Colts vs. Lions: What to look for on Sunday
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Let’s look at some areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason opener against the Detroit Lions Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kickoff: 1:30 p.m.
Who’s in charge?: It’s anyone’s guess how long Scott Tolzien will be exposed to the Lions defense. Our guess? Not very long. Not with center Ryan Kelly and left guard Joe Haeg in street clothes. Tolzien needs the work, but that probably will consist of a couple of series and involve operating a simplistic offense that keeps him out of harm’s way as much as possible.
Once Tolzien trades his helmet for a baseball cap, we’re expecting Phillip Walker, not Stephen Morris, to get heavy action. The rookie out of Temple took a ton of reps this week after Tolzien and ahead of Morris. Morris seemed to throw more after practices than during them.
“He’s done a nice job,’’ Chuck Pagano said of Walker. “He’s performed well so we’re taking a really good look at him.’’
It’s entirely possible the coaching staff knows what it has with Morris. He’s been around for parts of three seasons. They need to find out if Walker possesses any upside. He started 47 of 49 games at Temple and set school career passing records with 10,273 yards, 72 touchdowns, 1,410 attempts and 803 completions.
O-line dance: Pagano was only half-joking when asked about having to find replacements for two of his five starting offensive lineman for the Lions game.
“If anybody is ready for it,’’ he said, “we are.’’
Ready or not, the Colts might open with Deyshawn Bond at center (for Kelly) and Jeremy Vujnovich at left guard (for Haeg). Bond is an undrafted rookie and Warren Central grad. Vujnovich is in his second season. After a few series, look for position coach Joe Philbin to start shuffling players. It figures to be a learning-on-the-run experience, especially if Denzelle Good isn’t available. He left Friday’s practice early with an unspecified injury.
A major objective of preseason must be to build viable depth. Bond, Zach Banner and Andrew Wylie are rookies. Adam Redmond, Arturo Uzdavinis, Blake Muir and Fahn Cooper have yet to step on the field for a regular-season game. Vujnovich has appeared in two games.
New-look defense: We’ll get an early glimpse of a Colts defense that underwent a massive overhaul in the offseason. Keep your program and roster handy for identification purposes.
As a public service, we offer a few jersey numbers to focus on: 93 (outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard), 51 (outside linebacker John Simon), 95 (tackle Johnathan Hanks), 99 (nose Al Woods), 94 (end Margus Hunt). And those are just the veteran free agents added to the mix. Among the rookies: 29 (safety Malik Hooker), 58 (outside linebacker Tarell Basham), 31 (cornerback Quincy Wilson), 27 (cornerback Nate Hairston), 50 (linebacker Anthony Walker), 68 (Grover Stewart).
The 2016 defense was historically awful, so anything promises to be an improvement. The preseason opener offers the next step in determining just how much improvement we can anticipate. We’ll pay special attention to the play up front and how well the D-line and linebackers deal with Detroit’s running game and pressure the QBs. On the backend, it will be interesting to see how the rookie DBs react to playing on the big stage. Hooker, Wilson and Hairston are no strangers to big-time football, but the NFL is just different.
Eyes on . . . : Bug Howard. The North Carolina rookie has been hard to miss during camp, and that’s only partly due to his 6-4, 214-pound frame. Howard’s practice reps have steadily increased as injuries have depleted the receiving corps. To his credit, he’s been up the challenge.
During joint work with the Lions and with several receivers out with injuries, Howard “took a million’’ reps,’’ noted Pagano.
Near the end of Thursday’s practice, Howard paused, crouched down and appeared to try to gather himself. It was thought he might be injured. Nope, just gassed.
“He tested his limits,’’ Pagano said. “He got uncomfortable, and he was able to tolerate the discomfort and push through. A lot of these guys don’t know that they can do that.
“He’ll be better for having to go through something like that.’’
The Colts have dealt with young, tall receivers in camp who flashed potential in practice (remember Duran Carter?) then faded in games. Howard has flashed in practice, and needs to use the four preseason games to show the game isn’t too big for him.
Maybe next week: Injuries will keep several front-line players out, and delay the Colts’ debut for a handful. Six projected starters are expected to miss the game: Kelly (foot), Haeg (burner), inside linebackers Jon Bostic (finger) and Antonio Morrison (groin), tight Erik Swoope (hamstring) and Rashaan Melvin. A hamstring will keep wideout Phillip Dorsett out of action while rookie running back Marlon Mack is dealing with a shoulder injury.