While the Colts made strides defensively last year, leaping from 29th in the NFL in yards allowed to 15th, improvement is still needed if the Colts are to carry the AFC torch to Tampa in January for Super Bowl XXXV. As such, general manager Bill Polian and head coach Jim Mora spent six of Indianapolis' seven draft picks on defensive talent.
Tops among the rookies is run-stopping linebacker Rob Morris, the club's first-round pick who is expected to step right into the Colts defensive lineup. Indianapolis gave up 107.2 rushing yards per game in 1999, so Morris' biggest contribution will be closing the hole in the middle and forcing running backs to the outside. Fellow rookie 'backer Marcus Washington, a second-rounder, is expected to make an impact in pass-rush situations, spelling veteran linebacker Cornelius Bennett.
NFL INSIDER POWER RATINGS
Ratings based on analysis of 1999 team and individual statistics, offseason personnel moves and feedback from respected experts (from NFL Insider's Season Preview) Rushing offense: 8.9 Passing offense: 9.9 Rushing defense: 8.5 Passing defense: 8.6 Special teams: 8.6 Coaching: 9.7 Intangibles: 9.8 TOTAL: 64.0 Scale of 1-10; Perfect score=70
ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL...
After suffering a torn knee ligament in the final game of last season, Bennett is slowly making his way back into the lineup. Though he has missed most of training camp, Bennett is easing back into the routine and and is hoping to take the field for the Colts' fourth preseason game against Pittsburgh in Mexico City.
DE Bernard Holsey should be a key find for the Colts on the defensive front. Holsey spent three seasons as a New York Giant, where he played both the end and tackle positions and never missed a game. His versatility allows him to play on the outside on early downs and move inside as a nickel pass rusher on later downs, where his 6-foot-2, 285-pound frame takes up a good chunk of space.
Rookie DB Rodregis Brooks, drafted in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL Draft, may turn out to be a big playmaker. He set a school record at Alabama-Birmingham for interceptions and is also a great punt returner. He may start at special teams, but has nothing but potential for the Colts defense.
Jerome Pathon is making an impact again on the Colts receiving corps. He was dogged by injuries in 1999, but has had two solid preseason games (four receptions for 59 yards). Look for him to return to 1998 form when he caught 50 passes for 511 yards. A healthy and productive Pathon means more passes for Marvin Harrison and Terrence Wilkins.
"I see a real sense of urgency in Jerome," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Jerome really committed himself in the offseason this year. I'm proud of him for that. He can make a real difference on this team."
COLTS AT A GLANCE
Head coach: Jim Mora (16-16, third year with Colts) 1999 record: 13-3 (1st in AFC East) 1999 rankings:
Offense - 4th overall (357.9 yards/game), 19th run (103.8), 4th pass (254.1)
Defense - 15th overall (326.3 yards/game), 18th run (107.2), 19th pass (219.1).
RB Abdul Kareem Al-Jabbar (Browns) QB Billy Joe Hobert (Saints) DE Bernard Holsey (Giants) LB Dwight Hollier (Dolphins) LB Patrick Sapp (Cardinals)
LB Jeff Brady RB Darick Holmes DT Tony McCoy (Cardinals)
TOP DRAFT CHOICES
LB Rob Morris (1st round) LB Marcus Washington (2) DB David Macklin (3) DL Josh Williams (4)
Thanks to the Triplets (Manning, Harrison and RB Edgerrin James, only the St. Louis Rams (526) and the Washington Redskins (443) scored more points than the Colts (423) last year... Harrison led the NFL in receiving yards in 1999 (1,663) and James led in rushing yards (1,553) ... Manning threw for the third most yards last season (4,135) ... The offense ranked fourth in the NFL in 1999. ... The Colts committed 28 turnovers and forced only 23 for a minus-5 turnover ratio.
The Colts' season opener at Kansas City should be a good test for the young squad. Arrowhead Stadium is a tough place to play for any team, and will be rockin' in the first week of the season. A big win in Kansas City could set the tone for the season.
Look for another great battle on Sept. 25 when the Jacksonville Jaguars come to town. The Colts and Jaguars possess two of the most potent offenses in the NFL and should be a great battle.
Finally, the second-to-last game of the season against the Dolphins in Miami should thicken this budding rivalry. The last two games between these teams have been decided by six points combined.
TO BE ANSWERED...
Who will emerge as James' backup?
Last year, James wore down as the season progressed thanks to touching the ball 431 times during the regular season (369 rushes, 62 catches). The Colts need to find a viable alternative to the second-year back and are hoping former Cleveland Brown Abdul Kareem Al-Jabbar is the answer. Jamel White and Kevin McDougal will also get long looks by Mora and his coaching staff.
Will the defense be able to step up?
The Colts defense has to get better for Indianapolis to dominate. Last season they finished 27th in the NFL in creating turnovers and 30th in interceptions. Hopefully Morris will be able to add life to the defensive unit.
Is it really time for the Colts?
There is no doubt the Colts are very talented. Manning, James and Harrison are all coming off marvelous seasons. But they are still young and a little green. Youth will either serve them well, or set them back one more season.