Preseason for the Colts has arrived!
To be honest, all week I've felt like the kid on the block who didn't get invited to the birthday party, what with every other team in the NFL already having played a preseason game up to now. Well, except the Bills, of course, and in the case of the Cowboys, they've already played two preseason games.
Even though I'm excited for preseason, it's important to remember that these stupid games do not count. This is about evaluating and understanding the general talent level of the team's roster. If the second unit is getting its ass handed to them by the other team's second unit, yes, that is a cause for concern because it's very likely those second unit guys will be starting for your team in October or November. As a fan, we're not supposed to expect the team to win, but we are looking for certain players and certain areas of the team to look better than they did last year.
That said, here are the points of emphasis I will be focused on when watching Bills v. Colts:
Buckets o' money was spent to fix this train wreck of a unit during the offseason, and a big portion of that dough went to two guys who will play on Sunday: Gosder Cherilus (RT) and Donald Thomas (LG).
If you recall, last year during the Colts first preseason game, we noted how porous the Colts o-line looked against the Rams. That's a clear example, right there, of how preseason can provide early insight into a team's weaknesses.
Buffalo's defensive front is decent on paper. It's more "OK" than anything else, which makes it a good early test for the Colts and their new-look offensive line. Indianapolis should be able to protect Andrew Luck. If they don't, then there cause for concern.
While rookies Hugh Thornton (OG) and Khaled Holmes (OC/OG) will not play in the preseason opener, that doesn't really matter if you are trying to evaluate whether the line in general has improved. General manager Ryan Grigson threw a ton of cash at Cherilus (5 years, $34.50 million) and Thomas (4 years, $14 million). They are the targeted 'improvements' that must show they are better options than Seth Olsen and Winston Justice.
Grigson also threw his lot in with Samson Satele, who the Colts opted to keep in 2013 while needlessly shipping versatile center A.Q. Shipley to the Ravens in exchange for a 7th round conditional pick in 2014. Head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton apparently see fit to have Satele and 6th year veteran Mike McGlynn starting at center and right guard, respectively. There is nothing to indicate that either will be demoted to second string when Thornton and Holmes are game-ready. This is despite the fact both Satele and McGlynn were terrible at pass blocking in 2012, the year both were signed to the Colts roster by Grigson.
Obviously, it's still just preseason, but when an owner like Jim Irsay spends the kind of money he did this offseason to improve the offensive line ($15.5 million alone is guaranteed for Cherilus), he will expect the Colts to control Buffalo's front in the first quarter of a preseason game. He will want to see progress from last season, which saw the Bills sack Andrew Luck four times (three courtesy of Mario Williams, who might not even play Sunday) in what ended up being a 20-13 Colts victory in Week 12.
The Colts allowed arguably the greatest defensive player in franchise history to walk after this offseason, and they replaced him with an overpaid "edge setter" in Erik Walden and a rookie from Florida State named Bjoern Werner. Also factoring into the pass rush mix are free agent pick-ups Ricky Jean Francois and Lawrence Sidbury. Werner, Jean Francois, and Sidbury have looked good at camp, with Werner in particular impressing many national media onlookers. Former CFL pass rusher Caesar Rayford has also stood out at outside linebacker.
Walden has been practically invisible.
The pass rush is the most crucial element of any modern NFL defense. Stopping the run is secondary. Chuck Pagano seems to disagree with this very tried-and-true philosophy, and Sunday will provide him his first real opportunity to prove his theory correct.
Last season was a transition year, with Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky forced to work with holdovers from the Bill Polian regime as they tried to build their "hybrid" 3-4 defensive scheme. This year, both coaches have players they that met their needs, and owner Jim Irsay has made it clear he expects immediate results. Irsay told the media during camp that the Colts are looking to become more physical, and he expressed a desire to see consistency from both the defense and special teams.
Building consistency starts in preseason.
Dumping a dynamic pass rusher in Dwight Freeney and replacing him with a collection of versatile pieces like Werner, Walden, and Sidbury is a big part of Pagano's defensive philosophy. Preseason is a great early venue to see if these pieces can be productive. Most likely, we should expect to see players like Werner, Rayford, and Sidbury playing with the second unit defense.
It nearly impossible to effectively evaluate running backs at training camp. There is no substitute for game-like conditions, which is why preseason is very valuable from a football development standpoint for running backs.
For the Colts, it will be interesting to see how Vick Ballard looks in year two. Donald Brown is what he is (a.k.a., not good), and Delone Carter is just biding time until he's cut. However, a rookie like Kerwynn Williams intrigues me, as does fullback Stanley Havili. They've also got Davin Meggett and rookie Dan Moore on the roster. What will they showcase?
Already ruled out of the game is Ahmad Bradshaw, who is expected back at practice this week after missing much of camp and all of the Colts offseason OTAs while recovering from a foot injury.
Running the football has been a point of emphasis for both Pep Hamilton and Chuck Pagano all throughout training camp. Sunday will show if they have enough horses in the stable to utilize the type of run game they want to showcase in 2013.