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INDIANAPOLIS – Drew Brees is coming to town to test the Indianapolis Colts secondary. Complacent defensive backs beware.
The Colts left the second preseason game against the New York Giants feeling peachy about the defense, but that had as much to do with the beleaguered Eli Manning as it did the defense. Brees might not be at his sharpest – he's sat out the preseason so far with a strained oblique – but Brees at partial sharpness remains daunting.
Given that starters play a significant amount of time in third preseason games, the Colts defense will get the chance to see where it stands.
Brees ranks with Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers as the current Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks, and he'll be eager to get some good work in against the Colts. The last time the Colts played the Saints, well, let's not rehash the 62-7 debacle that hastened blowing up the team after the 2011 season. Different time, different team.
Brees' presence means a test for Colts starters Vontae Davis and Greg Toler at cornerbacks and LaRon Landry and (fill in the blank) at safeties.
News that Delano Howell, the expected successor to Antoine Bethea, will be out indefinitely with a neck injury reinforces the idea that one safety spot is wide open. The frontrunners are veteran Mike Adams and special teams demon Sergio Brown.
You can't get a better test for the secondary than Brees with a need to loosen up his arm.
“Across the board, any safety- and DB-related stuff is (predicated on) the communication standpoint,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “They've all got to be on the same page. I always tell them that I don't care what call it is, as long as we're all on the same page. From the splits, the receivers, the alignments of the offensive line and where they're going to run the ball, we've just got to keep on picking it up each and every week.”
Brees has his fair share of weapons, most notably wide receiver Marques Colston and the formerly dunking tight end Jimmy Graham. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram can be used in some different ways, too.
The Colts will try to continue their growth in the pass rush, with Bjoern Werner, Erik Walden and friends trying to put the pressure on Brees. But Brees has a known sixth sense and quick release, so it's inevitable the secondary will be required to make some big plays during the first half when both teams' starters are likely to be on the field.
If they're healthy, Davis, Toler and Landry are locks for the starting secondary. The battle between Adams, Brown and even free-agent signee Dewey McDonald shapes up as an interesting skirmish.
“We're just going to mix and match to see where they are right now during the game,” Manusky said. “It's kind of hard coming back from last week when there wasn't a lot of plays to be made, per se, with those two guys that were in there. It's going to be mix and match to see how they perform.”
The Colts first- and second-team defense has looked sharp in preseason games against the Jets and Giants, even though the Colts lost both games after the regular players left the field. Key players haven't been on the field in every position, as Robert Mathis has yet to play – since he's suspended the first four games – and Jerrell Freeman is nursing a thumb injury.
Preseason progress can't always be measured in statistics. Sometimes it comes down to intuition on how a team's play will translate when the real games begin.
Manusky said the team has shown natural progress at the start of its third season in the “new” system.
“In their second year, they start to get their feet underneath them and then in the third year you start to see success,” Manusky said. “With Arthur (Jones) and D'Qwell (Jackson) playing in the same system (with former teams), that kind of helped out as well. That's usually the third year it kind of grinds together and it starts working together.”
Nose tackle Josh Chapman has shown the most improvement, making his presence known most in defending the run. Almost everyone who has been with the first-team unit, from defensive end Cory Redding to tackle Jones to outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, has made an impact play during preseason games.
The one area where no memorable plays have been made is in the secondary.
Brees is on his way.
Chances are, the Colts are going to learn a few things about their defensive backs. Namely, beyond the known three, are they good enough?