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Defense remains biggest question for Colts

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

It's hard to question the Colts' well-stocked offense, which ranked third in
the NFL last season and features league co-MVP Peyton Manning as maestro.

But there are questions on defense, a unit that tied for 20th against the run
in 2003 and lost several key contributors.

Gone are DE Chad Bratzke, CB Walt Harris, CB David Macklin and SLB Marcus
Washington, and Indianapolis is still sorting through its replacement
options.

But already possessing one of the NFL's most potent offensive attacks, the
biggest issue facing the Colts is a defense that must continue to improve.

Indianapolis has struggled slowing down power-running offenses the last two
seasons, and questions persist. Can second-year WLB Cato June get the job
done on the right side, where he takes over for David Thornton, who moved to
the "Sam" LB spot to replace Washington? And will the secondary, which could
have three new starters, become the team's Achilles' heel?

Quarterbacks: You can't get much better than having Manning at the helm of
the Colts' offense. Manning shared the league's Most Valuable Player award
with Steve McNair in 2003, and he could be even better this year, which is
scary. Among his goals this year are to complete 70 percent of his passes
and throw single-digit interceptions. Is that even possible? Sit and watch.
There's not a lot of experience behind Manning. Cory Sauter is the top
backup and has been average in the preseason. Former Georgia Tech QB Joe
Hamilton and rookie Jim Sorgi are the options as the team's third
quarterback. Grade: A.

Running backs: A healthy tandem of Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes could
make the Indianapolis offense even more unstoppable. James looks more and
more like the runner who won back-to-back NFL rushing titles before a knee
injury in 2002. And Rhodes, who ran for 1,104 yards as a rookie but has been
ridden by injuries, can give Indianapolis a complementary back who can give
the Colts a change of pace. James Mungro is a good inside-the-tackles
runner. Mungro and undrafted free agent rookie Ran Carthon figure to get
some work in short-yardage situations. Grade: A.

Receivers: You start with Marvin Harrison, add rising star Reggie Wayne,
Brandon Stokley, Aaron Moorehead and Brad Pyatt to the mix and you have one
of the deepest WR corps in the NFL. Troy Walters will miss at least the
first three months of the season with a broken right arm. The Colts will use
their depth by implementing three- and four-WR formations regularly. Wayne
rarely sees double-teams with Harrison on the other side, and Stokley, when
healthy, has been impressive from the slot. The Colts are also blessed with
great depth at tight end. Marcus Pollard is a proven veteran who can still
make big plays downfield. Dallas Clark is healthy after breaking his leg a
year ago and will give the Colts yet another reliable receiver and blocker.
Clark has very good speed and nice hands. Rookie Ben Hartsock, a good
blocker, has quickly grasped the Indianapolis offensive scheme and could
become a major contributor early in the year. Grade: A.

Offensive linemen: It's hard to believe, but not one Colts offensive lineman
has made the Pro Bowl the last three seasons. Underappreciated and
undervalued, C Jeff Saturday, OLT Tarik Glenn, ORT Ryan Diem, and OGs Rick
DeMulling and Tupe Peko, who is competing with Steve Sciullo for the
starting ORG spot, simply get the job done. Glenn is off to an
uncharacteristically slow start after reporting to training camp more than
20 pounds overweight. Saturday is heady and gets undersold by media for his
role in the Colts' check-with-me offense. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive linemen: DRE Dwight Freeney continues to be the bright spot.
Freeney has become one of the NFL's best pass rushers over the past two
seasons, but he wants to be known just as much for his overall play. DT Josh
Williams signed a contract extension in the offseason but has struggled with
injuries. DT Larry Tripplett has been inconsistent at best. The same could
be said for DT Montae Reagor and DLE Raheem Brock. Veteran Brad Scioli takes
over Bratzke's role as an outside-inside presence and utility lineman.
Robert Mathis, a situational pass rusher, also has some upside. Grade:
C-plus
.

Linebackers: MLB Rob Morris remains the starter inside, but there are
changes on both sides of him. Thornton moves from the right side to the LOLB
or strong-side spot. June, a former college safety at Michigan, steps in as
the new starter on the other side. Thornton had a fine season in '03,
leading the team in tackles, and is packed with potential. Third-round draft
pick Gilbert Gardner will be slowed by a high ankle sprain but could
eventually push June for playing time. Gary Brackett and Jim Nelson will be
situational players. Morris takes a lot of hits for not being a Ray Lewis or
Zach Thomas type of middle linebacker, but the Colts' former top draft pick
has been a steady player when healthy. C-plus.

Defensive backs: FS Idrees Bashir and CB Nick Harper are the veterans in a
talented but largely inexperienced group. SS Mike Doss and CB Donald
Strickland are in their second seasons in the league. CB Joseph Jefferson
has been hurt for most of his three years, but the coaching staff is high on
him and will give him a chance to start. Rookies Jason David and Von
Hutchins should help at cornerback, and David has a chance to steal time as
the nickel CB. Top pick Bob Sanders had yet to report to the team at
presstime and is recovering from a foot injury, so his playing time could be
limited. But there are those who view Sanders as an upgrade over Bashir, who
is recovering from torn rib cartilage. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: PK Mike Vanderjagt and P Hunter Smith give Indianapolis the
starting point for strong special-teams play. Vanderjagt was perfect on
extra points and field goals in 2004 and has hit 41 straight FG attempts in
the regular season. The only knock has been the consistency of distance on
his kickoffs. Seventh-round pick David Kimball was brought in to help shore
up the kickoff situation, but he has struggled in the preseason. Smith has
become one of the better situational punters in the NFL and is a superb
holder for Vanderjagt. A sore elbow caused some problems for LS Justin Snow
in 2003, but he appears to be fully recovered. Pyatt had a good rookie year
returning kickoffs until a neck injury sidelined him. He has very good
in-line speed and is a threat to break big returns. Grade: A.

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