Colts at Bills: What to watch for in team’s first preseason game

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 08: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts throws the ball during the game against the Denver Broncos at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Indianapolis Colts open their preseason Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

  • Kickoff: 7 p.m.
  • Telecast: WXIN FOX59
  • Streaming webcast: WTTV CBS4 via CBS4Indy.com

Here are a few things to watch for Saturday night:

Men under center: Andrew Luck returns to action for the first time since Nov. 8 when he suffered a lacerated kidney against the Broncos. We’re not expecting a ton of work for No. 12 – maybe a couple of series or 15-18 plays, whichever is applicable – but it’s still important for him to get back out there and play the position. Ideally, the Luck-led offense will show some rhythm and be exposed to various situations: a few third downs, perhaps a fourth-and-short, some red-zone work.

As much anticipation as there figures to be with Luck, we’re more interested in how backup Scott Tolzien fares with a heavy workload. There’s no doubt the team got younger at the position – Matt Hasselbeck was 40, Tolzien is 28 – but did it get better? Tolzien remains an unknown quantity. He’s thrown 1 pass in the last two seasons. So has punter Pat McAfee.

During training camp, Tolzien showed a strong arm, but too often lacked accuracy. Now is the time for him to show he can step in and keep the team on track if another injury sidelines Luck.

Catching on: As we’ve mentioned, we have zero issues with the top end of the receivers’ depth chart. T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett are coming off a solid camp and represent a quality trio. We also expect Quan Bray to be in the mix as the fifth receiver/return man.

But who’s No. 4? That’s what the next few preseason games must determine. Reliable depth is critical with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinkski expected to make liberal use of three-receiver sets.

Camp proved the Colts have several intriguing prospects – Josh Boyce, Tevaun Smith, MeKale McKay, Chester Rogers, Marcus Leak – but consistency has been lacking.

“One day it’s one guy that stands out or makes some plays and catches your eye and the next day it’s someone else,’’ Chudzinski said. “The bottom line is getting in the game and producing and making plays when you have the opportunity.’’

Enter the young: Luck will play sparingly while some veterans – Frank Gore, maybe Robert Mathis – might not play at all. We’ll see how Chuck Pagano wants to handle the Bills game.

What shouldn’t be in question is the exposure that awaits several rookies. We’re talking about center Ryan Kelly, guard/tackle Joe Haeg, tackle Le’Raven Clark, safety T.J. Green, defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, linebackers Trevor Bates, Antonio Morrison and Curt Maggitt, and running back Josh Ferguson.

No one questions Kelly’s readiness to provide stability at a position that desperately needs it. But he’s still yet to step on the field at this level. Green has been thrust into the starting lineup by the unavailability of Clayton Geathers (broken foot). Ridgeway might be in the starting lineup Sept. 11 against Detroit with the uncertainty of Kendall Langford (knee) and Henry Anderson (knee).

Mathis, Trent Cole and Erik Walden should be the foundation of the pass rush, but they’ll require help. Will that come from Bates? Earl Okine? Maggitt?

“What I will tell you is they have taken turns being productive during practice, so that’s encouraging,’’ defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. “Trevor has a great day. Earl has a great day. We have a great day from an inside pass rusher in T.Y. (McGill) or Zach (Kerr).

“We’re building those roles as we go. I like where we are.’’

Keep perspective: Yes, it’s great that football’s back. But let’s not make too much of these four games. Keep telling yourself, “It’s only preseason. It’s only preseason.”

This is an invaluable time for the coaches and Ryan Grigson’s personnel staff. They must whittle the 90-man roster to 53 players. The first cut to 75 is Aug. 30 with the final cut to 53 Sept. 3.

But it’s ridiculous to place any type of importance on the bottom line, which is winning and losing. The focus needs to be execution and productivity when the front-liners play, and competency when liberal substitution takes over.

The Colts’ last posted a winning preseason in 2003 (3-1). Over the last 12 years, they’re 12-38 in the preseason – they’ve lost eight of their last nine – and 130-62 in the regular season with 10 trips to the postseason.

So there.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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