Indianapolis Colts: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action
We've been saying this for weeks, but today it's as true as it's going to be until Sept. 7: Indianapolis Colts football is back.
This isn't training camp "football." It's honest-to-god, pads-on, against-a-real-opponent football. Finally, fans and media will be able to get a small glimpse of what teams actually look like. But, there's still a caveat to deal with.
Preseason isn't about the team: It's about individuals.
Teams quite often look terrible in the preseason before looking great in the regular season. The Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the preseason before going winless in the 2008 regular season. Last season, the Lions defeated the New England Patriots 40-9, including going up 16-3 against the first-string. The Colts have been regularly awful in the preseason over the last 15 years, but that's not carried over to the games that count.
Whether it's the first, second or third-string, how the team plays isn't relevant. Instead, keep an eye on the smaller units: positional units, individuals, etc. That's what coaches will be watching for, and it's what we'll be keeping an eye on as well. With that in mind, here are five areas that we'll be watching closely tonight.
While elite cornerbacks are currently all the rage, the 2000s were a decade that reminded us how much of an impact an elite safety can make. Whether it was Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu or a healthy Bob Sanders, the style of a safety didn't necessarily have to matter, they just had to be effective.
But the opposite is also true: A bad safety or safety pair can make things much, much more difficult on a defense.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, the latter has been more applicable in Indianapolis as of late, and with longtime Colt Antoine Bethea now in San Francisco, things aren't going to get pretty anytime soon. As the thinnest, most questionable position on the Colts defense, the safety position will be under a microscope on Thursday.
The Colts desperately need LaRon Landry to become the impact player the Colts paid him to be, but he might not be playing against the New York Jets on Thursday as he continues to get healthy. If he's not on the field, it will be up to the young guys to make a mark.
Delano Howell is the favorite to win the starting spot next to Landry, while Sergio Brown has gained the trust of the coaches on defense as well, practicing with the first-string for much of this camp. Veteran Mike Adams may get some looks as well, but Brown and Howell are the youngsters most likely to start.
Can they hold their own against a Jets offense that doesn't seem to pose much of a threat? With the regular season will come Peyton Manning and Chip Kelly in the first two weeks, so preparations will need to be finalized through the preseason.
Youth in the Trenches
The Colts' biggest question mark on the offense, aside from possibly Trent Richardson, is the offensive line. While tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus are each dependable, the space between them is a volatile mess.
Last season, C Samson Satele and RG Mike McGlynn made the interior a hot mess. Both players were among the worst at their position, and Hugh Thornton's inexperience made for a rough year on the left side as well. On almost every single play, one of the three was missing a block, resulting in a lot of broken plays.
In 2014, there's been a major overhaul. Satele is gone. McGlynn is gone. In their place are second-year center Khaled Holmes and rookie Jack Mewhort. While the potential between the two, or three if you include Thornton, is high, the possibility for struggles is even higher.
Against the Jets' talented defensive line, which includes Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, the interior will be pushed to its limits. It's the first real test of the season, as the light blocking in training camp makes it difficult to critique.
The Colts need those three to step up in 2014. Andrew Luck needs them to step up. Trent Richardson needs them to step up.
The Second Year
During training camp, Bjoern Werner has been the talk of the town. Whether it's fans like Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue or experienced members of the media like Reggie Hayes of The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the Werner hype has been strong these last few weeks.
But, again, training camp doesn't mean anything.
The Colts need Werner to produce when they have a real opponent, and Thursday is the first glance of that.
Last year, Werner struggled in all areas of the game, so the areas to improve are many. But the most important area for him to be effective in is pass rush. Pass rush is the cornerstone of a modern defense, and Robert Mathis is the Colts' sole consistent pass-rusher. With him missing the first four weeks of the season, the Colts need Werner to fill that void.
Trent, Trent and More Trent
As seemingly in every media member's contract, we cannot go a full article without discussing running back Trent Richardson.
Though running back is arguably the most impossible position to judge during training camp, that hasn't stopped the media from proclaiming Richardson much improved. According to Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star, Richardson is "running with confidence, decisiveness. He's hitting the holes and showing a burst."
Of course, I wonder what we're comparing this to. If it's last season, of course it should be better. All running backs should be confident and decisive when they know the defense is not going to try. The real test will come against the Jets.
Can Richardson lay aside his demons and find the crevices that the line opens up?
I'm on the record as saying Richardson will improve in 2014, the question is just how much. If he can be a true feature back, the Colts can contend for a Super Bowl. If he's just another marginal back in a committee, well, the Colts can still contend for a Super Bowl. It will just be a bit more difficult.
The Future No. 1?
A player with as much intrigue as any on the roster, rookie receiver Donte Moncrief has been one of the unanimous positives coming out of camp.
Moncrief looked much more polished than I expected of him in his first training camp, especially considering the raw talent he looked to be in college last season. This Moncrief looks more like the 2012 version, which scored 10 touchdowns at Ole Miss.
He should get a chance to take some snaps with the first team on Thursday as Reggie Wayne sits out for precautionary reasons. How much Luck chooses to trust him will be revealing, even if it is just a preseason game.
Can Moncrief continue to stand out against a real defense? Can he show the ability that has him as the next No. 1 receiver in Indianapolis?
All observations from training camp were observed firsthand by the reporter, unless otherwise noted. All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.