INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time since December 21, 1997, the Indianapolis Colts will have a different man under center. A neck injury and subsequent surgery has forced Peyton Manning to sit out Sunday's regular season opener against the Houston Texans, thus ending his streak of 208 consecutive starts (227 counting the playoffs).
With Manning out, the Colts will turn to another veteran in Kerry Collins who is entering his 17th season in the NFL.
The Colts signed Collins on August 25 and despite only having three weeks to learn one of the most extensive playbooks in the NFL, he does have a background in the AFC South.
Collins spent the past five seasons with Tennessee and made the Pro Bowl in 2008 while helping the Titans start the season 10-0.
One player Collins will be looking for come Sunday afternoon is tight end Dallas Clark. The game against Houston will mark the first time Clark has played since October 17 of last season.
Entering his ninth season with the Colts, Clark finds it pretty amazing how quickly Collins has been able to soak up the Colts playbook.
"It's remarkable, it really is," Clark said. "Me and Reggie (Wayne) were joking about it, because it took me about three years to learn this offense, and he's somehow learning it in about three weeks. He's definitely on a crash-course, but he's doing a great job."
The connections between Collins and the Colts extend back to his college days. Colts head coach Jim Caldwell was Collins' quarterbacks coach at Penn State. Caldwell has seen the moxie that Collins brings to the table and has been impressed with how he has handled being thrown into the saddle.
"Guys don't last that long in the league like he's lasted, in terms of years of service, without having a great work ethic, which he has," Caldwell said. "He's been determined to get things right and to be able to make the adjustments that we need to make. (Quarterbacks coach) Ron Turner has spent a lot of time with him. He's been in here early mornings and late at night. I do think that he's handling things pretty well up to this point in time."
As the Colts battled through an injury-plagued 2010 season, Collins should have a full and healthy arsenal to work with against the Texans.
The Colts return all of their skill players who saw significant playing time in 2010, however the offensive line could have some new faces in new places on Sunday.
First-round draft pick Anthony Castonzo will get the nod at left tackle as he and left guard Joe Reitz will both be making their first NFL starts.
Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday is in the middle with Ryan Diem possibly sliding inside to play right guard for the first time since 2002. Second-year pro Jeff Linkenbach, who started the 2010 AFC Wild Card game against the New York Jets, could open at right tackle.
The defensive side of the ball added some depth through free agency and the NFL Draft, especially in the front seven.
Nine Pro Bowls and 168 total sacks man the defensive end spots for the Colts with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in the starting lineup. During training camp, the Colts added some depth behind Freeney and Mathis when they signed former first-round picks Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton.
Backing up defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala will be 2011 third-round draft pick Drake Nevis.
The starting linebacker corps remains the same for the Colts with second-year pros Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner on the outside of defensive captain Gary Brackett.
Another veteran free agent signing made during training camp was the addition of Ernie Sims. The ninth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Sims has played in a similar defensive system with Philadelphia and Detroit.
At the corner position for the Colts will be a pair of players entering their third NFL seasons in Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers.
Joining Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea in the final line of defense for the Colts will be Melvin Bullitt, who has started 24 games in the past three seasons.
For Bethea and the Colts defense, Sunday provides an opportunity to rebound from last year's 34-24 loss to the Texans on opening weekend.
"Last year we went out there and it was a tough game for us and we don't want that to happen again," Bethea said. "At the end of the day that was last year. This is a new defense, new year and we have to start the year off on a good start. Of course it's a divisional game so it's a little bit more important."
Texans 34, Colts 24 – Sunday's game marks the second consecutive season the Colts and Texans open the season against each other. Led by 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns from running back Arian Foster, the Texans defeated the Colts at Reliant Stadium. Ahead 13-10 at halftime, Foster and the Texans controlled the third quarter with a time of possession of 10:18. Peyton Manning was 40 of 57 for 433 passing yards and three touchdowns for the Colts but his efforts were not enough. Dallas Clark, Austin Collie and Reggie Wayne all caught touchdown passes and Freeney and Mathis each recorded a sack.
Colts 30, Texans 17 – Remaining in contention in the AFC South was on the Colts' mind, when the Texans came to Indianapolis on November 1. In front of a Monday Night Football audience, the Colts recorded their 11th consecutive regular-season victory in prime-time while defeating the Texans, 30-17. A Kelvin Hayden interception return for a touchdown helped give the Colts a halftime lead of 17-3 that they wouldn't relinquish. Freeney padded his sack total with a pair against Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
Joseph Addai against the Texans' 3-4 defense: Any time a team has a new quarterback under center, the running game could be needed to alleviate some pressure off him. Addai returns to his hometown of Houston for the opener. He did not play in the second game against the Texans in 2010 because of an injury. In the off-season, the Texans brought in a new defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips and moved former number one draft pick Mario Williams to outside linebacker. Williams has led the Texans in sacks each of the last four seasons. Houston used its first-round draft pick on defensive end J.J. Watt and spent six of its eight picks on the defensive side of the ball.
Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson against the Colts secondary: Since 2008, Johnson has led all wide receivers in the NFL with 4,360 receiving yards. The Colts did not shy away from giving high praise to the Pro Bowl receiver. "He's obviously the best receiver in the league," Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "I have a ton of respect for him and that whole Houston offense, so it's definitely going to be a challenge." With running back Arian Foster less than healthy for Sunday's game, the burden might fall on Johnson to carry a larger load for the Texans offense.
-Colts have won nine of their past 12 regular-season openers and their 34 wins in road openers is the most among AFC teams.
-Colts have a 26-6 record in the opening month of the season during the past 10 seasons, which is two wins better than any other team in the NFL.
-Colts are 16-2 all-time against the Texans and have won seven of their past eight games in the series.
-Colts quarterback Kerry Collins needs 111 passing yards to pass Joe Montana (40,551 yards) for 10th-most passing yards all-time.
-Texans running back Arian Foster led the league in rushing last season with 1,616 yards and became just the second undrafted player to accomplish this feat since 1967.
-Foster's 231 rushing yards last year against the Colts were the second-most on opening weekend in NFL history.
-Since 2009, Texas quarterback Matt Schaub is second only to Peyton Manning with 9,140 passing yards.
-Five of the past six Colts-Texans games in Houston have been decided by one possession.
Colts head coach Jim Caldwell (on the morale and excitement surrounding the team heading into Week 1):
"This is always a big game. The first game's always huge, doubly with a division game on the road. We have a number of challenges, but our guys are excited about getting it going. You could tell by the way in which they ran around on Monday, after the last preseason game. It's an excited bunch, so we're looking forward to it."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on how much the defense for the Texans has changed):
"Schematically they've changed tremendously. They went from a four-down team to a three-down. They have (Mario) Williams playing a little different location, usually he's played end in the four-down look. Now, obviously, he's an outside linebacker, so his rush angles are different. There's quite a bit of difference there in terms of what they're doing. They're a team that will bring those outside linebackers and bring some inside linebackers from time to time. They do have perimeter blitzes in their package. It's a versatile, flexible 3-4 that could really give you problems. It's a tough unit."
Colts quarterback Kerry Collins (on whether this week is more about focusing on the Colts offense or on the Texans defense):
"It's both. Obviously, we're trying to come together with the best game plan we can, but also realizing we are facing a familiar opponent with a different kind of defense. They've changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4. It seems like they've taken to it really well, playing hard, playing fast. It's going to be a big challenge for us come Sunday."
Colts center Jeff Saturday (on how comfortable the offense is with Kerry Collins at quarterback):
"I'm real comfortable. He's worked very hard. He's grabbed it much faster than I thought he would, and I've been impressed with how hard he's worked to get the offense. Any kind of correction that we make or we talk about, he makes it right away. We changed something in the Cincinnati game after the first series, and he seems to just get it. The guy's been around forever, and I've got a ton of confidence in what he's done. He's taken a lot of teams to winning games, so I don't have any fears that he can't get his job done. I know he'll do what he needs to do."
Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney (on playing Houston to open up the season):
"They have a really tough offense. They do a lot of great things. They are probably the best full zone team. I think they had the number one rushing offense last year. It's going to be a challenge for us like every year, especially being a divisional opponent. They know us, we know them. It's a very important, obviously, because it's the first game."
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak (on going up against Kerry Collins):
"Well, he's always done very well against me, I know that. He's a fine player. He's been a pro's pro for many years. He's been successful with a lot of football teams. It's a great pickup for them. He's obviously played a lot of great football and he's got a lot of good people around him, so I've got a lot of respect for him."
Texans head coach Gary Kubiak(on making the switch in the off-season to the 3-4 defense):"The fact that Wade (Phillips) obviously was available, so it was something that could happen very quick. I talked to him at length at the end of the season about our personnel and what he thought, and he felt very good about some of the guys we had around here making the transition to a 3-4. And then, ultimately, it probably came down to the fact that what we thought could possibly happen with the offseason, and which ended up happening or with us missing the whole offseason. He was the guy that could get it turned around the quickest and make up the most ground, so all of those things together and he brought tremendous credibility to our defensive room on our football team."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (on all the close games the Texans had in 2010)
"There were plenty of games that we were in in the last minute or two minutes, and ultimately fell short. Four or five of those games and it could have been a drastically different season for us, but we can't go back and change those things. We can only move forward and learn from it and grow, become a better team and better players. I think we'll be better in the long run having gone through some of those situations and learning from them. That's what we're focusing on."