The Colts wrapped up the 13th training camp practice Sunday morning and have only one more practice on their own before the Cleveland Browns join them to close things out. This session saw the Colts focusing on team drills and goal line work. Here are some of my observations.
A number of players were absent from practice on Sunday morning, for a variety of reasons. Andrew Luck (lower leg), Jordan Wilkins (foot), Parris Campbell (hamstring), Deon Cain (maintenance), Penny Hart (hamstring), Eric Ebron (ankle/foot), Ross Travis (hamstring), Margus Hunt, Jabaal Sheard (knee), Pierre Desir (maintenance), Rock Ya-Sin (maintenance), Clayton Geathers (maintenance), and Adam Vinatieri (knee) were all non-participants.
Those who have returned to practice after missing time include Ryan Kelly and Ben Banogu. It is also encouraging to see Darius Leonard stay on the field for consecutive practices after he suffered from back spasms briefly last week.
PRE-PRACTICE DISCUSSION WITH COACH RICK VENTURI
One of my more enjoyable experiences attending camp this year was having a chance to chat with Rick Venturi. He was very generous with his time and let me know that he regularly reads our work at Stampede Blue. He was even kind enough to say that he feels our content and the content on Colts.com are the best available for fans who want to not only follow the team, but learn more about the game.
Thank you for the kind words Coach.
Prior to practice today, Coach Venturi and I discussed the preseason and how it should be evaluated. While he agreed with my assessment that fans miss the boat when they try to project regular season performance based upon the outcome of preseason games, he does believe that how the first team plays should matter in these games.
In his view, the first team should be setting an appropriate example and you would like to see them performing well in one-on-one match-ups. He was concerned that the first team units struggled quite a bit Thursday night.
He acknowledged that players were missing but did not like what he saw out of the first team offensive line. He said that the unit hasn’t been playing with the same kind of anger as they did a season ago, and that includes Quenton Nelson. Venturi noted that while Coach DeGuglielmo may not win awards for his gentle nature, he got a lot out of the unit last year. Here’s to hoping that Howard Mudd and Chris Strausser can bring the group back to life before the start of the regular season.
Coach also noted that he doesn’t evaluate preseason play in terms of game-long outcome. He breaks down each quarter as a win or a loss. A win in the early quarters carries more weight than a win in later quarters because more players who are actually going to see the field in the regular season play in the first half.
Regarding Chad Kelly and his performance, particularly in comparison to Phillip Walker, Venturi noted that one of the ways to evaluate a college quarterback and whether they will be able to translate to the NFL is if they are able to place the ball where it needs to be on a dig route from the pocket. While he didn’t have anything bad to say about Walker, he noted that Kelly can make that pass and Walker struggles with it.
NEW DEFENSIVE LOOK
With Jabaal Sheard continuing to miss time and without a specific timetable for a return, the Colts have been trying a lot of different players at left defensive end. Al-Quadin Muhammed has taken most of the snaps with the first team but a couple of new players took snaps with the first and second units today.
At one point in team drills, the Colts lined up Justin Houston at left end and Kemoko Turay at rush end. This grouping gave the offensive line some fits. On one play, Houston and Autry both got free to put a hit on Jacoby Brissett. On another play, Kemoko Turay hit Brissett as he was releasing a pass. It may have been unintentional but Brissett spoke briefly with trainers and didn’t return to action.
Tyquan Lewis also moved outside to left end with the second team defense during this period.
Fielding punts during the first special teams period of the day was Jordan Veasy, Krishawn Hogan, Chester Rogers and Nyheim Hines. In the second special teams period of the day, Rogers was fielding punts from the Jugs machine one-handed. He fielded two punts in a row with his left arm behind his back and two in a row with his right arm behind his back. No one is more comfortable or reliable fielding punts than Rogers and it isn’t close.
STANDOUT PLAYERS AND PLAYS
Justin Houston has been a handful for the offensive line all summer. What makes him unique is that he has the strength and length to bull rush and blow up running lanes, while he also has the speed and athleticism to get the edge and get after the quarterback. It seems almost unfair that he will be lining up next to Denico Autry, who has the same skill-set from defensive tackle.
