Two down. Two to go.
We’re at the halfway point of the NFL preseason. For most fans, this means we are just that much closer to seeing games that really matter. However, for the Indianapolis Colts, there is a lot about this preseason that matters just as much as the opening game against the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.
The media mantra this offseason has been how the Colts will handle all the changes they have faced. Many have predicted that the Colts apocalypse is upon us. As long as Peyton Manning leads the Colts, most fans know that the situation is not that dire. However, there were a list of questions.
So, what have we learned after two games? Surprisingly, quite a lot.
The Colts Have Found Their Third Receiver
I made three trips to Colts training camp in Terre Haute, Indiana. While there, two players stayed after a practice session to work on drills by themselves. Obviously, one was Peyton Manning, the one man in the world that may actually enjoy training camp. The other? Austin Collie. The rookie from BYU remained on the field on a hot August morning to run routes and make cuts for about 45 minutes. Alone.
It’s little wonder that Collie is leading the Colts in receiving in the preseason. Before camp, the man penciled into this spot was second year Mount Union product, Pierre Garcon. Garcon, though, has two drops in the preseason. That’s the same number of receptions he has had. Garcon may have been touted by General Manager Bill Polian as the breakout player for 2009, but it’s hard to ignore Collie’s work ethic and production so far. Collie seems a natural fit for the Colts in the slot.
The Colts Offense Will Not Be As One-Dimensional in 2009
Last season, the Colts were 31st in the league in rushing. Joseph Addai was hampered by injuries and the veteran Dominic Rhodes could not repeat the success of his first stint in the Colts uniform. As a result, the Colts drafted Donald Brown.
So far, it looks like Polian’s plan is paying off.
Addai and Brown have combined for 85 yards rushing on only 12 carries. Addai is a productive back, but doesn’t have the frame to be an every-down player. Addai was most productive in 2006, when he and Rhodes combined for 1700 yards and 12 touchdowns. Addai and Brown will keep each other fresh, and the line is improved after getting guard Ryan Lilja back after he missed all of 2008. The Colts will be a much improved rushing team, which will make the passing offense even more effective.
The Colts Are Learning to Live Without Bob Sanders…Because They Have to
There’s no denying that Sanders is an absolutely fantastic football player. The 2007 Defensive Player of the Year is a playmaker, when he’s on the field. Unfortunately for the Colts, that isn’t nearly as often as they would like.
Sanders missed nine games during the 2008 season after starting 15 games in his award-winning 2007 campaign. History suggests that Sanders will have a healthy year in 2009, but there are already hints that this year may be a repeat of last year.
Sanders is already a question mark for the season opener against Jacksonville, and the announcement that he will be visiting Dr. Andrews, one of the leading sports physicians, is not a good sign that his knee is in regular season shape.
However, the Colts can win without Sanders.
The biggest myth in media is that the Colts are sunk without No. 21 in the defensive backfield. Facts are that Sanders was absent during a majority of the games when the Colts finished 2008 on a nine-game winning streak. Also, the Colts set a record by allowing only six passing touchdowns all year.
Not bad for a defense that did not have their leader most of the time.
In the preseason, the replacements have faired very well. Melvin Bullit recorded a sack on Donovan McNabb in the second game, and speedster Matt Giordano is leading the team in tackles. Even without Sanders, safety is one of the deepest positions on the Colts roster. They’ll be just fine with or without Sanders in the lineup.
The Colts Will Keep Three Quarterbacks.
For the last several years, the Colts quarterback depth chart has had two names.
Peyton Manning and Jim Sorgi.
This year, though, the Colts spent a sixth round pick on Purdue’s Curtis Painter. Painter’s been a quick fan favorite having been born and raised in Indiana. However, it’s his play that has gotten the attention of the Colts’ staff. Painter has shown some mobility against the aggressive defenses of the Vikings and Eagles. His arm is significantly stronger than Sorgi’s.
Sorgi will remain Manning’s backup, but Painter has shown enough potential that it may be worth it to keep him on the team.
It’s always nice to figure some things out about your team as the preseason winds down. However, there are several questions that remain for the Colts before the season kicks off in about three weeks.
Who Will Be the Starting Left Tackle?
The Colts are a legitimate threat to reach the Super Bowl this year. Nothing, however, will derail these dreams faster than having a scrub protecting the blind side of the Colts’ best player.
Tony Ugoh may go down in history as the one black mark on Polian’s drafting resume. The Colts dealt a first round pick to acquire Ugoh in the second round in 2007. After a promising rookie year, Ugoh has failed to live up to the hype. He was finally benched in training camp this year after perennial backup Charlie Johnson recovered from an injury. Johnson is a solid player, best known for his superb job filling in for Ryan Diem in the Super Bowl against Chicago.
