Eighth of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS - As far as Tony Dungy was concerned, perception didn't match reality when it came to the Colts' linebackers this past season.
Which to Dungy was a very good thing.
Gary Brackett. Tyjuan Hagler.
None may have been thought of as "prototype" National Football League linebackers, and when they entered the NFL, none were projected by most observers to be big-time players. As a result, Dungy - entering his seventh season as the Colts' head coach - said the perception was that the Colts' linebackers likely would struggle this past season.
Perception was wrong, Dungy said, and despite a season marked by personnel changes at the position, he said the group had a solid season.
"Whoever was up that week got the job done," Dungy said recently in an interview with Colts.com for this story on the team's linebackers, the eighth of a position-by-position series that will run throughout this month.
The Colts dealt with personnel changes at linebacker not only during the season, but before it, too.
Shortly after the Colts won Super Bowl XLI in February of 2007, linebacker Cato June - a starter in the Super Bowl and a Pro Bowl selection in 2005 – became an unrestricted free agent. A few weeks later, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That left the Colts' linebackers as follows entering training camp: second-year veteran Freddy Keiaho at weak side, five-year veteran Gary Brackett in the middle and eight-year veteran Rob Morris – a first-round selection in 2000 – at strong side.
The lineup wasn't together long.
Morris, a starter in the middle from 2001-2004 who moved into the starting lineup on the strong side late in 2006, missed two games in September with injuries, then in a 38-20 victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 4, he sustained a season-ending knee injury.
Veteran Rocky Boiman replaced him, but Hagler – a fifth-round selection in 2005 – moved into the lineup soon thereafter, and the Colts' most common linebacker lineup the rest of the season was Keiaho, Brackett and Hagler.
The Colts, a season after ranking 32nd in the NFL in run defense, improved dramatically in the area last season. After allowing 173 yards per game rushing in 2006, the Colts allowed 106.9 per game in 2007, finishing the season ranked 15th against the run.
"The fact that we lost Cato and then Rob got hurt a couple of games into the season, I think everybody would have said, 'Well, they were a poor run defensive unit at the beginning of the year the year before – there's no way they can be even as good,''' Dungy said. "Again, it was a case of Tyjuan Hagler, Rocky Boiman, Clint Session, Freddy Keiaho . . . whoever was up that week, got the job done.
"That's a great credit to (linebackers coach) Mike Murphy, because other than Gary, we weren't dealing with a lot of experienced guys. They were ready to play. They were very physical.
"They moved around with great suddenness and sharpness and quickness. They played well."
That was particularly true, Dungy said, of Brackett, who – in his third season as a starter and his second season as the team's captain – emerged as one of the NFL's top players at his position.
Brackett, originally acquired as a rookie free agent in 2003, moved into the starting lineup on a permanent basis in 2005. He was elected team captain in 2006, and in 2007, he led the team with 149 tackles, 79 solos, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
He also had a half a sack, two quarterback pressures and six passes defensed. He forced two fumbles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the team's 23-21 loss at San Diego.
"He's a special guy from that standpoint," Dungy said of Brackett, who – at 5-feet-11, 235 pounds – is smaller than most NFL linebackers. "He's probably not going to ever be as big, quick, physical and fast as everybody, but he understands the game and how we play. He's very smart. He's in position. He has a great deal of desire. I think that's the only way you can look at it. Our whole linebacker corps other than maybe Rocky and Tyjuan would maybe fall into that same category.
"When he (Brackett) is out walking around town and somebody asks what you do, nobody would say, 'Well, that's an NFL middle linebacker.'''
Brackett's season, Dungy said, may have been his best in three seasons as a starter, a performance that came at a critical time for the Colts, who were young at several positions on defense and who sustained injuries at several others in 2007.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, missed the last seven games of the season and defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland missed the entire season with a knee injury. Morris missed all but two games, defensive tackle Raheem Brock missed five games and defensive end Robert Mathis missed the last three games.
On the line, rookie tackles Quinn Pitcock, Keyunta Dawson and Ed Johnson each played more than originally expected, Dungy said, with Johnson – a rookie free agent – the lone player on the line to start all 16 regular-season games. In the secondary, fourth-year safety Bob Sanders was the most experienced player, with safety Antoine Bethea in his second season as a starter and cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden in their first seasons as starters.
Brackett started all 16 regular-season games, one of just two players on the Colts' front seven – and the only veteran – to do so.
"For him to do it that way, to have a great individual year with all the changing that was going on around him – the young defensive tackles, the new linebackers – he's getting them kind of acclimated and in position, then still having to play his game, that was impressive," Dungy said.
Keiaho, a third-round selection in the 2006 NFL Draft, replaced June at weakside linebacker, starting 11 games and registering 101 tackles, 58 solos. He also had a half a sack, an interception and two passes defensed.
"Freddy played real well for us," Dungy said. "He had an elbow that was sore all year. I think the guy we saw the first couple of weeks – you add that experience and get him back 100 percent healthy, he has a chance to have a dynamite year."
Hagler, who began the season as a reserve, finished as the starter on the strong side. He started seven of 12 games, three on the weakside and four on the strong, finishing the season 60 tackles, 34 solos, and a sack with a forced fumbled and a fumble recovery.
Clint Session, a fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, started one of 13 games, finishing the season with 23 tackles, 16 solos. He had two interceptions, each of which came in his lone start – at San Diego on November 11. He also forced a fumble.
Ramon Guzman, a free agent rookie, played all 16 games, registering five tackles and playing extensively on special teams.