The good news is that the Colts have built their 7-0 record without significant contributions from every player mentioned, save Hagler. The bad news is that the Colts secondary depth was hit hardest by the mid-season injury troll and Houston sports one of the highest-powered passing offenses in the league.
If the Colts hope to keep their winning streak alive and extend their lead in the AFC South, the following players will need to make big contributions.
1a. LB Freddie Keiaho and b. LB Philip Wheeler: Conventional wisdom would suggest that second-year player Philip Wheeler, who was originally slated as the starting strong-side linebacker in the summer, will take over for Tyjuan Hagler. Freddie Keiaho, however, has filled in regularly during parts of the season, particularly to spell Gary Brackett.
Both players have had success this year, with Keiaho having a strong performance overall against Arizona, and Wheeler playing an integral role in a much improved special teams unit this season.
They both still have questions though, as Keiaho was the starter at the weak-side linebacker position last year but had to fight to make the roster this year, while Wheeler has had few opportunities to take defensive snaps at linebacker since being drafted in the third round in 2008.
Hagler was quietly putting together a strong season, and of the players lost to injury, may leave the biggest hole to fill (as the other players have not contributed much in 2009). No matter which player is called upon to replace him, if they are unable to fill their gaps and help the defense continue to have dominant games, it could put the offense back under a lot of pressure to score points.
2. CB Jacob Lacey: Although Jacob Lacey has been a regular contributor in the Colts secondary this season, there was a security blanket of depth behind him that allowed fans to remain comfortable. Decidedly better in coverage than Marlin Jackson, it was still nice to know that two tested veterans were around to take over if mistakes were made.
Now Lacey will return to a full-time starting position until Hayden can return. This is a scary proposition for the team only because the Colts are heading into the heart of their schedule and face strong passing offenses in the next four games. The prospect of Lacey having to match up with players like Andre Johnson or Randy Moss is something that will certainly warrant a great deal of attention.
If Lacey can continue playing disciplined football, and continue displaying the type of tight, aggressive man-to-man coverage he has shown thus far in his rookie season, the Colts will know that they have truly found something special. If he should struggle a lot, the Colts have very little depth left on the roster to provide any security.
3. CB Tim Jennings: The other cornerback to keep an eye on over the next few weeks is Tim Jennings. Jennings is in his fourth year with the Colts but has lost his opportunity to start to two rookies and was pushed back on the depth chart to the sidelines. Well, that is until Jackson and Hayden were forced to miss time due to injury.
Now Jennings will be on the field in nickel packages, and will be responsible for watching the middle of the field and providing coverage over the top of the two outside corners, depending on down and distance. He looked comfortable in this role against the 49ers a week ago, and will need to be even more comfortable and fluid in the position if the Colts hope to shut down the high-powered passing attack of Houston, Baltimore, or New England.
Jennings needs to play like the veteran he is, keep his mistakes to a minimum, and even help guide the rookies in unfamiliar situations or the loss of Jackson and Hayden will be exploited by the opponents the Colts face in the weeks that follow.
4. S Melvin Bullitt: Staying with the “secondary theme,” Melvin Bullitt will be pushed back into a starting role for the first time in three weeks. While Bullitt has done a lot over the last two seasons to give the Colts confidence, this is the first time he has started with knowledge that the starting position is his to lose long-term.
With Antoine Bethea playing at his side, and making a strong case for a second Pro Bowl bid, Bullitt will need to do his part to make an impact in both phases of the game. Should he be exposed as a liability in pass coverage or start struggling to make sound tackles, lesser tested depth would be called upon to take his place.
Bullitt needs to play his best football the rest of the year to secure his future spot on the team (read shiny new contract), and allow Jamie Silva and Aaron Francisco more time to develop in the Colts system.
5. RB Donald Brown: In Donald Brown’s absence a week ago, Joseph Addai played very well. Brown’s absence, however, did take a dimension away from the Colts offensive attack.
There is little argument that Addai is a veteran running back with elite blocking and receiving skills at his position, nor that he has done a lot over his short career to establish himself as a reliable short-yardage back when he is needed (outside of the playoff debacles). Stil, Brown adds another dimension the Colts backfield, with his speed, burst, downfield running style, and big-play ability.
As Brown continues to develop in the NFL, and increases the load he shares with Addai, the rest of the league will be on notice that he is a legitimate threat that must be accounted for when he takes the field.
The Colts will need his contributions if they hope to continue their record-setting offensive production and there is no bigger time in the regular season that the Colts will need it than over the next four games.
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