MAKING STRIDES

Five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney on the Colts' defense: 'We've shown a lot of big strides compared to last year.'

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Colts Defensive End Dwight Freeney Feeling Good about Defense Entering Preseason

ANDERSON, Ind. – Dwight Freeney likes what he sees. A lot.

When Freeney, the Colts' five-time Pro Bowl defensive end, looks around the defense, what he sees is talent and experience. He also sees a group of players that has played – and played well – in the defensive system.

Those, Freeney said, are a lot of positives.

And it means the Colts' defense has a chance – with work, with focus and with continued preparation – to be a solid unit, perhaps one of the best on which he has played in nine NFL seasons.

"I definitely think so," Freeney said Friday, a day on which the Colts had two 2010 Training Camp practices while beginning preparations for their preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 1 p.m.

"Whenever you have a collection of guys who have been there that long, experienced guys – experience counts for a lot. We've shown a lot of big strides compared to last year."

The Colts, the AFC South and AFC Champions last year, are entering their second season under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. The unit finished 18th in the NFL in total defense last year in Coyer's first season, and finished eighth in the league in points allowed.

Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said the talent on the Colts' defense, with a year playing under Coyer, could mean an improved unit.

"I think there's always room for improvement, there's no question," Caldwell said. "I do think we have a good group of guys who have talent. We have experience. We just have to keep getting better.

"We certainly feel good about where we are. We certainly feel good about our potential."

The defense improved against the run a year ago. They allowed 126.5 yards rushing per game during the regular season, but a closer look at that number reveals that until the final two games of the season the Colts had allowed 112.4 yards per game rushing.

In those final two games, with post-season seeding clinched, the Colts played without several key starters who were rehabilitating injuries to prepare for the playoffs.

Coyer also last season brought a more aggressive approach, with the Colts blitzing more than in the past. The Colts this off-season re-signed middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the team's defensive captain, and also selected defensive end Jerry Hughes in the first round of the NFL Draft to provide a complementary pass rusher behind Freeney and Robert Mathis, a pair of defensive ends who each have made the Pro Bowl.

Antoine Bethea, a Pro Bowl selection in 2007 and 2009, also re-signed in the off-season, and Bob Sanders – the 2007 Associated Press National Football League Defensive Player of the Year – has practiced throughout training camp after playing two games last season.

"Last year, we were learning the defense," Freeney said. "This year, we kind of know what to expect, and we have a lot of those veteran guys back there and more experience up front."

Of the potential of the defense, Sanders said this week, "Only time will tell."

"I think we are doing some good things," Sanders said. "Coach said that he feels like we are further ahead this year than we were last year, so that's an improvement.

"That's what we want to do, improve day by day."

Freeney, meanwhile, said while there are new elements to the Colts' defense in the second season under Coyer, and while he indeed expects overall improvement, his role will stay "pretty much the same."

Freeney, a first-round selection in the 2002 NFL Draft, has been one of the NFL's top pass rushers in the eight seasons since. He is the Colts' all-time sacks leader with 84, and finished last season with 13.5 sacks, the second-highest single-season total of his career. He also last season set a franchise record with a sack in nine consecutive games.

"It's pretty much the same," Freeney said of his role within the defense. "There are some more wrinkles, but I think it's pretty much the standard deal – get after the QB when you can. It doesn't matter what it is – in third and long, get them off the field."

Freeney, who is entering his ninth NFL season, turned 30 in February, and said he hasn't thought much about reaching an age considered by some a benchmark by NFL standards.

"I don't know what 30 feels like," Freeney said smiling. "This is my first time being there, so I don't know what it's supposed to feel like, if I'm supposed to feel worse or what. You really don't know. There are guys who only play until 28. I think it's all based on the individual.

"Mentally, you don't think about it. You just go out and practice how you practice and play how you play. Time is only going to be able to tell how long. You take it year by year, see how you feel and that's it."

For now, Freeney said he's preparing for another NFL season, which means another preseason. That process begins Sunday, and Freeney said after eight preseasons he understands the imance of this part of the preparation.

"People don't like the preseason, a lot of times," Freeney said. "A lot of players don't like it, but you know what? It serves its purpose. You sharpen that blade now, so when that first game comes you're ready to swing and you're real sharp. For me, it's always beneficial for me to work on my craft and try to get better.

"Obviously, we have a month to get right, so in that first game you're still not trying to hone anything. You're really in stride."

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