INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Safety Bob Sanders is ready to start hitting, and the Colts are finally ready to get him back on the field.
Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said Monday that Sanders, the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year, and defensive end Dwight Freeney, a former league sacks champion, should be cleared for practice this week - easing two of the team's biggest preseason concerns.
``Our hope is that they will practice this week,'' Dungy said. ``We expect both to practice by Wednesday.''
If Sanders has his way, the return could come even sooner. He's hoping to be on the field when the Colts hold their first workout at the new Lucas Oil Stadium on Tuesday.
Both were placed on the physically unable to perform list - along with two-time league MVP Peyton Manning and two other starters - when training camp opened July 24 and all five starters were held out during the Colts' entire three-week stay in Terre Haute, Ind.
Sanders is recovering from his second straight offseason shoulder surgery, while Freeney is coming back from November foot surgery. Manning had an infected bursa sac removed from his left knee July 14 and was expected to miss four to six weeks.
Coaches were concerned about rushing the Colts' two defensive leaders back too soon even though Sanders and Freeney continually lobbied to practice.
Now, it appears the coaches and doctors, have embraced the players' wishes.
``That's my plan,'' Sanders said when asked about practicing Tuesday. ``I guess you'll have to talk to coach Dungy and see what happens. I'm getting excited, I'm ready to go, and hopefully I'll get out there this week.''
But Sanders, Freeney and Manning aren't the only starters who have been knocked out with injuries.
Other starters who have missed practice time include middle linebacker Gary Brackett, outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, backup linebacker Clint Session, who replaced Hagler in the lineup, and offensive linemen Ryan Diem, Ryan Lilja, Tony Ugoh.
Session and Brackett have since returned to the field and Ugoh played in Saturday's 16-9 preseason victory at Atlanta.
If Sanders and Freeney do return this week, the Colts could have all of their defensive starters except Hagler on the field for Sunday's stadium debut against Buffalo. Hagler is not expected back until October after tearing a pectoral muscle while lifting weights during the offseason.
Without Sanders and Freeney, the Colts have been susceptible to the run. On Saturday, Indy allowed Michael Turner to break long runs on each of the Falcons' first two series and wound up running four times for 113 yards. Through three preseason games, the Colts have given up more than 176 yards rushing per game.
Sanders hopes to change that this weekend.
``I think playing in a game is important just to get the chemistry back with the first guys and getting your timing down,'' he said. ``I think if you get that down, you play a little better.''
The biggest question, of course, is Manning, who has been kept out of public view since camp opened. He has not taken questions since his teammates reported to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
The result: Indy's offensive starters have not scored a touchdown in the first three preseason games and fans have grown increasingly concerned about Manning's absence.
Yet Dungy and other team officials have continued to say his recovery is on schedule, and Dungy said Monday that Manning could be back on the field next week.
It wasn't all good news on the injury front Monday.
Dungy said the team may be looking for another defensive lineman after Saturday's victory, just the third in Indy's last 17 preseason games.
Starting end Robert Mathis sprained an ankle, rookie end Marcus Howard has a strained oblique muscle and Curtis Johnson, an undrafted free agent, injured his shoulder. All are expected to miss some time this week although Dungy called the injuries minor.
But at least it appears they can rely on Sanders and Freeney to get the defense clicking again.
``I'm definitely ready,'' Sanders said. ``My body feels good. I'm just trying to be smart about the things I do on and off the field.''
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