On one play in the first team series, Houston blew up an attempted run to his side well into the backfield for a four or five yard loss. As mentioned previously, playing at left defensive end he got incredible push and met Autry at the quarterback for what would have likely been a sack.
All preseason defensive snaps that don’t include Autry and Houston are an inaccurate representation of what the Colts defense will look like in 2019.
If training camp has been any indication, Colts fans should prepare for Autry to have a true breakout year. He picked up six of his nine regular season sacks after Week 11 in 2018 and added another sack against Kansas City in the Divisional Round. Eight of his 11 quarterback hits came during the same span in the regular season and he added three more against the Chiefs.
In short, Autry was on his way to becoming a one-man wrecking crew. In training camp, it looks like he’s arrived.
Autry has been in the backfield regularly, disrupting runs, throwing off the timing of passes and getting his hands on the quarterback. He met Justin Houston in the backfield for a would be sack in the last team period today.
If it seems like his name keeps coming up, its because Fountain has shown the ability to make highlight plays and to consistently bring in contested passes thrown his direction. In what was likely the catch of the day, he leaped into the air to high point a pass on the right sideline and had enough balance to keep both feet in bounds for a nice first down.
The buzz surrounding Fountain is starting to look a lot like the buzz Cain created a season ago.
While Kelly started the day with the third team offense, he ended with the second team. After practice, Nick Sirianni acknowledged that they will continue to rotate Kelly and Walker with the second and third teams and stated that both players know that they are in a competition.
Today, I continually noted that Kelly showed patience and poise in the pocket. He allowed routes to develop and put the ball in tight windows to hit receivers in stride. On more than one occasion he stood comfortably in the pocket on a dig route and hit his receivers in the hands — one of those balls found its way into Daurice Fountain’s hands for a contested catch. In goal line, Kelly waited for Nyheim Hines to come across the field on a drag route in the end zone and fired a touchdown just as he cleared the defense.
In the first session of team drills, Al-Quadin Muhammed got to Brissett and stripped the ball for a sack.
Tyquan Lewis lined up at left defensive end with the second team at one point in practice and looked comfortable there. He got a nice push on a bull rush.
Ben Banogu also took snaps at both defensive end positions. At left end he showed nice bend to get under the right tackle and turn the corner on his way to the quarterback. The ball was out too quick to create pressure.
Zaire Alexander placed a big hit on wide receiver Jordan Veasy who caught a wide receiver screen on the left side, creating a fumble.
Kenny Moore showed his blue collar work ethic and toughness on more than one occasion during practice. On one play, Moore fought through an attempted block by Devin Funchess to blow up a wide receiver screen pass to Chester Rogers in the backfield. On another play, Moore crashed down to fill the running lane and laid a nice hit on Jonathan Williams.
Devin Funchess ran a nice route in 7-on-7 drills when he faked an in and popped back outside to make a catch in front of two defenders, including Darius Leonard.
Brissett completed at least three passes to T.Y. Hilton as he was crossing the field on a drag route. No one on defense could manage to keep up with him. In fact, his last catch for the day was made on the right sideline in front of Chris Milton. It was well challenged but Hilton brought it in easily and broke away for a long gain. This led to some dancing and having some fun at Milton’s expense on the way back to the huddle (it was all in good fun).
The defensive line regularly dominated the line of scrimmage on the ground. In goal line, the unit was particularly disruptive and even created a fumble on one series.
Mo Alie-Cox has shown some impressive skills during training camp. He looks more comfortable running routes and is arguably the teams best blocker at tight end. However, he has a habit of dropping passes that hit him in the hands, and dropped a ball that Brissett placed on his hands today.
For those who are wondering, Phillip Walker did complete a long pass in one of the team drills to Ashton Dulin deep in the middle of the field. Dulin got behind Jalen Collins for a would be touchdown.
RUNNING BACK DRILLS
I took a few videos during camp and had a very close view of the running backs working through their sled drill. The following clips show each back going through the drill once. Coach Rathman spent more time and attention focusing on Foreman’s technique, likely to try to get him up to speed with the other backs.
WIDE RECEIVER VS CORNERBACK ONE-ON-ONE DRILLS
This is one of the more exciting periods where pictures and film are allowed. It gives fans a chance a look at players on an island. Four of the videos were of receivers winning. Three of those four were against Jalen Collins. The other clip is of the most impressive defensive play on the day, a one-handed interception by Malik Hooker.
