Dwight Freeney tackled a question everyone seems to be trumpeting as the Indianapolis Colts head into their third training camp today under coach Tony Dungy.
"Why," the Pro Bowl end was asked, "will the defense be better this year?"
"We did lose some key guys," Freeney replied, considering the offseason departures of linebacker Marcus Washington, lineman Chad Bratzke and cornerbacks Walt Harris and David Macklin. "At the same time, the system still is in place and we've got some young guys who learned from those guys who left.
". . . We're going to get better."
They have to get better, be more reliable and consistent, than they were in 2003. The defense has to eliminate the peaks and valleys that tested Dungy's patience. Remember how it yielded 465 total yards to Denver during a 31-17 regular-season loss, only to rebound two weeks later and limit those same Broncos to 322 yards in a 41-10 playoff triumph?
The improvement process starts this afternoon when players report to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and accelerates with the first practice Monday morning.
No one questions the veracity of an offense that features quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, running back Edgerrin James and a deep supporting cast.
Everyone not associated with the Colts questions the defense. It ranked No. 11 in total yards a year ago, but don't let that fool you. After allowing the seventh-fewest points in the league in 2002 (313), Dungy's first as head coach and Ron Meeks' first as coordinator, the defense slipped into a tie for 20th last season. The 336 points were the most allowed by a team that reached the playoffs.
"The points is the big thing," Dungy said. "We gave up more big plays (than in '02), we didn't play as consistently and we had a few games where we gave up some high numbers."
Including the postseason, the defense yielded at least 27 points in seven of 19 games and at least 31 on five occasions.
Improvement will be realized only if youth is served. Consider:
• The pecking order at weak-side linebacker, the play-making position in Dungy's cover-2 scheme, is Cato June, Gilbert Gardner and Kendyll Pope. June, a third-round draft pick in 2003, failed to register a defensive tackle and played almost exclusively on special teams as a rookie. Gardner, a former Purdue standout, and Florida State's Pope were third- and fourth-round picks, respectively, in April.
• The cornerback mix includes Nick Harper -- a 13-game starter in '03 -- Donald Strickland and Joseph Jefferson. Including the playoffs, Strickland started 11 games as a rookie, but all were at safety. Neither Strickland nor Jefferson has taken a meaningful NFL snap at cornerback, let alone started a game at that spot.
• Iowa safety Bob Sanders, the team's top draft pick who was taken in the second round, is expected to push veteran Idrees Bashir for the starting free safety spot. If he unseats Bashir, the starting safeties would be a rookie and second-year pro Mike Doss.
"We've got a lot of talent, young talent," said Doss, a 15-game starter as a rookie. "That means we not only will play this year together, but play a couple of years together and grow.
"We're moving forward."
When the preseason runs its course, the Colts will be back in Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., for a Sept. 9 regular season-opening rematch with the Patriots. New England might not recognize the Indy defense. It might include six different starters from the unit that opened the AFC title game against New England just over six months ago.
That rearrangement includes David Thornton, last year's weak-side linebacker starter and leading tackler. He has moved to the strong-side, or "Sam," position to replace Washington.
"I'm not worried at all," team president Bill Polian said during the offseason.
The Colts were one of five teams that did not sign a player during the NFL's veteran free agent signing period. Money was tight in the aftermath of handing Manning a landmark $34.5 million signing bonus in March as part of his seven-year, $98 million contract.
But even if so much hadn't been invested in the league's co-Most Valuable Player, it's unlikely the team would have gone on a shopping spree. It prefers to build from within. It prefers to tap into its own young talent: June, Strickland, Jefferson, linebackers Gary Brackett and Keyon Whiteside, safety Anthony Floyd.
"For the most part," Dungy said, "guys usually play well when they get the chance. If you're right -- if you're drafting well -- the guys do come through."
If a handful of rookies or unproven second-year players emerge from camp playing key roles on defense, Dungy added, "they have to respond."
"Last year, we didn't know we would be counting on Donald Strickland so much, or (rookie offensive tackle) Makoa Freitas or (rookie wide receiver) Aaron Moorehead. When we did, they came through."
Dungy refutes the notion the Colts' defense regressed in 2003.
"I don't think we took any steps back," he said. "We didn't take the steps forward that I would have liked to have taken. Hopefully that improvement comes this year."
Working on Sanders
Discussions to reach a contract agreement with Sanders, the team's lone unsigned draft pick, had yet to be finalized Saturday evening.
"We're continuing to work on it," Neil Cornrich, Sanders' agent, said. "We have to see what happens."
Without a contract, Sanders is not allowed to report today for the start of camp with the rest of the team. He was the 44th overall selection in the April draft.