Let’s get it out of the way, the Colts were manhandled for much of the game on Thursday night. If this was the third Preseason game, the dress rehearsal games, there would be cause for a great deal of concern. It’s hard to not get at least a little concern now. Fans wanted to see football return and the product on the field was hardly satisfying.
With all of that said, it’s also fair to acknowledge some things we knew or should have known before the game started. Regarding the starting offense — much of it didn’t even take the field Thursday. The list of players who didn’t participate includes: Andrew Luck, Marlon Mack, Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly, Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, and T.Y. Hilton. There are a 11 players on the field at a time and seven of the players who start were absent. It’s hard to get a reasonable feel for where the Colts are as a team when a huge chunk of its identity isn’t even on the field.
The starting defense was much the same. The list of players who didn’t participate includes: Justin Houston, Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Darius Leonard, Kenny Moore and Clayton Geathers. Of course, this means the team’s sack leader from last year, its top pass rushing weapon this year, its All-Pro linebacker, and its dominant nickel corner never took the field.
In case it wasn’t clear before the game, it’s important to reiterate now that much of the NFL Preseason will be comprised of vanilla, boring offensive and defensive sets and performances. Teams do not prepare for their coming opponents for at least the first game and do nothing like a full regular season game install at any point in Preseason. This time of the year is all about individual player evaluation and giving young players the opportunity to prove that they can translate what they’ve learned on the practice field in the spring, summer and training camp into game time production against a live opponent.
With these things in mind, here are some of my biggest takeaways from Thursday night.
Neither Jacoby Brissett nor Phillip Walker did themselves any favors on Thursday. Brissett had to deal with quite a bit of pressure in his face but he needs to use this Preseason to drive up his value and earn a legitimate shot to start next year. Nothing about his performance Thursday made him look like a legitimate NFL starter.
Fourth string quarterback Chad Kelly was the most polished of the bunch. Granted, he was playing against bottom of the roster players in the second half but he displayed a good arm, reasonable accuracy, and more athleticism with his legs than I would have ever expected.
It will be interesting to see how this game might impact training camp rotations this weekend.
Jonathan Williams played a big role in the Colts offense and gave every indication that he is in a battle for a spot on the roster. While his eight carries only yielded 24 yards, he also hauled in 5 passes for 33. He looked comfortable running routes, catching the ball, and showed explosiveness through the hole.
Nyheim Hines was never really able to get anything started as the Bills defensive line stifled the first and second team run game considerably. Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack did not play. Nor did new acquisition D’Onta Foreman.
Second year receivers Deon Cain and Daurice Fountain both flashed some of the talent Colts fans hoped to see on Thursday. Cain had a couple of nice catches and showed the ability to get open. He also was inconsistent with his hands, including a drop at the end of the first half and a contested drop in the end zone. Fountain turned in the most productive receiving performance of the day with five receptions for 63 yards on seven targets. He look fast, fluid enough in routes, and clearly has started to earn the trust of his quarterbacks.
Krishawn Hogan also made a nice play by finding an open spot in the Bills zone and finished with two receptions for 26 yards. Marcus Johnson caught two passes, including an impressive grab at the end of the first half to put the Colts into field goals range. However, he was targeted six times, which isn’t the kind of efficiency the Colts want to see. Johnson also had at least one nice run blocking play in the third quarter. It was nice to see Devin Funchess get his first two catches in a Colts uniform.
One player who stood out as potentially difficult to unseat from the roster is Zach Pascal. He didn’t record a catch in the game and was never targeted but he is productive in so many phases. He showed last year that he can make an impact on offense if needed and he continues to show that he can be a jack-of-all-trades guy on special teams. He made nice special teams coverage plays and continues to return kicks. Being a Swiss Army Knife can get you onto an NFL team.
No Ebron, Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox played sparingly early in the game. Ross Travis did not play. This left the cupboard a little bare and the tight ends never played a significant role on offense. Players at the position were targeted five times on the day. Krishawn Hogan was targeted five times by himself.
Oh my, it was a rough day for this group. The starting unit struggled to get anything going in either phase without Castonzo and Kelly. Rookie Jackson Barton had numerous welcome to the NFL moments at guard and tackle. Le’Raven Clark looked awful on a play where he he gave up a sack in the second quarter.
On the bright side, the unit settled down in the second half.
It’s only the Preseason but the encroachment and off-sides penalties have to stop. A lack of discipline will come back to haunt the team by giving opponents free yards or first downs. At one point Carroll Phillips get a free run sack of Josh Allen only to get drawn off-sides by Allen on the next play, wiping out much of the sack yards.
The early signs from Tyquan Lewis at defensive tackle are somewhat concerning and also somewhat predictable. Any suggestion that Lewis will or should play a meaningful role at nose tackle is ridiculous after Thursday night. He was regularly blown well off of the line of scrimmage, especially against the run. His best traits were on display when he was able to use slants and stunts to get penetration. I still think he showed the more promise at defensive end but the team seems insistent on forcing him inside for the time being.
Defensive end Carroll Phillips had a productive day that included two sacks and a fumble recovery. He showed some speed around the edge and took advantage of his opportunities but also received some gifts. His sacks were the result of blown blocks and his ability to properly read the play. His fumble recovery was on an awful snap that slid well into the backfield.
Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed showed flashes of what the Colts scouting department has been raving about. They are both fast, have incredible range, and made a noticeable impact. Speed finished the day with a team leading 5 tackles, to go with one assist. He showed good balance and tackling in the open field and put together a game he can build on. Okereke played with the first team in place of Darius Leonard and also covered a lot of ground.
Anthony Walker picked up where he left off last season as a linebacker who looks particularly effective against the run. It is yet to be seen if he can improve in the passing game but he was impactful in limited snaps.
While Rock Ya-Sin didn’t have a perfect start to his Colts career, including a missed tackle and a poor angle on at least one play, he also showed some of what the team has seen in training camp. He looks very comfortable in man coverage and was incredibly talented sticking with his man.
Quincy Wilson also made a number of nice plays and showed a lot of versatility. He played in multiple positions on defense and looked comfortable in each of them. He looked very comfortable in man coverage in his own right and continues to make the coach’s decisions on starting position difficult.
Nate Hairston is fighting to keep a spot on the roster and could use a strong Preseason showing to get him there. Unfortunately, the first Bills touchdown pass was made over his head in the end zone. He allowed an opponent to get behind him and didn’t even know he was there. He has to clean up those kinds of mistakes and stand out as one of the leaders on the team to get where he wants to go.
The primary takeaway from the safeties is that Khari Willis looked good in his first game. He was often around the ball and looked comfortable covering the deep sections of the field or playing closer to the line of scrimmage. There weren’t necessarily any highlight plays to point at but he wasn’t getting picked on either.