Peyton Manning leads the Colts' potent offensive attack.
Two games into the 2007 season, the Texans find themselves in uncharted territory. For the first time in team history, the Texans are 2-0. They are also riding a four-game winning streak dating back to last season, another team record. Getting to 3-0 will be no easy task, as standing in their way is the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was able to silence his few critics last season when he led the Colts to his first Super Bowl victory. Through the first two games of 2007, Manning and the rest of the Colts have shown no signs of slowing down and look to be a top contender in the AFC once again. For the Texans to beat Indianapolis at Reliant Stadium on Sunday, they will need to execute the same game plan as they did last December in their first-ever victory over the Colts.
The focal point of the Colts' offense is undoubtedly Manning. The perennial Pro Bowler continued to post astounding numbers in 2006, throwing for 4,397 yards, 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Manning capped his amazing 2006 season when he was named Super Bowl XLI MVP. The future Hall of Famer is still in the middle of his prime at age 31 and will most likely hold many of the all-time NFL passing records by the end of his career. Manning's backup is Jim Sorgi, who has not thrown a pass in a regular season game since 2005.
When Manning drops back to pass, his favorite target has been wide receiver Marvin Harrison. The two have hooked-up for 108 touchdowns in their career together, an NFL record. Harrison, a 12-year veteran, has been one of the most productive receivers in the league during his career. In 2006, Harrison turned in his eighth consecutive season with at least 80 catches, 1,100 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Part of Harrison's success can be attributed to the talented receivers who make up the rest of the receiver unit. Reggie Wayne, who would be the first option on most other teams in the league, was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time last season after hauling in 86 receptions for 1,310 yards and nine touchdowns. 2007 first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio State will play mostly from the slot, filling the void left by Brandon Stokley who left for Denver in the offseason.
When his receivers are covered, Manning has another reliable option available in tight end Dallas Clark. The University of Iowa alum is known as one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, able to stretch the field with his speed. Clark missed four games last season due to injury, but still caught 30 passes and four touchdowns. Clark's backup is Ben Utecht, a dependable receiver who made 37 receptions in 2006.
Joining Manning in the backfield is running back and Houston native Joseph Addai. The Colts felt so confident in the former Sharpstown High School graduate that they let last year's starter Dominic Rhodes sign with Oakland in the offseason. Addai looks to be comfortable in his new starting role through the first two games of 2007, averaging almost 100 yards on the ground per game. If Addai goes down, the Colts have very little experience backing him up. The top reserve is Kenton Keith, an undrafted free agent with only one year of NFL experience. Luke Lawton will start at fullback, though the Colts rarely use two-back sets.
The Colts lost the most consistent member of their offensive line when longtime left tackle Tarik Glenn suddenly retired prior to training camp. Manning's blind side will not be as protected as it has been in the past as rookie Tony Ugoh moves into the starting role. Ugoh, a 2007 second-round pick, must adjust quickly to the NFL game to ensure Manning stays upright. The rest of the offensive line stays intact as left guard Ryan Lilja, center Jeff Saturday, right guard Jake Scott and right tackle Ryan Diem return to the starting lineup. Dylan Gandy, who was beat out in preseason by Lilja, serves as the most experienced backup on the line, starting 11 games last season.
A key offseason goal for head coach Tony Dungy was to address his team's run defense, which ranked last in the league last season. The Colts lost several key defenders to free agency, including starting linebacker Cato June and starting cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper. Rather than address the issues through the free agent market, Dungy chose to use promote other players on his roster to more important roles.
The defensive line is led by Pro Bowl end Dwight Freeney. One of the most ferocious pass rushers in the league, Freeney has notched 11 or more sacks in four of his first five seasons. His counterpart is another dominant pass rusher, Robert Mathis. The Alabama A&M grad recorded 9.5 sacks last season, marking the third time in four seasons he reached that sack total.
With the injury to starter Anthony McFarland and the release of former starter Corey Simon, the interior of the defensive line may become an issue as the season goes on. At left tackle, Raheem Brock will start while free agent acquisition Ed Johnson will start at right tackle. Reserves Dan Klecko, Darrell Reid and rookie Quinn Pitcock will see playing time in the tackle rotation.
In the linebacker corps, the Colts must find a way to replace last year's leading tackler, Cato June. Starting in June's place at the weak side is Freddie Keiaho, a two-year veteran who has seen most of his playing time come on special teams prior to this season. Keiaho missed last week's game against Tennessee due to injury and his status for Sunday's game is not yet known. If he is unable to play, Tyjuan Hagler will start in his place. Starting in the middle again this season is Gary Brackett, who made 120 tackles last year. On the strong side, Rob Morris reprises his role in that position. Behind the starters, experience is rather thin, with six-year veteran Rocky Boiman as the most senior reserve.
Strong safety Bob Sanders leads a secondary unit that is replacing half of its starters from a year ago. Sanders' return in the playoffs last season was a big reason why the Colts' run defense shored up on their path to the title. When healthy, Sanders is one of the fiercest run-stoppers in the league, but durability has been an issue throughout his career. At free safety, Antoine Bethea looks to follow up his impressive rookie season in which he racked up 90 tackles.
At cornerback, former reserves Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden will be asked to take over the roles vacated by the departed David and Harper. Jackson started eight games at safety last season, proving he is a versatile player, while Hayden has played mostly on special teams thus far in his career. T.J. Rushing and Tim Jennings will see time in nickel and dime situations, while rookie Dante (formerly Daymeion) Hughes should also see some action this season.
The Colts have the most clutch kicker in the league in Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri made 25 of his 28 attempts last season, winning his fourth Super Bowl ring in the process, his first with the Colts. Though he didn't win the Super Bowl on a game-winning kick as he did in New England, Vinatieri secured his place in Colts' lore when his five field goals accounted for all of Indianapolis' points in their upset victory at Baltimore in last year's AFC Divisional Playoff game.
Hunter Smith, one of the best punters in the league, returns for his ninth season with the Colts. Smith averaged 44.4 yards per attempt last season, with 14 of his 47 attempts landing inside the 20-yard line.
Backup cornerback T.J. Rushing will handle both kickoff and punt returns. This will be the first opportunity returning kicks for the second-year man from Stanford.
What to Watch For
- How will Indianapolis' run defense perform? In last year's win at Reliant Stadium, the Texans ran for 191 yards, controlling the clock throughout the game. If the Colts struggle against the run like they did last year, a similar result could occur on Sunday.
- Can native Houstonian Joseph Addai match his homecoming performance of last season? In his first pro game in Houston last December, Addai rushed for 100 yards on only 15 carries. With all the talent on the Colts' offense, a repeat performance is not out of the question.