Despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 and just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker against the eventual-champion Green Bay Packers. With rising young stars like Josh Freeman and Gerald McCoy dotting the roster, the Bucs believe they are poised for a long run of postseason contention.
The road won't be easy in 2011, however. The always competitive NFC South and a handful of playoff teams like the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will be looking to keep Tampa Bay from invading the playoff field. The Buccaneers' home schedule is particularly intriguing featuring foes with high-powered offenses (a la Houston) and upcoming stars of their own (a la Detroit).
With that in mind, Buccaneers.com is running a series of articles focusing on each of the team's 2011 home opponents. We'll look at how each of those teams has fared in recent years, where their top priorities in '11 may be, which of their players will be the Buccaneers' main concerns and more.
Most recently, we examined the New Orleans Saints, who remain one of the league's most explosive teams. Next up, the Indianapolis Colts:
For the 11th time in the last 12 years, the Colts finished with double-digit wins and a playoff berth last fall. They also won the AFC South Division title for the seventh time in the nine years since the 2002 realignment.
If any season that finishes with a postseason invitation can feel like a disappointment, however, this might have been one for Indianapolis, which has set the bar of expectations rather high over since the addition of quarterback Peyton Manning in 1988. Since 2002, the Colts have averaged a little more than 12 wins a season, remarkably, and have often had their division wrapped up by early December. They won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2006 season and were in it again just two years ago.
In 2010, the Colts reached the double-digit victory plateau again, but barely, thanks to a four-game season-ending win streak to finish 10-6. They then bowed out in the Wild Card round, losing 17-16 to the New York Jets, conjuring up images of tough playoff losses at home in 2007 and 2005.
In some ways, the Colts weren't as dominant in 2010 as they have been for much of the Manning era. At season's end, they had an overall point differential of 47, which is obviously good but is also the franchise's worst mark since 2002. From 2003-09, the Colts had an average season-ending point differential of 131. Indianapolis still posted the league's fourth-best offense in terms of both yards and points, but there were some areas of concern, including a 29th-ranked rushing attack and a 25th-ranked rush defense. Indy gave up 24.3 points per game in 2010, the 10th-worst mark in the league.
Again, all of this still added up to a division title and yet another shot at the Lombardi Trophy, so the Colts problems are of the type that many teams would happily bear. And though their quarterback is now 34 years old and has played in and started the last 208 games in a row, there doesn't seem to be any immediate danger of the window closing on that Manning era. With his meticulous preparation and the good protection he has enjoyed throughout his career, Manning likely has quite a few more years of top-notch production left.
Manning was certainly good again in 2010, with 33 touchdown passes and exactly 4,700 yards, but his passer rating of 91.9, while good enough for 10th in the NFL was his lowest since 2002. That bespoke of problems, elsewhere, including a pretty virulent strain of the injury bug. Among the key players who missed significant chunks of the season due to injury were running back Joseph Addai, tight end Dallas Clark, wide receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez, safeties Melvin Bullitt and Bob Sanders and cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers.
The passing game rolled on because Manning still had Reggie Wayne (career-high 111 catches) and he made great use of Collie when the receiver was available (eight touchdowns). Little-known tight end Jacob Tamme filled in marvelously for Clark and Pierre Garcon, while a bit more up-and-down than expected in 2010, was strong down the stretch.
The running game never found a groove, however. Addai was as good as ever, maybe better, when healthy but he played only half of the games and topped out at 395 yards. Donald Brown, Mike Hart, Javarris James and even the returned Dominic Rhodes were competent as a replacement group, but not overly dynamic. That may have actually been a function of problems with the offensive line, which has long been a Colts strength but was considered something of a weak link in 2010. It is definitely no coincidence that the Colts' first two draft picks in April were offensive tackles.
On defense, as mentioned above, the Colts main problems were also with the ground game, where they ranked 25th in the league in both yards allowed per game and yards allowed per rush. The Indy front still boasts pass-rushing dynamos Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the ends, but tackles Dan Muir, Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala didn't really light it up inside. With that and a rotating cast of linebackers – in part, again, due to injuries, the Colts gave up 127 rushing yards per game.
Finally, only four teams came away with fewer turnovers last year than the Colts, who had just 21 takeaways and finished negative-four in that category. Giveaways plagued Indianapolis during a key three-game losing streak just after midseason. In losses to New England, San Diego and Dallas, the last two at home, the Colts committed a total of 12 turnovers and didn't get a single one back on defense.
