The Andrew Luck era charges into Year 2 for the Indianapolis Colts, while it looks as though the EJ Manuel era will officially begin for the Buffalo Bills, as the two teams will square off inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to open the 2013 NFL preseason.
Both clubs would be considered "upstarts" in most circles—both have assembled a nice collection of skill-position talent on offense and are looking to improve their defenses.
While we won't see much of Luck or Manuel, here are the things you need to know before tuning in.
Indianapolis Colts Major Storyline No. 1: How Will the "Stanford" Offense Look?
Luck worked wonders for the Colts in 2012, although the stat sheet doesn't show that. Playing in Bruce Arians' long-developing vertical-passing system, the No. 1 overall pick was subject to continual pressure, and completed only 54.1 percent of his passes.
Although he ended the year with 4,374 yards, his 76.5 QB rating was lackluster and a point lower than Blaine Gabbert's. Luck was not worse than Gabbert last season.
Now, Arians is calling the shots in Arizona for the Cardinals, and the Colts hired Luck's Stanford offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, to the same position.
Hamilton's scheme is traditional and West Coast-like in its foundation, loaded with power-running formations and play-action passes. Also, it prominently features tight ends, something that bodes well for Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener.
Luck completed 71.3 percent of his passes with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in Hamilton's system during his final season in Palo Alto.
With Fleener healthy, Allen looking to build on a strong rookie campaign and some new pieces along the offensive line, it'll be intriguing to see how comfortable Luck appears to be operating a new but familiar offensive attack and how often he targets his talented tight ends.
Indianapolis Colts Major Storyline No. 2: How Far Along is the New-Look Defense?
The Colts installed and ran a base 3-4 defense in 2012 after years in a 4-3 alignment, but in 2013, they're plugging a variety of new players into Chuck Pagano's scheme.
LaRon Landry, Greg Toler, Erik Walden, Lawrence Sidbury, Ricky Jean-Francois are newcomers, and 2012 fifth-round pick Josh Chapman, who missed the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL, will make his professional debut at the block-devouring nose tackle position.
Due to his battle with leukemia last year, we aren't really sure how Pagano is as a head coach or how he's instructed his players in the defensive system he crafted in Baltimore with the Ravens.
Can all the new parts jell with the established Indianapolis veterans to improve a defense that allowed, according to FootballOutsiders, the 29th-most yards and 23rd-most points per drive a season ago?
It's still early, but this is game is the first opportunity to see the Colts' new-look defense.
Buffalo Bills Major Storyline No. 1: How Will EJ Manuel Fare?
It's an exciting time for Bills fans, as they hope the "future" is actually "now" with Manuel under center. With a first-time NFL head coach in Doug Marrone and a first-time NFL offensive coordinator in Nate Hackett, we aren't exactly sure what we'll get from Buffalo's Manuel-led attack, but we do know it'll have a speedy tempo.
Although presumed focal points C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson won't see many carries in this one, rookie wideouts Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, players who are bound to be key contributors to Manuel's long-term development, should see a decent amount of action.
It'll be worth monitoring how fast the Bills offense moves and if Manuel appears to be relaxed calling the shots as well as accurately delivering the ball to Buffalo's pass-catchers in his (preseason) professional debut.
Buffalo Bills Major Storyline No. 2: Will Mike Pettine's System Improve the Defense?
Last season, the Bills defense was bad. Really bad.
According to FootballOutsiders, no team allowed more touchdowns per drive than Buffalo during the regular season, and as a team, the Bills allowed an even five yards per carry. Out is Dave Wannstedt and his outdated vanilla scheme. In is Mike Pettine and his blitz-predicated system that can't quite be pegged as a 3-4 or 4-3 due to its constant shifting.
On paper, the talent is there, especially along the defensive line. Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Alex Carrington and Mario Williams formulate an intimidating quartet in the trenches, and although there is much uncertainty in the linebacker corps and the secondary, cornerback Stephon Gilmore has the physical skill set to become a Darrelle Revis-esque lockdown defender.
Former Colts outside linebacker/defensive end Jerry Hughes, who was traded to the Bills for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard this offseason, is a dark horse to revitalize his career in Pettine's system.
Facing Luck for one or two possessions will be a good early-August barometer for Buffalo's more aggressive defense, that's for sure.
The Bottom Line
As is the case with almost every preseason outing, especially the first of the year, this game will ultimately be won or lost by the backups.
After headliners like Luck, Manuel and Spiller take a seat, players like Matt Hasselbeck, Jeff Tuel and Tashard Choice will take the field.
While it's difficult to peg which club has more overall depth at this juncture of the preseason, Indianapolis clearly has an advantage at the quarterback position with Hasselbeck, someone who boasts 194 games of NFL experience.
Tuel was an undrafted free agent out of Washington State this season.
Because of that, Indianapolis' second- and third-team players should fare better than Buffalo's, leading to a Colts win.
Final Score Prediction: Colts 27, Bills 17
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