By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
PENDLETON, Ind. —
The preseason hasn’t been kind to the Indianapolis Colts recently.
Since 2005, the franchise has a woeful record of 5-25 in exhibition games.
There’s been a lot of talk about the dawning of a new era during the first two weeks of training camp at Anderson University, and today’s game against the St. Louis Rams offers the first chance to provide tangible evidence of change.
First-year head coach Chuck Pagano said winning will be the top priority, even though he plans to rest several veterans after the first series or two.
And the players apparently have bought in.
Outside linebacker Robert Mathis certainly didn’t sound like someone preparing for a game that doesn’t count.
“It’s not just a first preseason game,” he said. “It’s a first stepping-stone to what we’re trying to get accomplished, and that’s to go as far as we want to go. Hopefully, this Sunday we’ll take a step in the right direction.”
Of course, the final score today will matter little in the long-term future of this franchise. But, soon enough, success will solely be measured by the numbers flashing on the scoreboard.
In preparation for that day — Sept. 9 in Chicago — here’s a guide to five things to watch when the ball is kicked off at 1:30 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium:
1. Andrew Luck’s playing time
The plan appears to be to get the rookie quarterback in and out quickly today.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said earlier in the week he thought 20-25 plays would be enough, and he didn’t want to see Luck’s playing time spill over into the second quarter.
Pagano echoed those sentiments Friday, saying two or three series should be enough for a good’s day work for the No. 1 overall pick.
Luck, himself, has remained on the fence about the topic. Though he said he’d abide by whatever Arians and Pagano think best.
“They know a lot more about football than I do,” Luck said.
2. The running game
Pagano and Arians repeatedly have stated they want to have a power rushing attack to help take some of the load off of Luck’s shoulders.
Much of that, of course, will be the responsibility of the six running backs currently on the training camp roster — Donald Brown, Delone Carter, Vick Ballard, Mewelde Moore, Darren Evans and Deji Karim.
But much of the credit or blame will fall to an offensive line that’s likely to have at least three new starters. Anthony Castonzo returns at left tackle, and Joe Reitz is competing to keep his job at left guard.
The three new starters are likely to be center Samson Satele, right tackle Winston Justice and right guard Mike McGlynn. They’ve earned praise from the coaches in camp, but they know the real tests are yet to come.
“I want to see how we compete against someone else other than ourselves,” Justice said. “I’m kind of excited to hit someone new. I feel like this group has a lot to prove. So I’m excited.”
3. The cornerback search
Jerraud Powers is a very solid bet to start at the right cornerback position. But the spot opposite him appears to be anyone’s for the taking.
Justin King has been seeing plenty of first-team work, but Cassius Vaughn is listed as the starting left corner on the depth chart released Tuesday.
Those two, in some order, figure to start on the left side and as the nickelback against the Rams. The list of those competing for playing time behind them is long.
Purdue graduate Brandon King had three interceptions during practices this week, and rookie Cam Chism made a nice pick against backup quarterback Drew Stanton on Friday. Others in the mix include Terrence Johnson, Korey Lindsey and D.J. Johnson.
The fact remains the eventual starter might not currently be on the roster.
Speaking Friday in non-specific terms, general manager Ryan Grigson said he’s always on the lookout for new talent.
“I will always explore anything that makes us better,” he said. “I think my actions speak to that.”
4. The pass rush
The No. 1 goal of Pagano’s and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s hybrid 3-4 defense will be stopping the run. But many of the big plays will come from the pass rush.
It’s an area of the game that can be extremely difficult to evaluate during training camp practices in which players are not allowed to hit the quarterback.
There’s great interest in seeing how long-time defensive ends Mathis and Dwight Freeney transition to their new roles as outside linebackers. The two have a combined 11 Pro Bowl appearances and 186 sacks in 19 NFL seasons.
Freeney is enjoying his new role, that has him moving around all over the field, but even he doesn’t know what to expect today.
“This is the type of thing that we used to do on Saturdays in kind of like a period where you get to play around a little bit,” Freeney said. “So yeah, it’s fun for me to do something new because I’ve been doing the thing I’ve been doing for 10 years. But, that being said, it is unfamiliar territory. So I don’t really know how it’s going to be until I really get out there. But everything indicates that it’s going to be fine.”
5. Players with something to prove
A. Donald Brown — A first-round pick in 2009, Brown had career highs with 134 carries, 645 yards and five touchdowns last season. Those numbers will need to nearly double, however, for Brown to become the every-down back Arians and Pagano covet for their power running game. And if Brown proves ill-suited for the role? The new regime doesn’t have as much invested in him as the previous front office.
B. Jerry Hughes — Like Brown, Hughes finds himself in a new role for a front office that didn’t draft him. The Colts’ top choice in 2010, he’s appeared in 24 games over the past two seasons with just one start, 21 tackles and one sack to show for it. Hughes is making the move to outside linebacker this season, a position some believed he was better suited for coming out of TCU’s exotic system, and he might need to quickly show improvement to earn the trust of the new regime.
C. Coby Fleener — This year’s second-round pick had a tough second week of training camp, developing a case of the dropsies. But he was solid in the opening week, and he has a great rapport with Andrew Luck from their days at Stanford. He and fellow rookie Dwayne Allen — who has looked very good in practice so far — figure to anchor Arians’ preferred two tight-end offense. Luck needs Fleener to be on his game as a security blanket.
D. New linebackers — Moise Fokou and Greg Lloyd arrived late in the week in a trade that sent cornerback Kevin Thomas to the Philadelphia Eagles. Both showed a love for the game’s physicality with hard-hitting performances in goal-line drills in their first live practice. Now, they can further impress the new coaching staff — and it’s leaning toward aggressive defenders — by carrying that attitude onto the field against the Rams.
E. Kris Adams — The wide receiver has been the breakout star of training camp so far. After spending time with three teams — the Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings — as an undrafted rookie last year, he hopes he’s found a home in Indianapolis. A string of highlight-reel plays last week and his 6-foot-3 height and 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash have opened plenty of eyes. Today he gets his first chance to prove his game can hold up when the bullets are live.