The strike against the preseason is there are simply too many games. With training camp and OTAs, a NFL coaching staff does not need four preseason games to determine their roster. Also, there are the injury issues. No one wants to see their star player go down in a meaningless game, which is why fans usually end up paying regular season prices to watch backup players.
However, the preseason is a necessity. There is no substitute for game experience. Starters need a chance to get in-sync with each other during live competition. Coaches need a chance to evaluate rookies and backups in real game situations.
During the preseason, no game matters more than the third game for two important reasons. First, it’s the game where traditionally the starters stay on the field the longest and fans can get their best barometer of how their team stacks up for the season, even if the final score doesn’t count. Secondly, it’s the last chance for the reserves to prove they deserve a roster spot before significant cuts are made the following week.
So much for being multi-dimensional. Peyton Manning and the Colts started with a magnificent opening drive, though the drive was predominantly a passing one. The Colts only attempted one rush. The drive ended with a Manning touchdown pass to Dallas Clark. Manning and Clark were really the story of the offense while they were in the game. Manning was 12 of 15 for 123 yards and a touchdown. Half of Manning’s completions went to Clark, who ended up with 63 yards to go with the one touchdown.
The Colts’ will go as far as Manning takes them, but Clark could very well be the most important receiver. Clark’s versatility allows him to play the tight end or slot position. Clark can even be used in the running game, as a play action fake to him set up a huge Joseph Addai gain on a screen early in the third quarter.
As sharp as the passing game was, the running game sputtered. Addai and rookie Donald Brown combined to gain only 38 yards on 12 carries against the league’s worst rushing defense in 2008. Their 3.1 yards per carry average is a far cry from 6.3 average they had in the first two preseason games. Addai, however, did have an excellent cut on a key forth down play that set up Brown’s go-ahead touchdown.
Late in the first quarter, Colts’ color commentator Mark Hermann commented, after the Lions picked up a long third down, that Dante Culpepper was taking what the defense was giving him. Apparently, the Colts defense was feeling very generous today.
The Colts’s bend but don’t break philosophy was in full view today and is evident in the difference in the stat lines for the Lions’ top two quarterbacks, Culpepper and rookie Matthew Stafford, in this game versus their last preseason game against the Cleveland Browns.
Culpepper/Stafford vs. the Browns: 15-for-29 120 yards, 1 interception.
Culpepper/Stafford vs. the Colts: 20-for-31 227, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
The Colts surrendered over three more yards per pass attempt than the Browns did last week. That may be cause for concern, especially considering Stafford had an under 50% completion rate going into the game (he was over 68% against the Colts).
Early on, the Colts let the Lions convert two long third downs by getting burned on screen plays. Screens and draws were plays the Colts’ repeated outran last year. It was disappointing to see the Colts make these same mistakes again.
The rushing defense did not perform much better. While the interior of the defensive line did a tremendous job of limited inside runs, the Lions managed to get the outside and into the second and third levels of the Colts’ defense. Starting running back Kevin Smith managed to get 50 yards on just eight carries, mostly with runs to the outside.
Is there a silver lining? Giving up only 18 points in a game is usually the formula for victory in the NFL. However, the Colts gave up over 400 yards of offense…to the Lions. The score could have been worse had the Lions not squandered some opportunities with penalties and a failed fourth down conversion. The Colts won’t be able to give up 400 yards to teams like the Patriots or Titans and still expect to win.
The Colts’ special teams play today was pretty nondescript. That’s a good thing if you are talking about kick coverage. The Lions really did not really break a big run against the Colts’ coverage. Of course, it’s not a good thing when your return game is nondescript. The Lions did a good job of covering kicks, but the Colts simply do not have a threat in the return game. While it’s nice that the coverage teams aren’t giving up big plays, it would be very beneficial for the Colts to have returner that could give Manning and the offense some quality field position.
With the first major cuts just a few days away, which guys helped or hurt their case for a roster spot?
Michael Tuiliili. Tuiliili made the defensive highlights on consecutive plays for the Colts in the second half. Facing third and short near the Colts’ goal line, the Lions twice ran the ball up the middle, and twice Tuiliili was there with a big stop on defense. It’s those types of plays that may help Tuiliili land one of the remaining roster spots.
Pierre Garcon. Garcon wasn’t in risk of getting cut. However, Garcon was desperately trailing Austin Collie in the competition for the third receiver. Garcon may not have caught up, but his 63 yard catch and run showed he has a lot of potential.
Nick Graham & Dante Hughes: These two are starting to look like the odd men out when the cuts come for the secondary. Neither showed play making ability when the Lions made their comeback in the fourth quarter. The Colts’ defensive backs played off the Lions’ receivers throughout the game, but needing a stop, Graham and Hughes did nothing to make themselves stand out. Derrick William’s 40 yard catch against Graham was a particular low light.
In the end, the Colts can come away from this loss with some positives. Manning and his receivers look to be in top form. The offensive line’s pass protection is infinitely better than it was against the Vikings two games ago, and the defensive interior looks like it will be able to slow down the run.
But, too many times in this game there were flash backs to 2008. No running game. A defense that just can’t get off the field and misses too many tackles. With only one preseason game remaining, the Colts still have some work to do before opening the season against division rival Jacksonville.