INDIANAPOLIS – Outside linebacker Philip Wheeler started 11 of 13 appearances for Indianapolis last season.
It marked the most starts he had in any of his four professional seasons, and his 80 tackles also set a personal-best.
Wheeler enjoyed the taste of competition last year. He liked the amount he played, and he felt good about his efforts while on the field.
"I felt like I did better than my last few seasons here, especially at linebacker. I tried to step it up on special teams, too," said Wheeler. "I thought that I needed to play better. A lot of guys thought that about themselves, too, and I wanted to make sure that I did improve. We didn't start out winning, so that pushed a lot of us to work harder. As I worked harder, I got better. I wanted to progress in my career, and I think I was able to do that last year."
Wheeler has played in 61 of 64 possible games during his career. He missed the final three outings in 2011, snapping a long streak of consecutive games played. He started seven outings in 2009 and six in 2010, after not having any starts as a rookie. He felt much more at ease and tuned in on the field this past season.
"This was my fourth year playing here, and I know it was the one where I felt more comfortable," said Wheeler. "When you do anything for four years, you're going to get better at it. I appreciate the support the team showed while I got better. They put me on the field while I learned, and it showed last year. I think I've gotten better.
"I felt more polished as a linebacker in what we played. It seemed like things came more naturally, like reading the quarterback's eyes and playing the run better. I think the experiences I gained over my first three years really helped me take another step last season. … It also came from watching more film and being more of a student of the game."
When Wheeler first got to Indianapolis, he noticed the style of defense did not fit what he played at Georgia Tech. He was used to getting after the quarterback more than his role dictated with the Colts. He knew the ability to adapt would hasten playing time, but it was not easy.
"I was frustrated because I was used to being a starter," said Wheeler. "When I came in, it was a different system than I had in college. I was used to blitzing a lot, and we didn't blitz as much here. I was frustrated with not fitting the scheme but I thought if I adapted to it, they would put me on the field. That's what happened."
This past season saw Wheeler's numbers and playing time spike. His tackle total exceeded his previous seasonal-best of 52 from his second season. That was the only year he ever totaled 10 or more stops in a game. Wheeler did that once in 2009, and he tripled the total this past year.
He amassed five or more stops in 10 different games in 2011, establishing himself as a physical presence. Wheeler also contributed seven special teams tackles, pushing his career total to 45. Playing at ease came more naturally for him in 2011.
"Early on I think the physical side is what young guys see," said Wheeler. "They see the speed of the game, so they try to keep up. You're learning the game at that point because you don't know as much as you will when you get experienced. Later in your career as you know more, things slow down a little bit more and you are able to get more of an edge on competition and you keep a better pace. You're actually playing faster."
"(Philip) played some good football," said linebacker Gary Brackett. "He keeps developing, and he's more mature as a person. You can see the decisions he makes on field (are good). He's becoming a prime player. It was a matter of experience for him. His size is good. He's tall, athletic and limber. He plays well in open space. We needed him in our scheme to make plays from the outside position, and he did."
As for Wheeler, he believes he has put together a template for future seasons.
"I want to start for the rest of my career. I will do everything in my power to do so," said Wheeler. "Film study is important. I am going to take this past season and use it as a personal blueprint for my upcoming years. I think I can contribute in every phase of my play, as a linebacker, a pass rusher and as a special teamer. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity."
Wheeler has observed sold out crowds in Lucas Oil Stadium in every home game of his career. Last year's 2-6 home mark did not match 6-2, 7-1 and 6-2 respective records of his first three seasons, but Wheeler noticed no decline in the loyalty of fans.
"They stuck in there with us. You really have to credit them," said Wheeler. "It was a tough year, but they were there always. When we got our wins, they were celebrating with us like we hadn't lost a game. It felt like previous seasons. Colts fans are true fans."