We've been working on something BIG the last two days, which is kind of why this update on the Colts and the progress of certain players is popping in right now instead of (oh, maybe perhaps) Friday. The BIG something will get announced tomorrow morning. Be sure to check out the blog at 9am Eastern. We'll delay the normal Monday morning Luke Links for an hour to accommodate this announcement (apologies in advance to Lovin Blue).
Last Thursday, the Colts did what they always do in preseason. They lose. If preseason games actually counted, it would be a cause for concern. Since they don't count, the best course of action is to relax, chill, and crack open a cold one. Instead of freaking out over the final score of a game whose final score means nothing, focus on the progress of certain players.
Preseason is about getting better. It's not about winning preseason games.
We've been tracking the progress of several young players who are fighting to make the Colts 53-man roster. After the jump, we breakdown who helped themselves and who hurt themselves after Thursday's 34-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Toronto, Canada.
Devin Moore, RB
So far, Devin Moore is this year's Jacob Lacey. He did not impress much in practices as training camp. However, on the football field in both preseason games, Moore has very much stood out both as a running back and as a returner. Against the Bills, the kid from Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis ran for 26 yards on six carries. He also, in all likelihood, solidified his hold on the team's kick returning job. He handled four kick returns, averaging 32 yards per return. He also fielded two punts with one return going for 49 yards. Moore's elusiveness and speed bring something unique to the offense and to the return game. Right now, I'd be shocked if he doesn't make the final 53. His play in preseason so far has been stellar.
Taj Smith, WR
Let's be honest, Taj very much needed a 'bounceback game.' He was awful against the San Francisco 49ers. Simply awful. Without a bounceback game, it was impossible to see how this team could keep him on the final 53. Taj was falling into the dreaded category of 'great in practice, lousy in games.' To prove otherwise, he needed to make something happen against the Bills, and he did. Taj turned 49ers corner Ellis Lankster into his personal whipping boy, burning the corner for 91 yards and a touchdown on just three receptions. Smith's 43 yard TD reception was nearly identical to the pass he dropped a few days before against the 49ers. Against the Bills, he got some redemption. Bravo!
Terrail Lambert, CB
It's no secret that the Colts are thin at corner. The starters are excellent and the nickel and dime DBs offer a good mix of youthful talent and experience. After that, it's nothing to write home about. However, that perception might have changed somewhat after watching Terrail Lambert turn into a tackling and coverage machine in the second half of the Bills game. While rookies Ray Fisher and Brandon King clearly had issues covering Chad Jackson, Lambert stepped in and put the clamps on. In two quarters of play, Lambert recorded nine solo tackles and a forced fumble. That's some damned impressive corner play for the second year man out of Notre Dame. Lambert is already listed ahead of Fisher and King on the depth chart. If he keeps playing like this, he will win a spot on the Final 53 while Fisher and King exchange pink slips.
Ray Fisher, CB
He was seemingly invisible during training camp and the trend has extended into the preseason. Wasn't this guy drafted to be the team's solution at returning punts and kicks? If he was, at what point should we expect to see him actually do something? While he hasn't done anything disastrous like fumble a punt return, he has been fielding some pretty ill-advised punts and doing little to advance the football once it's in his hands. And while he wasn't 'bad' covering former Patriots scrub wideout Chad Jackson last Thursday, he did struggle at times to keep up with him. The highlight of Fisher's night was making a pretty good tackle to force a fumble, but that's it. With Terrail Lambert impressing, and with both Jacob Lacey and Deshea Townsend locked into the nickel and dime spots (respectively), Ray Fisher needs to do a bit more to justify his place on this team's active roster.
If I presented you with the following information, who would you think of: Colts back-up quarterback struggles through preseason game, completing on one of five passes for a whopping seven yards and a lost fumble. If your first thought was Curtis Painter, you're close. Painter is still horrible, but Tim Hiller is even worse. I don't expect rookie from Western Michigan to step in and start flinging the football around like the second coming of Jim Harbaugh (whose dad Jack once coached at Western Michigan). But 1-5 passing? Seven yards? Against a poor Buffalo team fielding their third string scrubs? Are you kidding me? Hiller had no realistic shot to make the final 53. However, with Painter stinking it up against the 49ers in the first preseason game, an impressive showing by Hiller against the Bills would have gotten some attention. Instead, Hiller fumbled away his chance.
McClendon is going to make the final 53 if for no reason other than the Colts are so thin along the offensive line YOU could probably suit up in a #75 jersey and make this club. McClendon was used in the late fourth quarter at center, and my goodness he was bad. When he wasn't allowing rushers a free shot at quarterback Tom Brandstater, he was fumbling the center-QB exchange on the final Colts offensive play of the game. I realize McClendon is hurt. But, he was healthy enough to play, and it is quite telling that when he was playing was with the third and fourth stringers. Even with those guys, he looked terrible. McClendon is a smart guy with tons of potential. With the Colts decimated along the o-line, it is vital that McClendon get his act together and start producing something on the football field.
A few notes: You'll notice that Curtis Painter is not included in either category despite him throwing 'a perfect game' in relief of Peyton Manning. Painter earned a QB rating of 153.8, completing all but one of his passes against the Bills. However, for me, I think Curtis' numbers are misleading. Nearly all of his 97 yards passes came on two completions to Taj Smith. Smith, as previously mentioned, absolutely embarrassed 49ers corner Ellis Lankster by running the same route twice on him. Both times, he hauled in long passes from Painter. The first was a a 38 yard gain and the second was a 43 yard touchdown. 81 yards. Two throws. The rest of Painters three throws netted ten total yards. They were, essentially, useless dump-offs.
For a player who looked so horrible against the 49ers, I needed to see more than just two basic, deep throws. Have yet to see Painter ever conduct a long, sustained drive with this offense. Until I see that, I cannot say he helped himself.