INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts experienced injuries in position groups through a large part of the roster in 2011.
The linebacking corps was hit early with the loss of middle linebacker Gary Brackett in the Houston opener, and Brackett was lost for the season.
The team moved Pat Angerer into Brackett's role, a duty he had performed four times as a rookie, and Angerer was one of two defensive players to start each game. The unit was bolstered by Kavell Conner starting 15 of 16 appearances, while Philip Wheeler started 11 of 13 outings. It made the corps one of the healthiest units on the team.
Along with opportunity for Angerer and Conner came achievement. Angerer topped the club with 146 tackles, 66 solo. Conner ranked third with 104 stops, 50 solo. The only player separating them was safety Antoine Bethea (139, 80), the only other 16-game defensive starter in addition to Angerer for Indianapolis last season.
For Angerer, the move inside was a natural one and it showed in his play. The Iowa product reached double-digit tackle totals six times, including 20, 11 solo, against Pittsburgh, one of the club's highest individual single-game totals in its Indianapolis era. Only twice did he fail to have at least seven tackles.
A prime example of his of Angerer's value came on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter of a late-season 27-13 victory over Tennessee. Angerer forced a fumble that was recovered by the Colts, then had a goal-line interception to thwart another Titans threat as Indianapolis held a 20-6 lead. His difference-making talent has allowed him to total 221 tackles, two sacks, three fumbles forced, one fumble recovered and one interception while starting 27 of 32 outings since being drafted.
Angerer's competitive nature leaves him seeking more consistency from his play.
"I did feel more comfortable in my second year," said Angerer. "I could see more what I was supposed to do. I could play faster and without thinking, and that's important. The big thing was being able to tell other people what to do. I definitely think I've gotten better. I still need to avoid making mistakes. Obviously, you want to play the perfect game, and I still haven't yet. That is a goal of mine, and it will take work. I did okay. I played better."
Conner played weakside linebacker for the second straight year. In starting six more outings than as a rookie, hit tackle total mushroomed from 47 to 104. Conner also forced and recovered one fumble. Conner had a three-game streak early in the year when he had at least 10 stops. One week after Angerer's 20-tackle outing, Conner delivered 18 (14 solo) at Tampa Bay. He had at least six tackles in 10 games.
Angerer has seen Conner follow the same growth path that he has himself. He notices what Conner is able to do, particularly when it comes to the ferocity of some tackles.
"He's tough, man. He can hit you," said Angerer. "I think fans saw that during the season when he delivered a couple of shots. He made some very physical plays that caught some attention. He's a great guy to play beside. He's a team-first guy with a great amount of work ethic. He's an all-round guy who is a good building block for the team. I think you can see even more from Kavell. He still is getting more experienced like I am. He is bright and serious about his career."
Angerer and Conner are two building blocks for the unit. A long-tenured observer voiced regard for both players.
"Pat is instinctive, tough, talented. He is a great leader. He led the team in tackles last season while playing through a few injuries. He is productive every week. He is relentless in his competitive nature. He gets to the ball. When he does, he makes the tackle.
"Pat plays naturally at middle linebacker, both in the run and pass game. He's one of those guys that it looks as if he's gotten faster, but the fact of the matter is that he's playing in a position that's natural for him. He can cover ground, more than many people think. He has good ball skills in coverage. He does a tremendous job of getting on the edge of an offensive lineman and still gets to the ball. Pat has the movement and finesse to have linemen miss him. He has the power to knock a blocker back into the hole as well. … He has an extreme measure of 'want to get there' within him, and he's a great leader. Pat has everything it takes.
"Kavell came along last year. He developed as a lot of young players have here. He got better, and you will continue to see him improve. Kavell is a hard-working guy who does not like to miss anything. He does not like to miss practice. Certainly, he does not want to miss games. His work ethic is a strength.
"He played with a lot of force. Kavell is a thumper. He can create havoc. He's a striker. He is diligent in his preparation and he is dedicated. Kavell gets around, he's active, he doesn't say two words. All he does is play and enjoy it and work extremely hard. His love for the game is obvious."
Philip Wheeler had 80 tackles to rank fourth on the squad. Wheeler made his appearances on the strongside. He had three games with 10 tackles and 10 outings with at least five stops before missing the final three outings. Wheeler had seven special teams tackles. Ernie Sims joined the team in training camp and opened four games, one for Conner and three when Wheeler was hurt at the end of the season. Sims had 61 stops. A.J. Edds played in nine games as a reserve and special teamer. Edds had eight stops at New England when Angerer went down early with an injury. Scott Lutrus had seven special teams tackles, while Zac Diles had three and Kevin Bentley, had two. Wheeler, Sims and Bentley are unrestricted free agents. Brackett was released by the club after nine seasons. Brackett also was a team captain since 2006. Jerrell Freeman and Mario Harvey have been added since the season ended.
Indianapolis will have a new direction this season with Head Coach Chuck Pagano and Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky. For his part, Angerer is looking forward to the new season and the opportunity with the new defensive staff.
"I'm excited about what can happen here. I think a lot of our guys feel the same way," said Angerer. "We have a lot of great coaches coming in. I think we're fired up. We have to put the work in first, but the sky is the limit. I think we're all looking forward to it."