By TOM JAMES
ANDERSON — When it comes to setting goals for the Indianapolis Colts defense during the team’s final three preseason games, second-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has a pretty simple wish list.
He’s looking for playmakers.
“In this league, there are difference makers. Guys that come into the league and been difference makers. Are you one of those guys? Are you a solid football player? A good football player? And then are you a backup player? A special teams player? That’s what I was when I played in the National Football League,” Manusky explained Wednesday.
“Four categories. That’s basically what your’re put into. With our players, we want to see difference makers. Usually, those are the guys that are the fastest and the quickest, and have knowledge of football and the plays that are coming to them. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
With Indianapolis set to play the New York Giants in a nationally-televised road preseason game Sunday night, injuries have been the biggest impediment to a retooled defensive unit.
The team was without strong safety LaRon Landry, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, inside linebacker Pat Angerer — all projected starters — as well as several key backups, such as safety Joe Lefeged, inside linebacker Mario Harvey and defensive end Fili Moala, for last week’s preseason opening loss to Buffalo.
Some of the walking wounded are expected back for the Giants game. But exactly who and how many remain up in the air.
“Do we have some injuries right now? Yeah, but I think those younger [backup] guys got to pick up their game across the board and I got to do a better job of putting them in the right situation as well,” the assistant coach admitted.
“Once we get a little bit healthier across the board, it will help out a little bit, but it also gave us insight on a couple of players, like [third-year safety Delano] Howell making as many plays as he did. He had a real good game and he’s pushing those other guys as well.”
Speaking of Howell, one of four former Stanford players on the Indianapolis training camp roster, he certainly proved his worth in the loss to the Bills.
He was in for 89 defensive snaps as well as 17 special teams plays in the Buffalo game. That’s 106 total plays.
“He’s in excellent shape. There’s a guy that, we always talk about opportunity, There’s a guy who is taking full advantage and took full advantage of an opportunity. You got a couple of guys down, a guy gets a chance, goes in, played like you said a tremendous amount of snaps,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.
“He played extremely well. [Eleven] tackles. He was good against the run, physical, didn’t miss any tackles, good in the pass game. Overall, he made a statement. He’s one of those guys that we talked about, become necessary and that’s one game in for him, one positive step in the right direction for him. So,we were very pleased about his performance.”
Howell was forced to see extensive playing time due absence of Landry, Lefeged, Sergio Brown and Larry Asante. Brown and Asante are both expected to play this week. The statuses of Landry and Lefeged are still up in the air.
“Joe [Lefeged] was actually at the walkthrough [Wednesday] doing some stuff. Once we get a little bit healthier across the board, it will help out a little bit,” Manusky added. “But it also gave us insight on a couple of players, like Howell making as many plays as he did. He had a real good game and he’s pushing those other guys as well.”
FLEENER RETURNS TO PRACTICE
Tight end Coby Fleener, who sat out Tuesday afternoon’s workout after suffering a concussion in the first half of the Buffalo game, participated in Wednesday’s fully-padded practice.
According to team officials, Fleener passed all of the tests that are prescribed by the NFL’s concussion protocols. He has been cleared to practice but he has not been cleared to play in a game as of yet.
CUNNINGHAM GETS A CHANCE
Rookie tight end Justice Cunningham, Indianapolis’ seventh-round draft pick last spring, is going to get a chance to show what he can do with extended playing time.
With Allen and Fleener suffering from foot and concussion issues, respectively, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant might end up starting against the Giants on Sunday night.
“When Justice had been given the opportunities to go out and make plays, he’s shown he is willing to be physical at the point of attack and of course he had a big play in the passing game this past Sunday,” offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “He’s making strides and he’s showing that he may be a guy that can compete for playing time in our offense.”
The Colts may have had their best overall practice of training camp Wednesday afternoon.
The offense was sharp for most of the day while the defense came up with several big plays, most notably interceptions by cornerback Darius Butler and safety Ashante Williams.
Rookie inside linebacker Josh McNary, cornerback Teddy Williams, offensive guard Daneous Estenor, safety LaRon Landry, offensive guard Hugh Thornton, center Khaled Holmes, and tight end Dwayne Allen sat out Wednesday’s workouts.
Allen is no longer using crutches and spent most of the afternoon workout talking with several of the Colts’ younger players during individual and team drills.
STATS OF THE DAY
Quarterback Andrew Luck completed 32-of-45 passes for four touchdowns.
Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who had a rough day Tuesday with five drops, rebounded with a strong practice. Heyward-Bey hauled in five passes, including two for touchdowns. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne had one touchdown reception.
On one of his TDs, Heyward-Bey outbattled cornerback Vontae Davis had a simultaneous catch in the end zone. The two Colts wrestled for the football for several minutes before Heyward-Bey came up with the ball.