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Colts revamping more than half the defense

The SportsXchange

ANDERSON, Ind. -- Based on sheer change, the Indianapolis Colts are in the midst of a retooling project on the defensive side of the football.

Thanks to a flurry of offseason free-agent signings, as well as one or two additions through the draft, the Colts could have at least six new starters when the regular season opens.

And the math works because, gone are six former starters -- outside linebacker Dwight Freeney (San Diego Chargers), strong safety Tom Zbikowski (Chicago Bears), and cornerback Jerraud Powers (Arizona Cardinals). Outside linebacker Erik Walden (Green Bay Packers), strong safety LaRon Landry (New York Jets) and cornerback Greg Toler (Cardinals) are expected to be their replacements.

With defensive tackle Fili Moala recovering from offseason knee surgery, Ricky Jean Francois (San Francisco 49ers) takes over.

Nose tackle Antonio Johnson was not re-signed after last season, which opens the door for either Josh Chapman (who missed his rookie year with the Colts because of knee surgery) or veteran Aubrayo Franklin (Chargers).

Finally, there could be an opening as well at inside linebacker. Jerrell Freeman, who set a franchise record for tackles in a season in 2012, is safely ensconced at one spot.

But with Pat Angerer recovering from offseason foot surgery, Kavell Conner and Kelvin Sheppard (Buffalo Bills) are battling it out for a starting job.

Second-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has the unenviable task of trying to put all the pieces together and turning them into a cohesive unit. Not an easy task, but one in which he is more than ready to undertake.

"It's great. Last year it was a process across the board for all of us. But at the end of the season, things started coming around. Looking forward more than ever this year with the players that we've got, coaches that we have, and just ready to roll," Manusky said.

The goal prior to last season was to turn players who had been drafted to play in a 4-3 defensive scheme into a group that could make an impact in Indianapolis' new hybrid 3-4 package.

"When you have the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, you're trying to plug in the pieces and figure out what they're trying to do," the veteran assistant coach said.

"With last year, coming into the season, we were trying to figure out the players actually, what can they do and what can't they do. Then all of a sudden this year those pieces are a little bit more in place."

With Freeney gone, returning outside linebacker Robert Mathis will flip sides of the defensive line to become the Colts' primary outside pass rusher. Walden will take over Mathis' former role.

Franklin and Chapman, a 2012 fifth-round draft pick who earned All-America honors at Alabama, are the top two options at nose tackle.

Brandon McKinney missed last year with knee issues and was placed on injured reserve last week, which could open up playing time for rookie defensive lineman Montori Hughes.

Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, Indianapolis' top selection in this year's draft, is currently listed as the top backup to Mathis as the Colts' rush end.

Werner, however, is getting looks at both outside linebacking spots and could end up playing on both sides of the line.

Defensive end Cory Redding, free safety Antoine Bethea, cornerback Vontae Davis, Freeman and Mathis are the five starters from a year ago who return this season.

According to Manusky, he likes what he's seen of his defense through the first week of training camp practices. But there's still much work to do in order to be ready for Indianapolis' Sept. 8 season and home opener against the Oakland Raiders.

"It's a process across the board just like it was last year. We got a couple of guys through free agency that have helped us out across the board. It's a process," he explained.

"Offensively, usually in training camp, in the beginning, usually the defense wins a majority of the time. Why? Because they're still installing a lot of stuff offensively. We're just doing the process, grinding the stone and we're going to keep on working at it."

Manusky readily admits that he's not much of a stats man. There is only one number that has much meaning.

"The biggest No. 1 thing is we win games. I tell them I don't care how we win a game. It's just that we win games. Defensively, that's what we're looking for," he said.

"Would we like to have the No. 1 defense? Of course. But, stats doesn't really mean anything to me. We won 11 games last year and that's what we're looking to do and expand on that."

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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