stats as much as it was whether he could show that he was comfortable.

And while five-for-10 for 45 yards hardly made for a big evening, he looked like he knew what to do and where to go with the ball.

Twice he got hit by Michael Johnson. The Cincinnati defensive end got pushed wide by Indy rookie tackle Anthony Castonzo, but kept working and managed to land a meaningful swipe on Collins anyway. The first time hit forced a red-zone incompletion and the second resulted in a lost fumble.

Collins made a great deep throw down the middle for David Gilreath on his first snap and drew a pass interference penalty. And later he hit Chris Brooks deep on the left side, a pass that was dropped.

The quarterback didn’t get a completion or yardage for either.

After Collins yielded to Dan Orlovsky, owner Jim Irsay tweeted: “#5 looked good 2nite,gonna help us if #18 needs a few more weeks getting ready...but Peyton is improving rapidly..steady progress!”

Collins is No. 5 while No. 18, of course, is Peyton Manning.

I think it has to be considered an encouraging start for the backup, He could play in the season opener on Sept. 11 in Houston if Manning isn’t sufficiently recovered from the May neck surgery that kept him out of action until a recent return to limited practice.

And hey, the Colts actually won a preseason game, 17-13. It was their first preseason win since August 20, 2009.

One defensive note: Linebacker Philip Wheeler started with Kavell Conner and Ernie Sims.

Wheeler seemed a prime culprit in the Colts’ struggles against the run, getting run through on multiple occasions. Brian Leonard ranks as Cincinnati’s third back, but got the early work and managed 5.2 yards a carry.

And running back Cedric Peerman stiff-armed Wheeler after a short catch, watched him slip off and ran for more yards.

Wheeler did make a nice play tracking and dragging down Jermaine Gresham after a short catch.

RTC: Colts new defenders look good

August, 29, 2011
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Reading the coverage …

Peyton Manning’s health could have a bearing on Gary Kubiak and Jack Del Rio says Len Pasquarelli.

Houston Texans

The Texans have avoided serious injuries, says John McClain.

Mario Williams was a factor in San Francisco despite no stats, says John McClain.

Says McClain: “I believe this season is going to be another wild ride, but I think they’ll win tough games at the end rather than blow them like last season.”

The Texans’ offensive line is underrated, say Aaron Schatz in this Insider piece.

Alan Burge rewatched the game with an eye on Williams.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts' veteran additions -- Ernie Sims, Jamaal Anderson, Tommie Harris and Tyler Brayton -- are getting good reviews, says Phil Richards.

Stampede Blue puts together a 53-man roster without Donald Brown, Jerry Hughes, Anthony Gonzalez, Mike Pollak and Curtis Painter. You can make a case against all of them, but I can’t see the Colts lopping off so many young, drafted guys.

Considering defenders on the bubble with Brett Mock.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars hope the return of several veterans puts the team back on a good track, says Vito Stellino.

Rod Issac’s been working at safety and his status will shake out this week, says John Oehser.

Tennessee Titans

Mike Munchak listens to input, then owns his decisions, writes David Boclair.

The Titans are ready to get Kenny Britt going, says Jim Wyatt.

The passing game had timing issues, says John Glennon.

Tennessee will be thin at defensive end for the preseason finale, says Glennon.

With Kerry Collins on the roster and poised to take over as the primary backup to Peyton Manning, Curtis Painter fared much better working with the Colts’ offense.

In a 24-21 loss to Green Bay at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night, the Packers utilized one defensive element Manning typically helps Indianapolis avoid: the blitz.
Manning is masterful at making teams pay when they subtract from coverage to add to the rush. But Green Bay rolled out a steady stream of blitzes, many of which featured cornerback Charles Woodson, with no fear of such repercussions from Painter.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Painter
AP Photo/Michael ConroyWithout Peyton Manning, the Packers blitzed again and again on Curtis Painter.
Indy’s offensive line is still being sorted out, and the group didn’t do particularly well or get particularly good help in minimizing the pressure. Painter didn’t get hit so much as he had to hurry, and he was hardly at his best in such circumstances.

Desmond Bishop got flagged for roughing on one blitz, and Painter threw a ball away when Woodson looped between left tackle Anthony Castonzo and left guard Joe Reitz untouched. Another time, the quarterback made a nice throw to Reggie Wayne, who had a favorable matchup as Woodson came untouched.

No. 2 running back Donald Brown actually did reasonably well in blitz pickups, I thought, managing to keep himself between rushers and the quarterback on a couple of occasions. Still that rusher frequently contributed to a closing pocket.

The right side of the starting line, guard Ryan Diem and tackle Jeffrey Linkenbach, struggled with Clay Matthews, whose speed was more than they could handle.

