AIMING HIGH

When defensive end Dwight Freeney sees the Colts' defense, he sees talented young players and talented players with experience. The three-time Pro Bowl selection said this week that's a combination that could result in the best defense in his seven seasons with the team.

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Colts Defense Has Potential to be Best in Years, Freeney Says
INDIANAPOLIS – Dwight Freeney looks around the Colts' locker room at his defensive teammates and likes what he sees.

He sees experienced, talented players.

He sees young, talented players.

He sees a lot of potential and a lot of proven ability.

Freeney, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end and the Colts' career sacks leader, said early this week all of that may mean something significant – that what he is seeing when he looks around the Colts' locker room may be the best defense on which he has played in seven NFL seasons.

Freeney said the defense hasn't done it yet. And he said it must prove it.

But he said the potential is certainly there.

"I think (that) every year, but this year, definitely," Freeney said as the Colts (13-3 last season), the five-time defending AFC South champions, prepared to play the Chicago Bears (7-9) in the first regular-season game at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 8 p.m.

"We had a lot of young guys step up big. We're going to be flying around here. We're back at full strength."

Not that the defense was bad last year. Far from it.

The unit ranked third in the NFL in total defense and first in points allowed, making it statistically the franchise's best defense in 24 seasons in Indianapolis and its best since 1971.

The Colts last season allowed 279.7 yards per game overall, finishing 15th against the run at 106.9 yards per game and second against the pass. That was a huge statistical improvement from 2006, when they finished 32nd against the run, allowing 173.0 yards a game rushing.

Gary Brackett, the Colts' middle linebacker and defensive captain, said the unit unquestionably improved in 2007. It was more consistent. And made more plays.

But Brackett, like many Colts players, said there was one problem:

How the Colts finished.

The Colts, after allowing more than 24 points in a game just once during the regular season – and after holding nine of 16 opponents to less than 20 points – allowed 21 points in the second half of a 28-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game in early January.

Brackett said this week the loss did two things.

It ended the Colts' 2007 season.

But he said it also provided motivation for 2008.

"Our defense is going to have a chip on our shoulder from how we ended the season against San Diego," Brackett said. "Our defense is going to be primed and ready to go no matter how the offense is doing."

Brackett said one reason for the optimism is the health.

Freeney, who had three and a half sacks in nine games last season, missed the last seven with a foot injury, and he was just one of several linemen – end Robert Mathis and tackle/end Raheem Brock were among the others – injured late in the season.

Safety Bob Sanders, the Associated Press 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, underwent offseason shoulder surgery, and while the progress of he and Freeney were major offseason issues, both players are expected to play against the Bears.

Of the Colts' 11 projected starters entering this season, only one – linebacker Tyjuan Hagler – is not expected to play Sunday.

"Obviously, getting Bob and Dwight back is huge for us," Brackett said. "They both showed they are healthy and can contribute right away. That's very exciting, so I think we're pretty healthy."

Said Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea, "Everybody's healthy. We've just got to get all 11 guys out there running and playing our type of football and going out there and being physical."

Another factor, Brackett said, is the development of young players. The defense last season featured five first-year starters – defensive tackle Ed Johnson, linebackers Hagler and Freddy Keiaho and cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden.

"Last year, we had a lot of uncertainty," Brackett said. "We had a lot of new starters. This year, all of those guys are returning. Usually in the Tampa (2) defense your second year is a big year. We're anticipating big things. The chemistry kind of carries over.

"The things we did last year we can kind of build up this season. Guys are excited and ready to go."

And whereas in seasons past the Colts often have lost multiple starters to free agency, this year every significant contributor from last season returned.

A year ago, the Colts entered the season with cornerbacks Hayden and Jackson replacing recently-departed Nick Harper and Jason David, and Johnson had just moved into the starting lineup to replace Anthony "Booger" McFarland. Keiaho, then in his second season, was replacing departed Cato June at linebacker.

This season, Sanders said, the group that returns should benefit from the experience of having played together in past seasons.

"We're older," Sanders said. "We have guys who have been around. We haven't had that since I've been here. It's my fifth year and we haven't had a solid group back there. We have experience and we also have key, young guys, so it's definitely exciting.

"We're older, wiser, everything. We're excited. It's going to be a great year."

Freeney said the Colts should benefit from experience not only among starters, but throughout the roster. With key players injured throughout the lineup last season, young players such as defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson and linebacker Clint Session played extensively.

This season, Dawson is expected to be a key member of the defensive line rotation and enters the season listed as the starter, and with Hagler on PUP, Session is starting at outside linebacker.

"I think we're better this year," Freeney said. "We have a lot of young guys and we had a lot of injuries last year, which gave a lot of young guys opunities to go out there and perform and get their feet wet and go out there and ball.

"Now, we're coming back full strength with those young guys still there. They're getting better. They're going to be pushing us to go harder. It's going to be some fun this year."

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