Of course, immediately thereafter Indy embarked on its four-game winning streak to end the season and leapfrog the Jacksonville Jaguars into first place. The key game took place in Week 15, when Jacksonville could have essentially locked up the division title with a win in Indianapolis (the Jaguars had won the previous meeting in Jacksonville). Instead, the Colts came through with a 34-24 victory and took control of their own destiny in the AFC South.
That brought them a home Wild Card game against the Jets, who had limped a bit to the finish but had still finished 11-5 and had made the most of an underdog spot in the previous year's playoffs. Rex Ryan's team did it again in 2010, nearly making it all the way to the Super Bowl on the road, a route that began with a 17-16 win at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts took a 16-14 lead in the game on a 50-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 53 seconds to play, but a long kickoff return by Antonio Cromartie gave the Jets a chance to pull it out at the end, which they did on Nick Folk's 32-yarder as time ran out.
- *Return the offensive line to a position of strength. *Manning absorbed only 16 takedowns last year as the Colts ranked first in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play. Many Colt observers, however, felt that stat was misleading, and that the front line had one of its least effective seasons as awhile. As mentioned above, Indy's decision to spend the 21st overall pick on Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo and the 49th overall pick on Villanova tackle Benjamin Ijalana would seem to indicate that team management agrees. After the draft, G.M. Chris Polian said the two newcomers could solve the "musical chairs" issue the team has had up front, indicating both could step into the mix right away. Castonzo will likely remain at tackle while Ijalana could reportedly play either inside or outside. That leaves the Colts with the task of determining exactly where the line needs the most help. The team says it liked the play last year of another young linemen who can play either guard or tackle, Jeff Linkenbach, but Linkenbach didn't permanently unseat guard Mike Pollak. Guard Jamey Richard struggled as well; his replacement, Kyle DeVan, was reportedly better. On the edges, left tackle Charlie Johnson struggled with an ankle injury and right tackle Ryan Diem, long a valuable part of the front, began to show his age with inconsistent effort.
- *Replace Bob Sanders. *One can't blame the Colts for holding onto the hope of getting Sanders back into the center of their defense, despite his career-long struggle with injuries. Sanders' healthiest and best season was 2007, when he started 15 games and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Since then, however, he has suited up for just nine games in three seasons, as his injury misfortune mounted. After he made it just about one quarter into last season before sustaining a biceps injury, the Colts reluctantly released him in February. It is difficult to replace the type of hard hitting and playmaking that Sanders brought to the Colts' secondary, but Indy has to figure out if they have the talent on the roster to do so. They did not address the position in this year's draft. If the team believes fifth-year man Melvin Bullitt can be that sort of difference-maker, they may have to re-sign him in the eventual free agency period, depending upon the rules that are established. One safety position should be ably manned by Antoine Bethea yet again – he had a very nice 2010 campaign – but the other could be a mystery if Bullitt does not return.
- Find a way to generate more turnovers. In some ways, takeaways on defense seem to be a matter of luck – whether a safety happens to be standing in the right place when a ball is overthrown, or whether a fumble just happens to bounce in the right direction. And yet many NFL coaches insist that creating turnovers can be taught, that focusing on that issue in practice can lead to higher totals in games. If that's the case, the Colts will likely focus on getting the ball back defensively leading up to 2011. Some personnel changes could impact this quite a bit, as could the return of key players from injuries, such as Hayden and Powers. For instance, a more consistent effort from the team's defensive tackles might force opposing offensive lines to focus more attention on the inside, thereby making it easier for Freeney and Mathis to get to the quarterback and cause fumbles or bad throws.
- Determine if a long-term deal is in the works for Reggie Wayne. Wayne's current contract will expire after the 2011 season. Do the Colts want to take the chance that Manning's most prolific target of the last half-decade will move on? Since 2003, Wayne has averaged 92 catches for 1,264 yards and eight touchdowns per season, never finishing lower than 77, 1,055 or five, respectively. He will turn 33 at midseason this fall, but he's coming off a career-best 111 catches and he remains incredibly reliable from week to week. On the other hand, one of the most amazing features of the Colts' recent seasons is how they have turned so many previous unknowns into big-time contributors in the passing game, from Austin Collie to Pierre Garcon to Blair White. Do the Colts want to invest heavily in a receiver in his thirties when it appears that Manning can bring out the best in just about any pass-catcher? They still have Wayne under contract for the coming season, which gives them more time to figure out if he is an indispensible piece.
