Indianapolis rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson and first-year head coach Shane Steichen made their NFL preseason playing and coaching debut Saturday in the Colts’ 23-19 loss to the perennial AFC contender Buffalo Bills.
Richardson was the first Colt to step foot in Bills mafia territory on Saturday, soaking in the moment at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. Steichen told Richardson before Thursday’s training camp practice that he would get the starting nod, and when the Bills chose to kickoff, pressure was placed on Richardson from the first whistle.
After hitting a pair of trouble-free completions to receiver Isaiah McKenzie on a curl and a bubble screen for positive yardage, the Colts rookie QB threw an unceremonious interception on his third pass attempt of the game. Richardson did not plant his feet and whipped an errant side-arm throw off his back foot over the head of the 5-foot-8 McKenzie and into the chest of Bills cornerback Dane Jackson near the Colts sideline.
“We gameplan, we knew they were going to bring some pressure,” Richardson said. To be on the same page with Isaiah (McKenzie) and just try to manage it and find a way to make it work rather than turn the ball over. Should have probably given him a better ball, first of all, instead of throwing it over his head or just should have decided to throw it out of bounds. I tried to make it work, first drive. We got to find a way to manage it and make it work instead of just turning the ball over.”
On the Colts’ second possession, Richardson revealed Steichen’s creative run-pass option against an opposing team. Buffalo Bills head coach Sean MCDermott countered with a series of blitzes aimed at the 21-year old. The Bills’ front line stood tall on four consecutive run plays to force a turnover on downs after Colts rookie running back Evan Hull was tackled for no gain on third and fourth down. Bills safety and 2023 George Halas Award winner DeMar Hamlin blitzed aggressively off the edge and stuffed Hull like he hit a brick wall.
“I was excited the whole way,” Richardson said. “Even turning the ball over, despite that I still feel good because I was out there competing with my teammates. Brand new team. Brand new coaching staff. Brand new environment. First time in Buffalo. I was excited the whole time. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to be out there.”
Indianapolis tried to get the running game to flourish with Deon Jackson on its third possession. Jackson averaged a promising 5.8 yards per rush on six rush attempts on Saturday, including an impressive run as he bounced out to the left hash mark to carry the Colts into Bills territory.
The Colts No. 4 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft found his rhythm on his final drive, completing three straight passes for first downs. Richardson caught the Bills’ defensive front off guard and dumped off a screen to Evan Hull for a 10-yard gain. The gunslinger showed off his rifle of an arm by throwing a dart across the Bills logo for a 20-yard completion to TE Kylen Granson, and then zipped a sidearm pass near the numbers to McKenzie, who juked away his defender in the open field for an 11-yard gain.
“I thought he was good, I mean he bounced back,” Steichen said. “It was the first drive of the game, he gets the pick there and he comes back and we started moving the ball pretty good. He had some nice touch passes. Good calm. Had some good things. Commanded the huddle. All those different things. I thought he did a nice job. It’ll be good to watch the film, clean the things up that we need to clean up from everybody and go from there.”
Three separate penalties on three plays inside the red zone forced an impractical 3rd & 16 for Richardson. To make matters worse, kicker Matt Gay missed a 28-yard field goal wide left from the left hash mark under windy conditions. Despite the Colts offense possessing the football for over 12 minutes in the opening quarter, the team trailed 7-0 and the defensive starters saw just five plays of game action.
“I thought he had great poise, I really did,” Steichen said. “I know he has the early interception – that’s my fault, we got to do a better job communicating there on that one. They brought slot pressure off the edge and there was a miscommunication. That starts with coaching, that starts with myself - we have to be better there. Other than that, I thought he was efficient and threw some good balls. He was calm in the pocket. Hit (Kylen) Granson in the middle. Threw a nice deep ball to (Alec) Pierce. A lot of good there.”
The Colts’ Even 4-3 defense allowed several rising players to step up and gain significant playing time on the gridiron. Colts CB Darrell Baker Jr. swatted away a pass intended for Trent Sherfield on a slant route to force fourth down and a punt. In the second quarter, DE Al-Quadin Muhammed fired off the edge and sacked Allen for a 10-yard loss to push Buffalo out of field goal range late.
“We had some good sacks, some good pressure on the quarterback early – all those different things,” Steichen said. “I got to go back and watch the tape, watch it thoroughly and look at all the different things. I thought the guys played hard, gave great effort. I’ll go back and look at the tape.”
The Colts second-team offensive line folded instantly as Gardner Minshew came in to relieve Richardson after the first quarter. Bills’ DT Tim Settle and DE Boogie Basham sacked Minshew on consecutive plays and the running backs gained a total of 11 yards on seven carries during the second quarter. Minshew connected with Josh Downs on a crosser to move the sticks just before the two minute warning. Minshew went 5-for-5 in the two minute drill, hitting Mike Strachan on a seam and later connecting across the middle with Downs for 18-yard completions.
Minshew led the Colts downfield to the Bills’ 1-yard line with six seconds left before halftime, and Jake Funk crossed the goal line to gain momentum before heading into the visitors’ locker room. Despite a disastrous start to the quarter, the Colts second unit assembled a 12-play, 88-yard touchdown drive in just over four minutes.
On the first play from scrimmage to start the second half, Colts DE Dayo Odeyingbo came off the blind side edge for a crushing sack. After the Bills marched inside Colts territory, rookie DE Titus Leo broke through the line of scrimmage into the throwing lane of Kyle Allen, forcing a mistimed throw and a turnover. Once the pass ricocheted off the hands of rookie WR Tyrell Shavers, Colts CB Darius Rush secured the interception and sprinted 55-yards downfield for a pick six to give the Colts a 13-10 lead.
RUSHing to the endzone!— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) August 12, 2023
: CBS pic.twitter.com/sQUqENpFBG
With 6:17 left in the third quarter, Shavers retook the lead for Buffalo, beating Colts LB Segun Olubi on a wheel route. Olubi was lined up inside against Shavers, but gambled underneath the pick, allowing Shavers to break wide open down the sideline for a 22-yard TD pass from third-string QB Matt Barkley.
The Bills took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Colts stampede would not let up. DE Khalid Kareem burst off the left edge almost untouched and sacked Barkley. After Barkley completed a 3rd-&-14 to TE Jace Sternberger, Colts S Henry Black laid a hitstick and popped the football loose from behind. Colts rookie LB Donavan Mutin recovered the fumble inside Bills territory at the 47-yard line.
Colts third-string QB Sam Ehlinger drove the offense down to the 26-yard line, but RB Kenyan Drake was stuffed by LB Travin Howard for no gain on 4th-&-1 for Indianapolis’ second turnover on downs. Midway through the fourth quarter inside the red zone, former Colt and current Bills WR Dezmon Pattmon ran a corner rout and Barkley threw over the shoulder for a 13-yard TD catch to increase the Bills’ lead to 23-13.
Indianapolis caught its second break with a pass interference call in the end zone, placing the ball at the Bills 3-yard line. After signing with the Colts 48 hours ago, RB Jason Huntley ran up the middle and spun off his defender to score a late TD. The Colts failed the 2-point attempt as Howard met and ran through TE Michael Jacobson at the goal line.
Richardson finished his first quarter of preseason game action 7-of-12 for 67 passing yards and an interception. Minshew completed all six of his pass attempts and Ehlinger went 8-of-9 with 72 passing yards each. The Colts will host three training camp practices in the next week, including a pair of joint-practice scrimmages with the Chicago Bears on Wednesday and Thursday at Grand Park.