A theme Indianapolis Colts fans have unfortunately become very familiar with over the last six years is missed games to key players during the regular season -- and in the post season. To start out the 2012 season draft pick Josh Chapman was placed on the physically unable to perform list, former starting middle linebacker Pat Angerer suffered a foot injury that kept him out of the first six weeks, Robert Mathis suffered an injury that has kept him out of games, Dwight Freeney has missed time, and Cory Redding was unable to suit up last week.
While not every player on this list is guaranteed significant time on the field when they return healthy, the key players will be worked into the defense and will undoubtedly improve the overall performance of the group. One player who returned against the Browns was the aforementioned Angerer.
What makes Angerer's return all the more exciting for a young Colts defense learning a new system is the performance of Jarrell Freeman -- formerly of the CFL. There is little doubt that Angerer was the leader of the defense in 2011 and the most talented linebacker on the team coming into the season under new leadership.
On Monday, Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians indicated that Angerer was intentionally limited on the field in his first game back and that as his conditioning improves, his role will continue to grow until he is on the field for a full game. Adding the team's leading tackler from a year ago to the team's current leading tackler will certainly strengthen the interior of the Colts defense. Having players like Kavell Conner and Moise Fokou as backups on the inside of the linebacking group makes it one of the deepest defensive positions the team boasts in their first year under Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky's new defense.
What should excite Colts fans is that the inside linebacker position was one of the big question-marks in the switch to a 3-4 hybrid defense. Questions regarding the size and ability of the team made the linebacker position one of the biggest question-marks heading into the 2012 NFL Draft. At this point in the season, to feel so fundamentally different about the talent available in a defense still under contstruction is a positive sign.
When Mathis and Redding return, the front seven will be significantly stronger than it has been at any time this season. If Josh Chapman is able to work on his conditioning and provide another option at the nose, the defensive unit will have surprisingly few glaring holes heading into the second half of the season and, health permitting, few glaring holes to fill in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Consider the following defensive starting roster:
DE Drake Nevis, NT Mookie Johnson, DE Cory Redding, OLB Dwight Freeney, ILB Pat Angerer, ILB Jerrell Freeman, OLB Robert Mathis, CB Jeraud Powers, FS Antoine Bethea, SS Tom Zbikowski, CB Vontae Davis
There is definitely some room for improvement at every position, as always, but the only glaring weaknesses -- arguably -- are at strong safety, nose tackle, and outside linebacker when Freeney departs the team at the end of the season. Consider the improvement of a player like OLB Jerry Hughes and the presense of players like the aforemention Fokou, Conner, and Chapman and the desperation may subside at each position but strong safety -- though Zbikowski put up a solid effort against the Browns.
There is little doubt that the Colts defense is still a work in progress and that the beast has not fully taken form. However, there is also little doubt that young general manager Ryan Grigson and his staff have put together a defensive unit chalk full of talent and youth in a promising combination. To think that this unit would be anywhere near where it is, as cash-strapped as the team entered the season, is promising for the new a new front office and the beginning of a new era.