The Bucs and Colts have met each other only twice since the 1997 season, but Indy's repeated runs to the playoffs have certainly kept Manning and company in the spotlight. Tampa Bay fans won't need a program to tell who the most dangerous Colts are when they arrive for a much-anticipated Monday Night Football game in October, but here are five players in particular to keep an eye on:
QB Peyton Manning. A stunningly obvious choice, of course, but that doesn't make it any less valid. There may not be another team in the league that would have its fortunes changed more thoroughly by the absence of one player than the Colts and their 13-year starter under center. The Colts' offensive-line attention this offseason is a perfect illustration, not only because protecting Manning is considered the team's most important consideration, but because it is all occurring after a season in which he went down just 16 times. Manning's unbelievable awareness and his lightning-quick release are what often keep him out of harm's way. In the meantime, he racks up otherworldly numbers year after year. In fact, he has produced at least 3,700 passing yards and 26 touchdowns in every year of his career, and only once since his 1988 rookie campaign has he thrown more than 19 interceptions. Manning's impact go beyond the numbers, though; there is no other quarterback in the league more thoroughly in control of his team's offense. Given his play-calling freedom, even the success of the Colts' rushing attack is largely in his hands. The NFL boasts quite a few prolific quarterbacks right now – again, Manning was just 10th in the NFL in passer rating last year – but only a few who are so thoroughly the face of their team, as Manning is in Indy.
DE Dwight Freeney. The Colts are set at quarterback, and they also have one of the other most valuable commodities in the NFL: a player who can go get the opposing passer. Freeney has been that player for Indianapolis for almost a decade, racking up 94.0 sacks in nine seasons, a double-digit yearly average. He recently hit 31, but Freeney has 34 QB takedowns over the past three seasons, with at least 10 each year. Age hasn't yet robbed him of that incredibly quick first step off the line, or his ability to turn the corner and zero in on the quarterback. Experience, meanwhile, has given him a wide array of moves. Furthermore, he remains a high-motor player, often making his biggest plays on second efforts. Neither Freeney nor his long-time running mate on the opposite end, Robert Mathis, have what is considered ideal NFL size – at 6-1, Freeney is shorter than most ends – but they fit perfectly in the Colts' scheme and allow them to produce a pass-rush without devoting extra blitzers to the cause.
TE Dallas Clark. Despite the outstanding fill-in job by Tamme, the Colts will be thrilled to get Clark back in 2011 after his '10 campaign was limited to 37 catches by a wrist injury. The reason is clear: In 2009, Clark put up numbers a tight end rarely touches with 100 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. That's a banner year for a wide receiver, but Clark was able to get there because he is such a versatile weapon in the Colts' attack. He can line up virtually anywhere, making it hard for the opposing team to control matchups. A reliable enough blocker to keep him on the field for most plays, Clark is most notably a pass-catcher, with a quick burst off the line, great route-running skills and a feel for the holes in a defense. He has extremely reliable hands, as well, and can snatch the ball in traffic. Over the years, Clark has become one of Manning's favorite targets, and the two are likely to re-establish a prolific connection in 2011.
S Antoine Bethea. Manning, Freeney and Clark are all former first-round picks but the Colts found one of their most important defensive players in the sixth round in 2006. While Sanders and much of the rest of the secondary has dealt with injury absences, Bethea has been a rock, playing in all 48 games over the last three years and racking up roughly 300 tackles in that span. Instinctive and athletic, he is a sharp centerfielder in the Colts' defensive backfield, giving the Sanders type of safety partner the ability to approach the line of scrimmage and add some thump. Bethea reads routes correctly and accelerates quickly to the football when it is in the air. Keeping the sixth-year veteran out of his throwing lanes will be key for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman this coming October.
C Jeff Saturday. The Colts may be rebuilding much of their offensive line, but for the time being it will continue to revolve around Saturday, the former undrafted free agent who is now recognized as one of the top centers in the NFL. Saturday has been snapping the ball to Manning since the 2000 season, and he reads and understands defenses as well as his long-time quarterback. Saturday has long compensated for his somewhat less-than-ideal size, so even as he hits his mid-30s he is able to adjust and remain extremely effective. Like Manning, Saturday makes decisions quickly and knows what he needs to do to make the offensive work. The Bucs have bulked up with talent on their interior line in recent years, but those young players will get a very good test in Week Four from the Colts' veteran center.
The Colts have a long NFL history dating back to the 1950s, but of course not all of it has been spent in Indianapolis.
