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Colts Training Camp: Trial by fire

Colts offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter aims to discover the skill players’ strengths and weaknesses by splitting enough reps to prove themselves.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

WESTFIELD — Instead of tossing the pig-skin into a target throwing net after practice, the Colts quarterbacks and receivers continue to work overtime on ball placement in the end zone.

Indianapolis committed just 41.4% of the salary cap to its offense in 2023, which ranks 26th of 32 NFL teams. The offensive line allowed 60 sacks last season, second-most in the NFL behind the Denver Broncos. The Colts spent $45.7M on its sixth-highest paid starting O-line, with the trio of right tackle Braden Smith, guard Quenton Nelson, and center Ryan Kelly on track to earn three of the five-highest salary cap hits on the roster. Only Atlanta (7-10, last in NFC South), Cleveland (7-10, last in AFC North), Houston (3-13-1, last in AFC South), and Detroit (9-8, missed playoffs) devoted more money to its O-Line than the Colts.

Colts offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter aims to discover the skill players’ strengths and weaknesses by splitting enough reps to prove themselves during the preseason. Communication is stressed to allow each unit to think and act as one during the “call-it periods” of each practice.

“We are sort of, over half way through our install, which is a big deal for us coaches,” Cooter said via Wednesday’s coordinator zoom meeting. “We are putting in a lot of plays, a lot of offense. Every day, these guys are learning a ton. Here comes a lot of information at you. Fairly soon, that’s going to slow down quite a bit and then you really refine everything you do. We want to practice at a higher and higher level every day, eliminate a few more mistakes. Just do everything we are doing at a little bit of a higher level.”

In Thursday’s initial team drill, quarterback Anthony Richardson commanded the starters behind center. The rookie executed the run-pass option to perfection, and juked away from linebacker Zaire Franklin before dashing through the interior. The 21-year old made his first mistake of training camp by throwing across the middle into the chest of rising cornerback Darrell Baker Jr., who jumped the route to secure an interception.

Richardson became conservative to begin the 7-on-7 drill, completing three straight check downs. After consecutive overthrows, the rookie scrambled out of the pocket and delivered a touchdown to a diving Josh Downs at the goal line.

“Every position, every technique that we do – one of the beauties of training camp is you do get a lot of reps and you know that every receiver gets to run just about every route usually multiple times,” Cooter said. “You start to see who gets open on certain routes and maybe who is better at a different route and how you use that thing to develop the offense. We’ll learn a lot in the next month about our guys and hopefully we’ll get a lot better in the next month as we do it.”

The interior returned for the next team drill and Richardson instantly recognized the zone coverage on the first play. He zipped a sharp 10-yard pass to receiver Alec Pierce on a comeback route. Throughout training camp, Pierce has displayed the best ability to separate and release at the line of scrimmage. After Thursday’s practice, Pierce mentioned improving his route tree and second-gear burst over the off-season.

“I love press coverage, I love working with moves on that and then just separating,” Pierce said. “I think contested catches are what I am trying to become elite at. I think it’s more of a consistency thing, sometimes I am good at it and other days, you don’t make the catches, but I think I got to just work on being really good at it everyday.”

Richardson led the first-team offense to begin a two-minute drill in the final practice session. Michael Pittman Jr. sold the fade and cut inside on a slant to move the sticks to midfield. Following a quick spike, Richardson found tight end Kylen Granson in the flat to inch closer to field goal range. Richardson drove the offense down to the opposing 40-yard line with just 4.3 seconds left on the clock, and kicker Matt Gay drilled the ensuing 58-yard field goal through the uprights with plenty of room to spare.

“The biggest thing is I want to see growth,” Colts head coach Shane Steichen said. “Just being efficient on offense. Shoot, not getting three-and-outs, just keeping the ball moving, getting completions, running the ball efficiently and going from there.”