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Without Several Starters the Colts Run Game Didn’t Have Legs

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NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In typical preseason fashion, the Colts didn’t provide much in the way of entertainment during their opening bout with the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night. It is well established that preseason games don’t get the attention and planning of a regular season contest, nor do they get the effort from veteran players during the time they’re involved in the game.

It simply doesn’t pay to risk your health in a game that doesn’t matter. Ask the Texans, who saw wide receiver Keke Coutee go down with an ankle injury, or the Lions, who lost wide receiver Jermaine Kearse with a broken leg. The Colts didn’t want to risk those kinds of injuries and so were without a majority of their starters on both sides of the ball.

You’ll hear it said often that the play calling will be vanilla during the preseason, and in my opinion, that is an insult to vanilla, which is a fine flavor in its own right. I’d say it was more in the vein of celery. Hard to chew, doesn’t have much flavor, and ultimately doesn’t provide much in terms of valuable sustenance—but it’s better than nothing. Somehow celery play calling just doesn’t have the same ring, but I digress.

The Colts play calling could basically have been done by your average high school football coach on Thursday, with bland runs being dialed up for most of the time that the “starting” unit was on the field. Nyheim Hines totaled 6 runs for a total of 1 yard with that unit, quite a different outcome than you would hope for a group that wants to run the ball more effectively as stated by head coach Frank Reich and just about everyone else when talking about the offense’s goals for 2019.

“Yeah we were vanilla … but it shouldn’t matter in the run game. You know, we were expecting to run the ball. We know this is a very good run defense — Leslie Frazier is a great defensive coordinator; this defense is always tough to run it against year in and year out. But that was disappointing.”

The Bills were able to consistently push the offensive line around, getting penetration into the backfield and never allowing any real holes to open up for Hines to work with during his time on the field. For a team that played so well, running the ball effectively down the stretch last season, that likely comes as a bit of a surprise.

The reality isn’t as bleak as it seems. While the play calling may have played a small part, the more significant impact was likely caused by the absence of the starting offensive linemen. While Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, and Mark Glowinski were on the field, Anthony Castonzo and Ryan Kelly were not.

Kelly is one of the best centers in the NFL and Castonzo is, in my opinion, a top ten left tackle. You don’t just remove those two players from the offense and expect there to be no impact. Additionally, the Colts were without their best blocking tight end in Jack Doyle, and two of their three starting wide receivers with Hilton and Campbell sitting out.

Remember what the Colts’ running game looked like during the first 5 weeks of 2018 when Castonzo was out with hamstring issues? It wasn’t pretty, but it looked a lot like what we saw last night. That should be an encouragement because it means that with the starters on the field we can likely expect a much more effective running game to take shape.

Unfortunately, it is also a bit concerning. The Colts had a great run with the offensive line in 2018, but there is no guarantee that all those linemen make it through the grind of the NFL season without sustaining injuries, and the depth behind the starters really struggled last night.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Le’Raven Clark is a player the Colts have really hoped could develop and grow, but he seemed ill equipped to handle starting defensive linemen, struggling to anchor against power moves and getting beaten around the outside by speed moves as well. His level of play was concerning, and if Castonzo had to miss any significant time, it would be a major issue with Clark as the backup.

Rookie 7th round pick Jackson Barton also struggled mightily at both guard and tackle throughout the game, which is understandable for a late round rookie, but won’t do him any favors as he fights to make this roster. When the tackle position was injured early last season, the Colts really struggled, and at first glance it doesn’t seem like that issue has been resolved.

It would be foolish to overreact to this performance. The Bills have a good defensive line, and the normal preseason qualifiers in terms of preparedness as well as the combined absences all mean that a large grain of salt is needed to go with this game. However, we definitely need to see improvement from this offense in the run game as the preseason goes on, and given all the players who were missing in this first game, that seems a likely outcome.