However, Johnson is not a long term answer at left tackle.
Ugoh may never live up to his potential.
The third option had been Corey Hilliard. Hilliard, who was praised early in camp, was so horrendous in the opening game against the Vikings that he was cut just days later.
If Johnson or Ugoh do not step up to make a firm claim on the left tackle spot, do not be surprised if the Colts go fishing when the first round of wavers come up.
Will Larry Coyer’s Defense Stop the Bend, But Don’t Break approach?
Coyer’s hire signaled that the Colts would play a more aggressive style of defense. In 2008, the Colts ranked near the bottom in third down conversion percentage. The Colts did not give up a lot of points, but opposing teams spent too much time on the field. Coyer’s defenses have a reputation of getting after the quarterback and getting off the field on third down.
However, the results have been mixed in the first two games.
Against Minnesota, the Vikings took the opening drive and converted on fourth down twice before eventually scoring a touchdown. For the night, the Vikings dominated the time of possession by nearly 20 minutes.
The Colts played a completely different game against the Eagles in game two. Twice they sacked Donovan McNabb, forcing a fumble on one. The Colts were winners in time of possession. The result? The Colts ran 26 more plays on offense against Philadelphia than they did against Minnesota. That’s quite a difference.
It’s hard to judge how Coyer’s defense will do until a pattern is set. That may be difficult as the Colts have been without over half of their projected starters during part or all of the preseason.
Still, the two remaining preseason games are against two of the more dismal franchises in the NFL, the Detroit Lions and the Cincinnati Bengals. Even a depleted defense should perform well in the next two games. If the Lions and Bengals can dominate possession, it may give the league a blueprint for keeping Manning and the offense at bay.
What Remaining Position Battles Will Be Decided in the Last Two Games?
There are two positions in particular to watch for in the last two games. Running back and defensive tackle.
At running back, the Colts are going to have to cut a quality player. Brown and Addai are locks, so that leaves three guys battling for one, maybe two, spots.
Mike Hart, a second year player from Michigan, is coming back from a major knee injury. He only had two carries in his rookie year, but the Colts like his knack for picking up the hard yards between the tackles.
Chad Simpson started 2008 on the practice squad, but eventually made his way to the team and contributed in the running game and on special teams. Despite good reviews from training camp, Simpson has done little to impress so far in the preseason games.
Lance Ball is last on the depth chart, but has been the Colts’ workhorse so far. His 23 carries are nearly three times more than the next running back. The Colts may be giving Ball a hard look. Ball played only one game last year, but was spectacular against the Titans in the season finale, tallying 83 yards on just 13 carries.
If they keep one, it will likely be Hart if the Colts believe he’s healthy enough. Give Ball the edge on Simpson if the Colts feel they need another back.
At defense tackle, the battle is getting interesting. The Colts made a point of adding some beef to the defensive line. Five of the eight men on the roster weigh over 300 pounds. Two of the others are above 290. The Colts will likely keep six players as they have historically used a rotation to keep the linemen fresh.
The biggest acquisition for the Colts in 2009 may actually be the resigning of Ed Johnson. Johnson was cut early in 2008 after violating team policies. His return immediately added some experience to a very young defensive line. Johnson has bulked up, and has been the most impressive tackle in camp.
Another Johnson, this one Antonio, is likely to be named the other starter. This Johnson was plucked from the Titans’ practice squad last year and amassed 31 tackles in his short time with the Colts.
The Colts also spent two draft picks to add depth to the position. Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor are both likely to make the team, but the most impressive rookie so far as been free agent signing Adrian Grady. Grady has led all linemen in tackles after two games. While a bit undersized at 6'1'', 290, Grady may have the motor to make the team.
With rotational player Daniel Muir likely to secure a spot, the odd men out appear to be rookie free agent John Gill, and veteran Eric Foster. Foster, whose touchdown saving tackle on Willie Parker saved the win at Pittsburgh last year, may lose a spot since he is nearly 30 pounds lighter than all the other defensive tackles.
Who Could Be the Colts Diamond in the Rough?
Every year, Polian seems to find a free agent rookie who ends up making a big impact on the team. It very well could be Grady at defensive tackle, but another free agent could end up making an impact in the Colts defensive secondary.
Jacob Lacey, from Oklahoma State, has been a solid contributor to the defense through the halfway point of the preseason. Lacey has five tackles, but more impressively, leads the team with six passes defended. While the cornerback position is fairly crowded, the rookie Lacey may be doing enough to push out one of the veterans like Dante Hughes or Michael Coe.
There are definitely many things for Colts fans to watch for, especially in the third preseason game against Detroit. The 2009 Colts team is starting to take shape, and hopefully the Colts will answer their remaining questions by their September 13th date with the Jaguars.