In fact, if one follows the twists and turns of NFL franchise births and deaths and rebirths, that history could be traced all the way back to the Dayton Triangles of the league's earliest days in 1920.
A convenient starting point, however, is 1953, when the Dallas Texans were moved to Baltimore to become the Colts. The team has played more than five decades uninterrupted since, though it relocated to Indianapolis in 1984 in dramatic, middle-of-the-night fashion. The team has enjoyed championship success before and after the move and employed two of the most iconic quarterbacks in team history in Manning and Johnny Unitas.
The Colts needed five years to produce a winning record in Baltimore (7-5 in 1957) but then promptly won the league title in the two years that followed, 1958 and 1959. Those were the third and fourth seasons for Unitas, a ninth-round pick in 1956 who would emerge as the league's MVP by 1959. The Colts' first championship was the product of a 23-17 victory over the New York Giants, the first NFL overtime contest ever played and one that is still remembered as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
The Colts' winning ways continued in the '60s with Don Shula as the head coach. In 1967 and 1968 combined, the Colts won 24 games and lost just twice, with two ties, the second of those seasons leading to a spot in Super Bowl III. Joe Namath famously led his New York Jets to an upset victory in that title game, so the Colts would have to wait two more years before getting their first Super Bowl trophy. In Super Bowl V, Unitas was knocked out of the game after throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to John Mackey but Earl Morrall helped the Colts eke out a 16-13 last-second victory.
Baltimore would have another outstanding three-year run in the mid-70s, winning 31 and losing just 11 from 1975-77 behind Head Coach Ted Marchibroda, quarterback Bert Jones and running back Lydell Mitchell. However, they would then go nine years without a winning record, that stretch split by the move to Indianapolis. In Indy, the Colts would get their first taste of success in 1987, thanks to the arrival of running back Eric Dickerson. Still, the team would not hit double digits in wins again until 1999, ending a stretch of 21 straight years without that distinction.
That emergence was, by no coincidence, matched with the arrival of Peyton Manning. As mentioned earlier, the Colts have won 10 games or more in 11 of Manning's 13 seasons, including the last nine in a row. The team peaked in 2006, Tony Dungy's fifth year at the helm, when it defeated the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI. A third Lombardi Trophy eluded the Colts three years later when they lost to New Orleans, 31-17, in Super Bowl XLIV.
The Colts all-time franchise record is 451-396-7. They are 19-20 all-time in postseason play.
Head to Head
Buccaneers and Colts history haven't intersected too often, but there have definitely been some interesting shared moments.
Tampa Bay did find Baltimore on the schedule in its inaugural season of 1976, but that was an obvious mismatch, given that the Bucs were still feeling the expansion woes and the Colts were in the middle of a three-year run of division titles. The result was a 42-17 Baltimore win at Memorial Stadium in early October, though that game did feature the first touchdown (a 44-yard fumble return by Danny Reece) and the first offensive touchdown (a one-yard Charlie Davis run) in Bucs franchise history.
The young Bucs only needed a few years to get revenge, though, taking the second meeting 29-26 in Week Two of 1979. That was the first overtime game in franchise history for Tampa Bay, and it was won almost immediately when Randy Crowder sacked Colts quarterback Greg Landry, forcing a fumble that the Bucs recovered to set up Neil O'Donoghue's 31-yard field goal.
The Colts' first visit to Tampa didn't occur until 1985, when the Colts took a 31-23 victory to start a three-game winning streak in the head-to-head series. Tampa Bay broke that run with a 17-3 win, also in Tampa, in 1991.
In 1997, the Buccaneers got their only win in Indianapolis to this date in a 31-28 thriller. Karl "The Truth" Williams had his best day as a pro, catching two touchdown passes and setting up the game-winning field goal with a long punt return near the end of regulation.
The Colts returned the favor with a thrilling win of their own in 2003, though it is remembered on the Bucs' side as one of the least enjoyable days in franchise history. In a Monday Night Football game, the defending Super Bowl champs held a 21-point lead over the Colts with just over five minutes to play, but Manning somehow rallied the visitors to a 38-35 overtime win. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt actually missed his first attempt at the game-winning kick before Simeon Rice was flagged for a rare "leaping" penalty, giving Vanderjagt another shot to drive it home. His second kick deflected off the hands of a Buccaneer defender and the right upright before slipping through.
Indianapolis won the only meeting between the two teams since, a 33-14 decision in 2007, to take a 7-4 lead in the all-time series. It's been a high-scoring matchup for the most part, with the two teams combining to put up just under 49 points per game.