Not every team is equipped to blitz the way the Packers are. But if it’s Collins instead of Manning on Sept. 11 in Houston, odds are the Texans will blitz more often and with less fear. And the Colts and Collins will have to be prepared to handle it.

Some other thoughts on what was nearly a rare Colts preseason win:

  • While Painter was better, it took a blown coverage that left Wayne wide open for a 57-yard touchdown to get him going. His second touchdown pass, to Chris Brooks, was very nice. Earlier Painter suffered because of a drop by Wayne and another by Pierre Garcon.
  • Ernie Sims was active in a lot of first-half action, his first since he signed with the Colts. Tommie Harris played for the second time, and made some plays with a sack and a tipped pass.
  • Jermichael Finley's touchdown catch on Pat Angerer was great. Angerer was tight but not turned. There aren’t many linebackers who could make a play against that.
  • According to CBS, Robert Mathis injured his hamstring in the first quarter hamstring and did not return. His counterpart at end, Dwight Freeney, made things very difficult on Green Bay tackle Chad Clifton, bulling over him a few times before using the patented spin move.
  • Diem, who false started too much last season at right guard, got called for one. An injury forced him from the game for a time, but he returned to action. Mike Pollak stepped in briefly. Jeff Saturday was the lone offensive lineman who didn’t play into the third quarter, as Pollak replaced him. Then the second-team offensive line was, left to right, Michael Toudouze, Kyle DeVan, Jamey Richard, Mike Tepper and Ben Ijalana. Richard was flagged for holding but it was declined.
  • I expect good things out of rookie running back Delone Carter, mostly because I very much like the idea of Carter. This team needs a short-yardage goal-line back. He was hardly working against front line defenders, I understand. But he not only got a tough yard -- converting a third-and-1 when there was nothing there -- but he had a couple of nice longer runs. A lost fumble was overturned by challenge, and a wide run with a spin move suggested he can be more than just a between-the-tackles pounder. He did look lost in one pass-protection situation.
  • Defensive back Chip Vaughn was waved off the field by Jim Caldwell after back-to-back penalties. After an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty worth 15 yards and a taunting penalty worth 11 yards, the Colts gave up a touchdown and a two-point conversion, lost an onside kick and saw Green Bay move to a game-winning field goal. Vaughn will not have a good weekend. And the Colts just about refuse to win in the preseason.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- It’s trendy to call the Colts aging and to view the Texans and even the Jaguars as up-and-comers in the AFC South.

But if Indianapolis is healthy, it’s awfully risky to be ahead of the curve regarding its demise.

This is a team that lost a ton of talent to injury last season and still won the division at 10-6. It’s added some nice pieces on defense through bargain-basement free-agency. It drafted two offensive tackles who should be pillars, and also selected a short-yardage back.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a big rebound year, and most teams aren’t even talking rebound when it comes to following a division title.

“I think it’s really the same team,” middle linebacker Gary Brackett said.

The same team is a major threat to win the division and compete for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Should it break through for the third Super Bowl appearance of the Peyton Manning era, a huge prize awaits: The game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Manning’s health.

Peyton Manning
Photo/Michael ConroyIt's unclear how soon Peyton Manning will return from offseason neck surgery.
He spoke after signing his contract and has been seen around the team a couple of times during training camp at Anderson University. But like in 2008 following offseason knee surgeries, he’s not practicing.

This time it’s a result of neck surgery in May. It’s the second year in a row Manning had a neck procedure after the season. But he and the team have expressed confidence that all he needs is time and rehabilitation. It’s unlikely that a five-year, $90 million contract would have gotten done if the medical staff and management had any doubts.

While the Colts move forward without Manning, his absence also puts them in limbo. No matter how strongly they spin Curtis Painter’s performance, the defense isn’t being pushed in practice the way it would be if Manning was running the other side.

And no matter how precise the routes, how good the blocking or how well-timed the play, the offense will still need to sync it all up with the star quarterback once he returns.

That knee in 2008 limited him early, when the team struggled out of the gate. Coming back from a neck injury, Manning is less likely to have any sort of mechanical issues or physical limitations that affect his passing. That’s one case for expecting a better start after so much missed time.

The timetable for his return is unknown. You know the drill: They say he’s progressing well, that they are optimistic, etc., and no one outside a very tight circle has any real idea when he will re-emerge. He was spotted once throwing with what a witness called “decent velocity.” Hey, encouraging news is encouraging news.

2. Is the secondary deep enough?

Last season, the Colts were stretched virtually everywhere. Aaron Francisco wasn’t on the team for opening day, ranking as the fourth or fifth option at strong safety, and he played a good share of the season as the starter.

