Football is upon us. Not real football, mind you. But preseason football is still so much better than no football, that we’ll take it with only moderate levels of complaining. With the beginning of the preseason for the Colts, here are some storylines to keep an eye on as these games get underway.
The Return of Andrew Luck
While most Colts fans will have seen Luck throwing and exceeding expectations with regard to his speedy return to form, at the national level there is still a healthy dose of skepticism. It is somewhat understandable, and it won’t truly go away immediately. There will be those who won’t consider Luck back until he has played a whole season without complication.
What you can almost certainly expect, is to hear a lot of overreactions to whatever Luck does on Thursday night. If Luck lights up Seattle’s defense, it will be fun to watch. Will it mean much in terms of what to expect from him in the regular season? No. Not really. Relatively vanilla offenses and defenses of the preseason make really determining how good a team will be by their preseason performance nearly impossible. Rather than getting sucked into overreacting to play, whether good or bad, just enjoy getting to see a player as talented as Luck back on the field wearing blue and white.
The Running Back Room
One of the storylines you can count on being interesting throughout the rest of the offseason is that of the running back competition. While a running back by committee approach will give touches to all the players, there is definitely a guy who will be viewed by the coaching staff as their top guy when the season gets under way. That might mean less than it does for a team like the Cowboys, but all the same, a tough competition is underway.
With three young running backs on the roster, the Colts backfield is pretty exciting. The running back position is one where the playmakers don’t generally have as steep of a learning curve as positions like cornerback or wide receiver. A great running back can often look great against top competition right away, so long as they get decent blocking. That means that one of the more fun aspects of this Colts team to watch in the preseason will be just how well their line blocks, and how successful the running backs are.
Again, with relatively bland versions of the Colts offense being executed, don’t expect anything crazy. However, watching the individual running backs make plays at this stage will tell us a lot about their potential in real games. They will definitely be worth a close watch on Thursday night.
Avoiding Devastating Injuries
One of the worst things about this time of year is the inevitable losses of players across the league to injury. Whether it is season ending or simply becomes a nagging or even temporary setback, injuries rob franchises of a chance to see their teams as they were meant to be. Injuries are always terrible, but losing guys to what can feel like meaningless football is especially frustrating.
The Colts have been no strangers to injury, with the most notable obviously being the loss of Luck. However, there are a fair number of injuries already beginning to creep into the locker room for the Colts. None appear to be too serious, but it is still something that bears monitoring. The preseason is valuable to a young team like the Colts that needs to develop and grow. All the same, they’ll be very relieved if they’re able to make it through that time without any significant injuries.
The Emergence, or Not, of the Pass Rush
When you cannot get to the quarterback, your defense is going to struggle. This is just the way of the modern NFL. The passing game is too well coached and executed to succeed against an offense without hitting their quarterback. The Colts didn’t do that well and spent the draft and free agency overhauling the defensive line.
That line is still an unknown quantity heading into this season. With so much youth across the board, and so much unproven talent, there is the real possibility that they could struggle. Of course, those same things provide a real chance for this line to be vastly improved. With the right coaching and development, some of the young rookies could be future stars themselves. That is what makes this an interesting thing to watch in this first game.
How will the rookies Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay look in real game situations? We can only guess. What about guys like Denico Autry and Tarell Basham, who the Colts hope can bring a big spark to that pass rush in the new system? Also unknowns. Can a return to starting with his hand in the ground push Jabaal Sheard to a 10+ sack season? Remains to be seen. All of these players have looked solid in camp but haven’t been cut loose to get after the quarterback. What will they look like when the guy getting the snap isn’t wearing a red jersey? It will be fascinating to see.
Can the Defense Take the Ball Away?
This Colts team is likely to be one with a potent offense. The combination of Andrew Luck, Frank Reich, and a handful of dynamic weapons makes it a near certainty that this will be the case. However, they’ll need to the defense to get it done as well. If the offense has to carry the team all year, they won’t go far. It is too much to ask Andrew Luck and the offense to score 35 points per game, and while they might be up to the task more often than not, it isn’t sustainable as a formula to win championships.
However, with such a young defense and so much inexperience across it, there are some things that would be unreasonable to expect. This isn’t going to be a shutdown defense. They’ll make boneheaded mistakes that cost the team. They’re young, and it is guaranteed to happen. The best that we can hope for is that they’ll get better as the season progresses and as they are coached and developed.
What we will need to see from this defense, and hopefully something we’ll get a look at in this first preseason game, is the ability to create turnovers. Once Hooker and Geathers are fully in the lineup this should improve. However, the linebackers and cornerbacks need to show the ability to create turnovers, and the same can be said for the guys rushing the passer. Being able to generate turnovers consistently takes this team from being one whose ceiling is likely competing for a wild card spot to a team capable of a deep playoff run. Their defense doesn’t have to be great across the board, but if it can be great at creating turnovers, it will go a long way toward a much improved team.