As the Colts prepare to open the preseason Sunday against Jeff Fisher’s St. Louis Rams in Lucas Oil Stadium (1:30, 1070 the Fan), there will be no shortage of areas of interest, uncertainty or downright doubt.
In fact, if you wanted to make a list of givens about these Colts, there really are just four:
They will put pressure on the quarterback, make field goals and nail punts, and very few kickoffs will be returned.
Other than that, it’s pretty much up for grabs.
And so, in my never-ending effort to educate myself about this team, I have compiled a list of 10 things to watch during the four-game preseason schedule — and probably way beyond — and figured, since I’m typing it anyway, might as well put it out there for everybody.
1. What to expect from Andrew Luck?
Always start with the most obvious. In practice he has been remarkably accurate while showing firm command of the huddle and the scheme. The first step will to see if that translates to game conditions against a live, unfriendly defense that not only is allowed but encouraged to make vigorous contact. It also will be interesting to see just how long he plays. A veteran quarterback would be expected to head to the bench after a series or two in the first preseason game. For Luck, the workload likely will be heavier but just how much so remains to be seen.
2. What’s up, or down, with those outside linebackers?
After a decade as one of the most dominant pass-rushing defensive end combos in the league Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are now outside linebackers. Just how well they adapt to the altered responsibilities, not to mention alignment, will be huge for this unit. It will be particularly interesting to see how frequently Freeney lines up as an end with his hand down; in 11-on-11 situations in practice, he did so roughly half the time and frequently switched sides. Mathis has played a much more traditional outside linebacker role. It’s a gamble to mess with the two best players on the unit, especially when they have so much experience in their old roles and so little in the new, and this therefore stands as the biggest question mark for the defense.
3. Will what’s up front count?
The rebuilt offensive line must give the rookie quarterback time to scan the field and find the right target, otherwise Luck could be harried and hurried into mistakes. The group must also begin to develop some of the cohesiveness and chemistry necessary to be a successful. With three new UFAs in the starting lineup (center Samson Saetele, right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Winston Justice), a second-year player coming off an injury shortened rookie season (Anthony Castonzo) and a converted tackle (Jeff Linkenbach) battling a converted center — in basketball (Joe Reitz) — there is quite a but of uncertainty on the line, so to speak.
4. How quickly will we notice the defensive personality transplant?
It may be some time before the cover-2 becomes a distant memory but the scheme installed by head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky could not be much more different both in scheme (switching from a traditional 4-3 to a hybrid version of the 3-4) and personality (much, much, much more aggressive). The idea is to exploit the strong pass rush with tighter coverage that could allow for more opportunities to make big plays. The front seven is much bigger, stronger and more physical than past units and expects to control the line of scrimmage and thus shut down the running game. Whether it ultimately is a better unit, it certainly will be more entertaining.
5. Can they cover?
Last season the Colts not only had a porous pass defense, it was statistically the worst in NFL history, allowing opponents to complete 71.2 percent of their passes for 3,824 yards, 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions — a 103.9 rating. Jerraud Powers returns as the right cornerback and while he is clearly the best of the bunch and is a solid player, he will have to show he can thrive in tighter coverage while preventing receivers from getting behind him. The bigger problem is at left corner, where ex-Ram Justin King and ex-Bronco Cassius Vaughn are battling for the starting spot. Both can run, but whether they can cover will be a compelling storyline. If neither steps forward, General Manager Ryan Grigson has demonstrated he’s not shy about making moves.
6. Can the running game be relevant?
Though it has been a stated priority to establish a strong running game to help take pressure off Luck and strengthen the offense’s ability to move the chains consistently, it has not been manifest on the practice field, where the passing game has dominated the play selection. The coaching staff believes Donald Brown can carry the biggest load as the starter, with Mewelde Moore a quality option on third down. Just where rookie Vick Ballard, Delone Carter and Darren Evans fit may begin to show itself in how they are deployed in the preseason games.
7. Who will stretch the field?
With Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie on hand, Luck will have sure-handed targets for the short and medium stuff, but the role of field-stretcher remains open. Veteran Donnie Avery has looked good in camp but likely will not play Sunday with a thigh bruise. Rookie T.Y. Hilton has showed flashes, as have rookie LaVon Brazill and second-year man Kris Adams — who at 6-3 has not only size but the knack for the spectacular catch.
8. Should much be expected from the rookie tight ends?
Make no mistake, though second-round pick Coby Fleener and third-round pick Dwayne Allen both are tight ends, they do not play the same position. Expect Fleener to be used more as a receiver as an extension of his Stanford relationship with Luck. Allen could move around quite a bit, from fullback — where he has picked up a couple of carries in practice — to the slot to split wide. He also has proven a willing and able blocker. Both rookies will play significant roles.
9. Which of the new veterans will have the biggest impact?
Of the former Ravens that followed Pagano from Baltimore to Indianapolis, Cory Redding has the look of a potential game-changer in the defensive line. Not only does he have the size (6-4, 315) and experience (101 starts), he has a big personality and provides a strong voice of veteran leadership. Another ex-Raven, safety Tom Zbikowski, is a big hitter eager to seize the opportunity to be a full-timer. In the offensive line, center Samson Satele steps into some big shoes, following Jeff Saturday as the anchor up front, but appears up to the challenge. Avery has the speed and ability to provide the team much-needed depth threat but must prove he can remain healthy and be consistently productive. Right tackle Winston Justice moves from Howard Mudd’s current team (Philadelphia) to his former team and along with ex-Bengal McGlynn should strengthen the offensive line.
10. Will anyone bounce off the bubble and into a prominent role?
Keep a close eye on Adams, who at 6-3 and 194 pounds is not only the biggest wide receiver on the roster, appears poised to seize the best opportunity of his career to this point. With a full offseason and camp to get comfortable with the offensive scheme, Adams looks extremely comfortable and confident and has made several eye-popping catches in practice. He isn’t a burner (4.4) but has the ability to use his size and burst to make plays deep. Jerrell Freeman, a linebacker with three years of experience in Canada, may challenge for a starting job inside. Dominque Jones, a rookie tight end from Shepherd College, also looks like a keeper.