Behind free safety Antoine Bethea and re-signed and healthy strong safety Melvin Bullitt, there are unproven options including Al Afalava, Joe Lefeged, Mike Newton, David Caldwell and Chip Vaughn.

And after the top three corners -- Jerraud Powers, Justin Tryon and Jacob Lacey -- there also isn’t proven depth.

“At the safety position, I’m confident that we’re going to get two guys that will emerge there,” Colts vice chairman Bill Polian said. “We see enough signs to know that there is quality in that group.

“I also think there is some quality in the backup corners. Kevin Thomas is one of them. There are some interesting guys, and they’ll play themselves on or off the roster based on the preseason. But based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’d say we’ve got a good group and one or two guys will emerge.”

They will all benefit, of course, from a better pass rush. And if Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are better supplemented by Jerry Hughes and Jamaal Anderson on the edges and Tommie Harris provides a solid nickel push in the middle, they could have one.

3. Will the passing game have enough consistent weapons?

The ability of the 2010 Colts to get production from the likes of tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Blair White was remarkable.

Austin Collie
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Colts hope Austin Collie's concussion issues are in the past and that he'll be on the field for the entire season.
But if they can’t count on often-injured receiver Anthony Gonzalez or Austin Collie, who was shut down last season after concussion issues, it will be harder to make things go again.

Reggie Wayne is in fantastic shape and working hard, and will be a key target for Manning as always. Dallas Clark is back from a wrist injury. If the Colts are calling plays for those two and Pierre Garcon, Collie and Gonzalez, they can be potent. If the group shrinks, the effort is more exhausting.

Manning averaged 6.92 yards per attempt in 2010. That’s the lowest mark in his career outside of his rookie season (6.5). The Colts need to find more big plays and move the ball with a little less effort to be the kind of team they want to be.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

If the Colts get a significant contribution out of Anderson, Harris or linebacker Ernie Sims, it’ll be a win. All three signed cost-effective one-year deals that amount to low-risk, high-reward scenarios. Polian said in a normal year, the market wouldn’t have given the team an opportunity to sign players like these, veterans who are all ideally suited for Indy’s defense. If they get something from two of them, it will make for a home run. Three-for-three amounts to a grand slam. Harris looks very good so far, while Sims is recovering from an appendectomy.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Polian was singing Philip Wheeler’s praises and saying that while the team loves starting strongside linebacker Pat Angerer, it loves Wheeler too. But he failed to hold the job last season and should be able to win and hold a starting job by now. Brody Eldridge gets a mention, too. He had knee surgery after last season, and a setback means he hasn’t seen the practice field yet. They need him to be part of the run game.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Delone Carter is coming into a perfect situation as a rookie. He’s unlike any of the Colts' other running backs and should get chances in short yardage and goal-line situations. If Javarris James ran for six touchdowns last season, Carter could run for 12 this fall. The Colts can continue to praise Donald Brown, but with Joseph Addai back and Carter in the fold, when does Brown get on the field?
  • It was a surprise to find Lacey as the No. 2 cornerback at the start of camp. He was better as a rookie than in his second season. And he can be an effective piece of the secondary. But I’d bet on Tryon passing him before opening day.
  • After one long and hot afternoon practice session, two players stuck around to catch machine-thrown balls: Wayne and Bethea. Those are some solid veterans and the kind of guys any team would like to have leading the way.
  • Manning didn’t react well to TV crews that saw a recent throwing and running session. My understanding is that the Earth is still spinning, however. I understand being private, but everything and everyone cannot always be controlled. Did I miss the catastrophic outcome?
  • The buzz is good on Hughes, and with him and Anderson in the mix, the Colts may pace Freeney and Mathis better. That could make for fresher stars in December and January.
  • They won’t talk until after the season, but as of now I’d expect the Colts to try to keep both Wayne and Mathis with new contracts.
  • Jacques McClendon or Joe Reitz could be an upgrade over Kyle DeVan at left guard. The big question on the line to me -- presuming Anthony Castonzo takes over left tackle reasonably quickly -- is right guard. Mike Pollak has had sufficient opportunity, and the team can aspire to be better there. Couldn’t they be better with Ben Ijalana there until he’s ready to displace Ryan Diem at right tackle?
  • 'Tis the season for Garcon to prove he's a consistently reliable threat. He had too many drops and too many lapses last season. He needs to be more than fast. He spent more time with Manning this offseason, before the neck surgery, than he did last offseason.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- Some items of note from conversations I had this morning with Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell. (Name dropping, one can’t help it during training camp.)

The 46th spot: Game day active rosters will now be 46 players, not 45 plus a designated third quarterback. Ultimately it will give a team like the Colts an extra special teamer.

But at the start Polian said it’s probably going to be used in an unexpected way.