Let’s start with a one-handed grab by Daurice Fountain against Nate Hairston for a touchdown.
Next is Devin Funchess with a toe-tap grab in the right corner against Jalen Collins.
Zach Pascal also put a nice move to get inside of Collins for a touchdown.
Finally, Jordan Veasy got behind Collins for an over-the-shoulder grab.
The most impressive play during one-on-one drills was the Malik Hooker one-hand interception. It is impressive enough that I’ll share my video and another that is a little cleaner from Twitter.
POST-PRACTICE COORDINATOR INTERVIEWS
Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus and Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni answered questions following the Colts preseason opening loss to the Buffalo Bills. Each coach shared some thoughts about what they took away from the game, how they judge the outcome, and provided some thoughts about how the team will approach making improvements going forward.
Eberflus started the interview by explaining that the coaches are really focused on how players handle the basics. Are they lined up correctly? Do they know their assignment? Do they read their keys? Do they run to the football? The coaches go through the film and evaluate each player individually and assign grades. They discuss those grades with the players and explain what it will take to get better.
Regarding Rock Ya-Sin’s development in zone coverage, Eberflus said that he believes that he is doing good and getting better. He said that Ya-Sin has to continue working on the techniques and fundamentals in coverage and even pointed out that while he had a lot of experience in man coverage in college, the system with the Colts is different and it requires him to learn something new there as well.
Regarding the defensive improvement in the back half of the year, Eberflus credited execution and players becoming more comfortable with the scheme and with each other.
Regarding the rotating group of players who have been getting a look at left end, including Margus Hunt, Tyquan Lewis and Justin Houston, Eberflus noted that the team will move around players and try them at new positions so they get an opportunity to learn from that position. He pointed out that they will only carry 8 active defensive linemen into a game and having players who can play multiple positions is valuable in the regular season.
Regarding Ben Banogu, Eberlflus mentioned that he just returned on Saturday and that he is still on a limited snap count. He confirmed that Banogu will stay at end this year.
Regarding Marvell Tell, Eberflus said he is doing well but noted that there are a lot of things he needs to learn after switching positions.
Regarding the offense’s performance on Thursday, Sirianni said that the takeaway is that they still have a ways to go before they’re satisfied.
When asked about the offensive line, Sirianni said that they were pleased with the protection on the offensive line. A lot of times in preseason there will be breakdowns and they felt like there were only a couple of protection breakdowns in the game.
Regarding Walker and Kelly, he noted that they know that they are in a competition. They have rotated from Walker getting second team reps to Kelly and back throughout camp. He said that Kelly did a nice job in the game and that the coaches want to work with him to improve his consistency in practice, which will build trust ahead of games.
When asked about the wide receiver group, Sirianni agreed with the observation that this is a very competitive group. When pressed on asking Ballard to keep six players at the position, Sirianni laughed and left those decisions up to him. Regarding Fountain, he talked about how he is getting out of his breaks better and that is allowing him to get more run after the catch.
Regarding Andrew Luck missing time, and the offense potentially starting slow, Sirianni said they can’t even consider that. He noted that Luck is getting the mental reps and that the offensive players have to work on getting better individually each day so they are ready when Luck returns.
Regarding Jonathan Williams, Sirianni admitted that he didn’t know much about him when he got to Indianapolis. He noted that his size is different and that he had some great blitz pickups against Buffalo that demonstrated his toughness.
Regarding Hale Hentges, Sirianni said they knew what they would get from him in the ground game but it has been a pleasant surprise how well he has done in the pass game. It has been my observation through camp that Hentges is putting himself in a really positive position to potentially make this team and extend the undrafted player streak in Indianapolis.
Regarding Anthony Castonzo, Sirianni noted that he has changed physically and spoke about how much value there is in having an experienced guy like him spending time after practice with a young player like Jackson Barton. He noted that coaches can offer a lot of insight but players can get into details they cannot.
Regarding Deon Cain, Sirianni feels like he sees his confidence growing after recovering from his injury. He is “exceeding” his expectations at this point.