Despite a laundry list of questions concerning the Indianapolis Colts defense heading into the 2012 National Football League season, it appears as if coach Chuck Pagano’s team may have the makings of a pretty good tandem at safety.
Antoine Bethea is back for his seventh year as the Colts’ starting free safety. Former Notre Dame and Baltimore Ravens starter Tom Zbikowski, meanwhile, is in his first year as Indianapolis’ probable starter at strong safety.
Bethea has been Mr. Steady since arriving on the scene as a sixth-round draft pick in 2006. A starter as a rookie, the Howard University graduate has been the consummate professional both on and off the field. He has started 91 consecutive games, made 10 playoff appearances and recorded 12 career interceptions.
As for Zbikowski, he could wind up filling a crucial gap in the Indianapolis defensive secondary. A part-time starter with the Ravens from 2008-11, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound defensive back has started 14 of 53 career games with 49 tackles and two interceptions.
With the double-dip loss last year of former Pro Bowler Bob Sanders (released prior to the 2011 season after an injury-plagued career) and Melvin Bullitt (to a season-ending injury for the second straight year), the Colts were in dire need of a dependable, hart-hitting strong safety – especially someone who could play tough against the run close to the line of scrimmage.
Indianapolis is in the midst of a switch from a 4-3 defensive package to a 3-4 alignment, which is allowing both Bethea and Zbikowski the time to bond as a tandem in the secondary. Zbikowski has experience in the 3-4 after four seasons in Baltimore and has been helping his teammates learn the system.
“I’ve just been trying to help out,” he said. “I grew up in this system. The philosophy of practice, how we approach things, and, to be honest, the players in [the Colts] organization, they’ve been successful for a long time and there’s a reason for that.
“They draft high-character guys that are willing to work and love football. It’s pretty easy to be a leader. I feel like pretty much everyone on this team has some sort of a leadership role.”
Zbikowski acknowledged that the primary reason that he opted to leave Baltimore and come to Indianapolis was the presence of coach Chuck Pagano, who was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator last year.
“He’s a player’s coach,” said Zbikowski, referring to dealing with Pagano both as an assistant and now as a head coach. “It’s still going to be intense. It’s all about fundamentals, sound football, and playing hard. It’s personal to him and that’s the way it should be.
“It’s a different role. You’ve got a lot more you have to deal with. He’s still just as personable as he was as a defensive back coach, as a defensive coordinator. Really, he gets to know all of his players, from the guys that came from other teams.”
Bethea says that even in a new defensive system, his role within the team hasn’t changed much.
“I'm still playing the safety position,” he pointed out, adding that becoming one of the team’s veteran locker room leaders comes naturally. “I’m just doing what I got to do, you know, defend the deep pass, come down and stop the run when needed. As far as that, it's the same. The system that we’re playing is different now. But at the end of the day, I’m still doing my job.
“There are different kinds of leaders. You can lead by example or you can be the rah-rah guy. You can also pull a guy to the side if he’s done something wrong and give him some advice. I have to be a leader on and off the field.”
• Edds, Ijalana out for season – Inside linebacker A.J. Edds, who attended Greenwood High School, and offensive guard Ben Ijalana have both been ruled out for the season after suffering left knee injuries on Sunday.
Edds and Ijalana incurred anterior cruciate ligament damage during the first of training camp practices. They were both involved in light, non-contract drills when the injuries occurred.
“Both had significant knee injuries,” Pagano said Tuesday afternoon. “Both were ACLs. Obviously they’re done for the year, which is really, really sad. You hate to lose anybody in camp or anytime during the season, especially Ben. Guy came back, had significant injury to the same knee [last season], two hip surgeries [in the offseason], busted his rear to get healthy and get back. And then something unfortunate like this happens. A.J. the same thing.
“All the hard work and time and preparation that these guys put in and then to come out here in basically a non-contact drill [and get hurt]. It’s part of the game. But we feel bad for those guys. They’ll be back. They’ll rehab just as hard as they did before. But we now look for the next man to step up.”
The Colts will now check the waiver wire in order to find replacements at inside linebacker and offensive guard. Indianapolis has some time to work with since there is no practice today. Workouts resume Thursday morning and afternoon.
“[General manager Ryan Grigson] doesn’t sleep. I can show you my phone. I’m sure we'll have a workout here probably within 24 hours. We’ll get some guys in here,” the Colts coach said.
• Injury list – Besides Edds and Ijalana, also missing Tuesday’s afternoon practice were rookie wide receiver Griff Whalen (foot), inside linebacker Jerry Brown, wide receiver Jarred Fayson, outside linebacker Tim Fugger (sports hernia), rookie nose tackle Josh Chapman (knee), and rookie offensive guard Justin Anderson (foot).
Fugger and Anderson are both on the Colts’ physically unable to perform list. Chapman is on the non-football injury list. There is no timetable for any of those three to return.
• Luck update – Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck had another good afternoon of work, completing 27-of-38 passes with three touchdowns and had one interception. Outside linebacker Jerry Hughes came up with a tipped pass near the goal line on a throw to tight end Dominique Jones. Luck also scored one rushing touchdown.
But the play of the day was reserved for the team’s other rookie quarterback, Chandler Harnish. Harnish hit wide receiver Kris Adams on a 40-yard pass down the left sidelines. The former Northern Illinois signal caller also scored on a running play late in the practice.
• Pagano happy with hot practice – The Colts had their first fully padded practice Tuesday afternoon with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.
“Lot of red zone work. A lot of great execution on both sides of the football. Good execution at times on offense. And defensively, some guys made some big plays down there [by the goal line],” Pagano said.
“It’s a testament to our strength coaches. They did a great job preparing these guys in the offseason. [The players] did a great job in the offseason. This was not an easy practice. There’s an acclimation period getting used to the pads. I thought they handled the day pretty well.”
The Indianapolis coach was also happy with the physicality shown on both sides of the ball.
“That’s what we're looking for,” Pagano stressed.