“In our case, now because of Peyton [Manning's] situation, we’ll probably have to carry a third quarterback,” he said. “We’ve never done it before really, we’ve had that guy on the practice squad. Absent an injury to one of your quarterbacks I think the 46th guy is a good thing for the game, it gives you primarily an extra guy to play special teams.”

Polian said Curtis Painter has been “terrific” as Manning’s fill-in, making every throw. (I've seen him make a lot of good throws, but a lot of hard throws that haven't found the intended target.) Dan Orlovsky is the head candidate for a third spot right now.

Ben Ijalana: Polian said he doesn’t expect second-round offensive linemen to play any guard. He’s running as the No. 2 right tackle to Ryan Diem.

“I think you put him at tackle and let him go,” Polian said. “The young ones will ready when they are ready, and then they will get on the field. They certainly have enough talent, that’s obvious.”

Caldwell, though, said there are no absolutes, and left open all possibilities. He said it’s about getting the best guys on the field and reminded me that Diem played guard before he shifted over to tackle.

I think it’ll depend on how Diem and whoever the right guard is are doing.

Adding free agents: The labor agreement created a market that was advantageous for the Colts and allowed them to add three defensive free agents on one-year contracts.

The addition of Jamaal Anderson, Tommie Harris and Ernie Sims “shore some things up with more firepower,” Caldwell said.

Polian said the market was simply one that allowed the Colts to go a place that usually couldn’t, or that usually doesn’t exist.

“Guys were looking for jobs,” Polian said. “Agents weren’t looking to make markets, guys were looking for jobs. It was a different situation; we recognized it and these are three guys that fit perfectly for us.”

“I’m not sure that that presents itself in a more stable, traditional marketplace.”

Nose tackles: Polian said he felt good about Antonio Johnson and Drake Nevis as the team's nose tackle, suggesting he isn't looking for anyone else.
Reading the coverage …

Houston Texans

Matt Leinart found his best fit with the Texans, says John McClain.

The Texans waived a couple of undrafted free agents.

Improving the secondary is mission one.

Battle Red Blog looks at the war of the noses between Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody.

Indianapolis Colts

Ernie Sims is out after an appendectomy, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Dan Orlovsky is looking to win the backup spot behind Peyton Manning, says Mike Chappell.

A good look at the nose tackle in the Colts defense from Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Tyson Alualu has a much better understanding of his position, says Tania Ganguli.

Kevin Haslam is out for the season.

You can’t draft and develop receivers without giving them time to develop, says John Oehser.

Tennessee Titans

Cortland Finnegan polished his backpedal, says Jim Wyatt.

Finnegan’s errors won’t be forgotten, says David Climer.

Kenny Britt practiced for the first time, says John Glennon.

The Chris Johnson holdout is at 11 days, says Wyatt.

Vince Young’s path to stardom has taken a detour, says Jerome Solomon.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- Some quick, initial impressions from the first practice of Colts training camp I watched…
  • Joe Reitz, who’s listed as a tackle, continues to work at left guard ahead of Jacques McClendon. He lined up with left tackle Jeff Linkenbach, center Jeff Saturday, right guard Mike Pollak and right tackle Ryan Diem to form the starting O-line.
  • Justin Tryon ranks as the third corner right now, but count me among those who think he could wind up second. I watched him encourage and advise undrafted rookie Terrence Johnson during one-on-ones about being patient working against receiver Taj Smith. Good stuff.
  • “Saturday,” a fan screamed and the center raised his fist before the rest of the line was delivered. “Thank you for the season.” He should hear that a lot based on his giant role in the CBA negotiations.
  • It can't be a fun job to be the guy who holds up a three-ring pack of laminated sheets with the right package or play name on it to the camera before each play. But the coaches need to have some stuff labeled as “Alcatraz” of “Queso” when they review and look for landmarks of the sets.
  • With Dwight Freeney out for the morning, the first-unit defensive line was, left to right, Jamaal Anderson, Fili Moala, Antonio Johnson and Robert Mathis.
  • Special teams worked on punting out of the back of the end zone and the block team did well to get to one off of Pat McAfee’s foot. Special-teams coach Ray Rychleski didn’t care for close-but-no-cigar on another snap. Well, not even close, apparently. “Don’t go near the guy,"' he barked at one rusher. “You’re not even close. Block it or don’t go near him.” The broader point: Roughing the punter penalties kill.
  • Watched some one-on-one pass rush and saw Tommie Harris win snaps against McClendon and Reitz. Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana looked good to me. Drake Nevis and Jerry Hughes didn’t have a great period from what I could tell.
  • Linebacker Ernie Sims is out two weeks after an appendectomy, according to Jim Caldwell.

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