ON THE UPSWING

Safety Antoine Bethea, a Pro Bowl selection following the 2007 season, is entering his fourth NFL season. He was the only player in the Colts' secondary last season to start 16 games, and he said his objective entering next season is to continue improving.

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Bethea Still Improving Entering Fourth NFL Season

INDIANAPOLIS – Sometimes, Antoine Bethea said it's hard to believe.

He's entering his fourth NFL season, and as the Colts' Pro Bowl safety sees it, that means his rookie season is getting further and further away more quickly than he imagined. Still, Bethea said despite feeling older sometimes, he said he's most certainly not old, and that makes his goal for the coming season clear.

It's not about postseason honors, but about staying healthy, because if he does, he said he can attain his true goal:

Keep improving.

"I'm still a young player, coming into my fourth year," Bethea said during the Colts' recent offseason conditioning program at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

"It's flying by. It just seems like yesterday I was walking in here trying to get onto the team. It's been a long road, but a good road. I think I've done what I can do and I want to elevate my game. I'm only 24. If I tell you I can't elevate my game, that's not good. I always see myself elevating, trying to be in the conversation with some of the best safeties in the league."

Bethea has been in that conversation in recent seasons.

A sixth-round selection in the 2006 NFL Draft, Bethea has been a key player on the Colts' defense in the three seasons since. He not only started for the Super Bowl XLI champions as a rookie, he made the Pro Bowl the following season, and this past season, he began developing as a team leader.

He said he did that in two ways:

One was that he played consistently, and the other was that . . . well, he just played.

Bethea, who has averaged more than 100 tackles a season in three NFL seasons, followed his 2007 Pro Bowl season with a season in which he registered a career-high 126 tackles.

As imant to Bethea was that he started 16 games for the first time in his NFL career.

"That was one of the things I was really trying to stay focused on – keeping my body healthy, and being on the field for 16 games," Bethea said. "That was something I really had a lot of pride in last year. That's one thing, just knowing the coaches know and the players know that Antoine's going to be out there, giving 100 percent, whatever he's got.

"Not saying I didn't give up any big plays, but I want my teammates to say, 'I know he's back there and it's somebody we can count on.''

Being out there every game was not only a big goal for Bethea, it made him unique in the Colts' secondary.

Bethea in 2007 was part of a Colts secondary that stayed healthy throughout the entire season, emerging as one of the NFL's top young units regardless of position. Bethea made the Pro Bowl that season, as did safety/2007 Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player Bob Sanders. Cornerback Marlin Jackson started 16 games, as did corner Kelvin Hayden, and as a group, they developed a reputation as one of the most-aggressive, hardest-hitting secondaries in the NFL.

But in 2008, injuries hit. Hayden missed six games with various injuries, and Sanders missed 10 games. Jackson missed the final nine games of the regular season with a knee injury. Bethea remained a consistent presence on a unit that despite the injuries set an NFL record by allowing just six touchdown passes.

"Last year was the year we thought we'd establish ourselves as one of the best secondaries in the league." Bethea said. "Not saying that this isn't a year we can do that, but it was a disappointment we couldn't put a whole season together. It's a blessing in disguise at the same time, because (veteran safety Melvin) Bullitt came in and did a good job. (Veteran cornerback) Tim (Jennings) came in and got playing time, so the guys got playing time under their belt and got some experience. You never want to see one of your counterparts out. But it was a blessing in disguise, because we have a lot of depth in the secondary. We have a lot of experience out there. There's not a lot you can throw at us we haven't seen.

"Everybody has confidence in each other, and anybody we put out there can get the job done."

With teammates in and out of the lineup, Bethea finished last season with two interceptions and now has seven for his career. He also had three passes defensed, but although his 126 tackles led the Colts he said his offseason focus has been on tackles he missed.

"I missed a couple of tackles last year that went for long runs," he said. "The Chicago game, that's a play (a 50-yard touchdown run by Matt Forte) that sticks out in my mind. The Houston play, we went down there and (running back Steve) Slaton went up on the sideline. That's a play that sticks out in my mind.

"Making more plays on the ball – that's what I want to see. I want people to say, 'They can't throw the ball deep because they have 41 back there. If a play breaks, they have Bethea back there and he's going to get it down.'"

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