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Upon Further Review: Colts vs. Eagles

NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts lost 33-23 to the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday in the third preseason game, one that was considered to be a dress rehearsal of sorts for the regular season. It’s safe to say that dress rehearsal didn’t go as planned for the Colts, as they struggled quite a bit with the starters in.

In fact, the offensive line struggled so much that head coach Chuck Pagano decided to pull Andrew Luck earlier than he was planning to, as Luck and some other starters didn’t open the third quarter. It wasn’t a great game, which made it even more interesting to go back and look at the tape to see what happened and make some notes. Here are some of my notes after re-watching the game:

  • Andrew Luck impressed. I mentioned it before, but going 13-of-18 for 134 yards with no turnovers was impressive for Andrew Luck, considering the pressure (he was hit on a higher percentage of dropbacks on Saturday than he was in any game last year). But here’s what was perhaps the most encouraging thing to me from Luck’s game, and it’s something that I haven’t seen talked about: despite facing pressure, Luck was still poised and still made plays. After a very rough 2015 season that was plagued by injuries, it would be natural for Luck to be somewhat hesitant to take a hit - which could lead to him not wanting to stand in and face pressure. On Saturday, however, I thought Luck looked like Andrew Luck and he wasn’t afraid to stand in the pocket and make a throw despite the pocket collapsing. I think that’s encouraging to see after the injuries he suffered last year.
  • Stephen Morris has been very good. To stick with the quarterbacks for a moment, I’ve been impressed with Stephen Morris this preseason - especially when considering the fact that he saw very, very few reps in training camp. He’s completed 61.3% of his passes (19 of 31) while throwing for 314 yards (averaging 10.1 yards per attempt), three touchdowns, and no interceptions for a passer rating of 127.6 this preseason. He’s also added five rushes for 46 yards, just for good measure. On Saturday night, Morris again did well, showing his ability once again and sparking the offense on an otherwise lackluster night. Granted, he’s doing it against third string players, but I’ve been far more impressed with Morris than I have been with Scott Tolzien, and I’d consider giving Morris the nod at the backup quarterback spot. It very likely won’t happen, but I think Morris has been impressive.
  • T.Y. Hilton’s still got a key role. It’s easy to forget about T.Y. Hilton when Donte Moncrief is making a great catch down the right sideline or Phillip Dorsett makes a nice catch and run. But let’s be clear: T.Y. Hilton will still have a key role in the offense. Not only can he be that dynamic playmaker, he can also be the go-to guy for Andrew Luck once again. Want evidence? Take a 3rd and 4 play from Saturday’s game, with the Colts struggling to get anything done offensively. They sent Hilton in motion from the right to the left side of the formation, and then the receiver ran a simple out route toward the sideline. Luck hit him in stride, Hilton turned it upfield for a few extra yards, and the Colts easily got the first down. It was a textbook play, and that could be Hilton’s biggest role: as Luck’s go-to guy. Though Moncrief and Dorsett could have good seasons, Hilton will still likely be the go-to guy in Indianapolis.
  • Worst play of the night? There were several examples of bad plays to choose from on Saturday night (like Scott Tolzien’s red zone interception), but I think the worst play of the night for the Colts came on their 4th and 1 attempt. I loved the fact that they were going for it (whether it’s preseason or not), but the execution of the play was terrible by the interior offensive line. It was supposed to simply be a quick throw to convert for a first down, but the line couldn’t even protect Luck enough for him to get off a quick dropback and throw. Pressure came right up the middle and got to Luck almost immediately, disrupting the throw and resulting in a turnover on downs.
  • Le’Raven Clark was really bad. I didn’t make too much of this initially because, well, no one should have expected Clark to start at right tackle and play well. But man, Saturday night was a really rough game for him. He was beat often, and he let quite a bit of pressure get to Andrew Luck. It’s not as big of a deal as Anthony Castonzo’s struggles even though Clark was worse (since Castonzo is the starting left tackle and one of the highest paid at his position in the NFL), but let’s be clear: when we said Clark was a project player, we meant it. He was a guy drafted solely on potential and talent, not on what he can contribute this year. Nobody should be giving up on him yet, but Saturday night wasn’t good as he was asked to start in place of Joe Reitz (and in place of Joe Haeg too). The entire starting offensive line struggled (including Ryan Kelly, who took his first real lumps as an NFL player), but Clark was the worst of them all.
  • Don’t freak out about the cornerback play... yet. Yeah, Sam Bradford looked good on Saturday night and the Colts gave up some plays through the air, but I wouldn’t put too much stock into it - since arguably the team’s top seven cornerbacks were all out within just a few snaps. But with that said, I think Christopher Milton did some good things (including a nice pass breakup and near interception), and Frankie Williams could also be a candidate to keep around depending on the injury situation moving forward. I’m not sure how good the cornerback group will wind up being, but I wouldn’t freak out yet until we either see the starters back or realize the starters won’t be back for a while.
  • Holding on a big run? You don’t say. Robert Turbin (who I think has been the best of any Colts running back this preseason when it comes to running the football) broke off a nice run for a long 81-yard touchdown on Saturday... but it was called back due to holding. I don’t think that should surprise anybody. The Colts continue to shoot themselves in the foot with penalties, and that’s going to come back to hurt them at some point. They need to clean things up, and that applies to more than just the holding flags.
  • Josh McNary making himself necessary? Chuck Pagano loves to say that guys need to make themselves necessary, and it’s possible that Josh McNary is doing just that. He’s received a lot of reps this preseason, and he’s been taking advantage of them. He has done a good job at inside linebacker and has made some plays, and he continued his impressive showing on Saturday night with a blocked punt. He’s a guy who can contribute on both defense and special teams, which for a depth guy is key.
  • Yards after catch a renewed emphasis. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski spoke last week about the importance of yards after the catch and how that’s going to be a big emphasis for the Colts this year, and we’ve seen them utilize that some so far this year. They’ve employed some short passes and screen plays aimed at getting the ball to playmakers in the open field, and then on Saturday night Phillip Dorsett did it himself by spinning away from a defender and running for extra yardage. Make no mistake: the Colts want to and need to be able to push the ball down the field, as a huge part of their offense and Andrew Luck’s abilities are in the deep passing game. But getting the ball to their players on shorter routes to let them make plays should work out well also. What they need is a nice mix of the two, and I think we’ll see them try to incorporate both if the protection allows.
  • Manufacturing blitzes. I think everyone knows that the Colts’ pass rush isn’t great and doesn’t really inspire much confidence. Chuck Pagano and Ted Monachino know that they’ll need to get creative to manufacture some pressure, and a part of that could come up the middle from defensive linemen and linebackers while the outside linebackers work on the outside. It’s not a particularly elaborate example, but we saw them employ that on the very first play of the game: Nate Irving blitzed right up the middle almost untouched for the sack to start off the game. Again, they’ll need to be able to manufacture pressure like that this year.