Imagine how frustrated Peyton Manning must have been last season. He had arguably the greatest season an NFL quarterback has ever had, but it wasn't enough to get to the Super Bowl because Indianapolis's defense was terrible.
Manning helped the Colts' offense score 522 points in 2004, more than any team in four seasons, and Indianapolis couldn't even earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The defense ranked 29th in the NFL, allowed an average of 33 points per game in four regular season losses and ultimately sealed the Colts' fate.
Much of the Colts' payroll is devoted to the team's prolific offensive players such as Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison, so Indianapolis is somewhat hard pressed to upgrade its defensive talent under the salary cap. That still does not explain why the unit regressed so badly from 2003 to 2004. The Colts had the NFL's fourth-best pass defense in 2003 and the fourth-worst last season.
With an obvious need for help in the secondary but not a lot of money to spend in free agency, Indianapolis attempted to address that weakness in the draft. The Colts drafted possible starting cornerback Marlin Jackson (Michigan) in the first round and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (Illinois) in the second. The rookies are competing with incumbents Nick Harper (three interceptions) and Donald Strickland for playing time. Both Jackson and Hayden showed promise in the preseason.
"I thought our young defensive backs played with a lot of energy," Coach Tony Dungy said after a preseason loss to Atlanta. "Now, we just have to get them going in the right place and we'll be in good shape."
The Colts' pass rush is as strong as any in the league. Their 45 sacks last season tied for third in the NFL. Defensive end Dwight Freeney led the charge with an NFL-best 16 sacks. The Colts also recently signed defensive tackle Corey Simon, and a strengthened secondary could make the Colts' pass rush even more dominant.
Manning set an NFL single-season records in 2004 with 49 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 121.1. At age 29, nothing seems to indicate that he is slowing down. His lone concern should be the departure of starting offensive linemen Rick DeMulling and Tupe Peko.
Most of his supporting cast, however, is back. James rushed for 1,548 yards and nine touchdowns in 2004, and he added another 483 yards receiving. Reggie Wayne -- not Harrison -- was actually the Colts' leading receiver in terms of yardage last season. Wayne capitalized on the double coverage often shifted toward Harrison and pulled in 77 catches for 1,210 yards and 12 touchdowns. Harrison still managed 1,113 yards and 15 touchdowns.