After back-to-back physical practices indoors, the Colts were back to shells on Thursday morning. There was a lot of work on the little details throughout the day and players were tested to see if they were disciplined enough to know the snap count and knowledgeable enough to know where they belong in a certain formation.
The team’s offensive and defensive coordinators were made available to the press today for their comments on how the team is progressing on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. We will take a look at comments from each.
Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus
The biggest, and likely most difficult, transition for the Indianapolis Colts in 2018 will be on the defensive side of the ball. The new scheme is certainly familiar to fans in Indianapolis but none of the returning defenders are particularly familiar with a Tampa 2 scheme — at least not at this level.
When he was pressed on how close coaches are to determining the starting unit, Eberflus admitted that the team is still “a work in progress right now.” Given that key players are missing time due to injury or were on the active PUP list, this isn’t a huge surprise.
One characteristic the defense needs above all else is the ability to create negative plays and turn the ball over. Years of having bookend pass rushers like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney have potentially made it look easy but it really does come down to speed and athleticism. When asked about how this defense will will generate turnovers, Eberflus said:
It’s all really dictated on speed and hitting, and that’s what it is. We’re closing windows with our speed, our athletic ability and our agility, and in the physical style which we play, and that’s what causes a takeaway. What we do is we practice it every single day.
Of course playing with speed means that plays are likely to happen quickly. NFL rule changes regarding lowering the helmet could make playing with speed more challenging. The more players are forced to consciously think about how they position their helmet making a play, the slower they will go. With regard to the rule changes and if he feels it will impact the game, Eberflus said:
I don’t see it that way, I really don’t. I think that talking with the officials that have been here, it seems to me like it has to be a blatant physical strike. If it’s just a normal tackle and you have your helmet on the outside, you’re going to be fine and that is what we teach.
Fans should prepare for an overly cautious group of officials in the preseason to emphasize the new rule. It won’t be until the season is over that the broader impacts will show.
Media asked specifically about how rookie Kemoko Turay is looking and if the team views him as an immediate pass rusher. Eberflus said:
Yeah, he has been doing a good job. He really has. He’s got great get off, he’s got great pad level, and he’s got great angles to the quarterback. He’s a work in progress, but yeah, he’s been doing a really good job. Where he fits in, we’re not sure yet, but he’s certainly shown that he is what we thought he was.
There is simply no way Ebeflus or Ballard are in a position to make a final call on which players will start or fill specific roles this early in training camp. There is little doubt that Turay is far more likely to get defensive snaps in passing situations but trying to get a full read on his snap counts relative to his teammates isn’t going to happen at this point.
While it is clear that the Colts new defensive coordinator is not a stranger to coach speak, his message has remained consistent throughout offseason. The defense will succeed or fail through the use of speed and very few defensive decisions have been made to this point. This group still a work in progress and probably will be throughout the season.
Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni
No offensive player in the NFL this season has generated more attention in his return from injury than Andrew Luck. If he is able to play at or near full strength for the entire year, being the Colts offensive coordinator will be a lot of fun.
Sirianni was asked if it is hard to believe that Luck just returned from injury based upon his performance in training camp and if he thinks about how good Luck could be when he knocks the rust off. He said:
Oh shoot, all of the time because he’s on it now... absolutely, and it’s falling off fast. That’s what’s amazing about him because mentally he’s unbelievable. He can see it. He sees it faster than anyone I’ve ever been around and anyone I’ve ever seen. So mentally, it’s like he never missed a beat. Physically, it’s getting better and better every day. I can’t imagine it can get much better, but I can’t wait until it does.
One of the biggest signs about Luck staying sharp mentally is that he is in a brand new offensive system, with different route tree and a lot of new receivers, but he is still very accurate. He has been getting right back into rhythm with T.Y. Hilton and has been making throws all over the field.
One story from practice today is that Luck spoke with former undrafted wide receiver Krishawn Hogan to keep his spirits up after he went down with a torn ACL a year ago. Even though the two have never played together, they bonded over the mental aspects of coming back from their respective injuries.
Sirianni is certainly aware of their relationship. He took the time to speak at length about how he is impressed with Hogan’s return from injury and has confidence in his ability to become a better player. Sirianni said:
I think with ACL tears, I just think you see improvement every day. I know last year I was with Keenan Allen, who came off of a knee injury in 2016. I would say it took him until about game four or game five until we were like, ‘That’s the Keenan Allen I know.’ I’m excited about Krishawn because I know there’s more to come from him. He’s doing a great job out here on the practice field. He’s really mentally sharp. He knows how to get open. He knows how to use his big body. The exciting thing is that I know it takes a little bit of time. We know as a staff it takes a little bit of time to get back from those ACLs, and I’m excited to see that game four, game five and really what he can do and his potential.
While it isn’t wise to read much into Sirianni’s comments as it relates to the long-term plan for Hogan in Indianapolis, there is certainly reason to believe the he has his coach’s eye and will be given a legitimate shot in training camp and preseason. We will monitor Hogan’s progress closely.
Perhaps no returning player in Indianapolis was placed in a more difficult position in 2017 than backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Luck’s return has certainly changed how Brissett is approaching the upcoming season but there are reasons to believe that, with practice in a new system over the summer, he will be a better player when he takes the field. Sirianni spoke specifically about the challenges Brissett faced and how working with him all offseason will play a big role in 2018.
He was in a hard position last year coming in in that position and trying to learn an offense and different techniques that the coaches here wanted him to use. It was hard for him because he had to learn the plays for that week and the defenses for that week as he tried to do what they wanted him to do technique-wise. We obviously have a leg up because we’ve had Jacoby all offseason.
Finally, returning to the wide receiver group, there is every indication that the competition for spots behind T.Y. Hilton is wide open. One player who has done himself big favors this summer is Deon Cain. The former Clemson receiver has generated a lot of buzz for sideline grabs and high-pointing catches on 50/50 balls. This is exactly the kind of skill the Colts have been missing for some time.
Despite the buzz, media took notice that Cain is having to expand his route tree and isn’t running as many deep routes for long gains. When asked what Cain needs to do to take another step forward, Sirianni said:
He just needs to be consistent and be the same guy every single day. That’s what we are looking for. I know that’s what the quarterback is looking for. He has to trust that he’s going to be everywhere he’s supposed to be at once and he’s going to catch the ball that he’s supposed to catch. That’s a hard thing for a rookie. It takes a little bit of time. We are always looking for consistency from every player. We really try to accelerate it a little bit for a rookie.
If Cain is able to make meaningful progress as a route runner and can use this preseason to continue establishing trust with Andrew Luck, it will go a long way for him to push for reps on offense. While it is rare for a rookie to earn a starting spot, especially one drafted as late as Cain, the wide open competition offers him a fighting change to player a big role year one.