After enduring a long few months without the NFL, fans can look ahead to the Colts final preseason game this Friday knowing the regular season is less than three weeks away.
It’s been a successful, if not flawless, preseason for the Colts. As Jim Irsay pointed out on Twitter, last week’s win against the Vikings was the first time the Colts have gone 2-0 in preseason for 27 years. The team will relish the opportunity to make it 3-0 this Friday against the Lions.
It’s fair to say that that training camp and preseason hasn’t gone entirely to plan for the Colts. Wentz, Nelson, Kelly, Buckner, and Leonard have all been absent at times due to various injuries. There were even fears that Wentz and Nelson’s injuries would derail the Colts’ season before it even started. But with the recoveries from those injuries seemingly going well, Colts fans have reasons to be optimistic. Another win against Detroit would help fuel that optimism, but what do the Colts need to do to win the game?
When Wentz and Nelson joined Kelly on the injured list, the Colts knew that their defense would have to step up if the Colts were going to win games in their absence. So far, the Colts’ defense has looked impressive. They may have to continue playing well this Friday if the team is to win again. The Colts’ pass rushers have been impressive so far throughout training camp and preseason; they’ll be particularly important this week, given Detroit’s offensive line is arguably its biggest strength.
Of course, one of the reasons the Colts’ defense will likely have to be good again is because the Colts cannot currently rely on their offense to get the job done. A lot of the blame for this lies with the quarterbacks. There were promising signs for both Eason and Ehlinger against the Panthers, and Eason had some strong days in training camp last week. But against the Vikings, both were too inconsistent and were unable to score a touchdown between them.
This isn’t to be too harsh on either Eason or Ehlinger. They’re both essentially rookie quarterbacks as Eason’s spot in the pecking order last year, and COVID protocols strictly limited what he could do and learn. They’ve both been forced to take their first training camp snaps behind a decimated offensive line whilst playing against potentially one of the top defenses in the league.
It takes time for any young quarterback to settle into playing in the NFL. As late-round draft picks, you have to expect Eason and Ehlinger to take longer than the likes of Lance and Fields if they’re able to reach that level at all. Both Eason and Ehlinger have some promising strengths, but they also have significant weaknesses.
It’s not yet clear how Frank Reich will balance the snaps between Eason and Ehlinger against Detroit. Whoever plays the bulk of the game, the Colts have to be realistic about the level of play they should expect from their quarterback. But whether Eason or Ehlinger can replicate their best practice performances on gameday will go a long way to deciding how the game turns out for the Colts.
Fortunately for the Colts, every piece of good news about Carson Wentz’s recovery suggests Eason or Ehlinger won’t have to fill in at quarterback for long. There’s a real chance Wentz will be healthy to face the Seahawks in week one. But even if Wentz is fully fit, the Colts will want to know if Eason or Ehlinger are capable of filling in for him in the future if needed.
The performance of the Colts quarterback this week will be of great interest to my third key to a Colts victory – the wide receivers. This is one of those areas where there’s real competition for the final roster spots. Michael Strachan has impressed many people, including legends like Reggie Wayne, since being drafted in the seventh round this year. He looks to have already secured his roster spot and will now be trying to stake his claim for playing time in the regular season.
The picture is less clear for players like Dezmon Patmon, who has himself made some big plays in both preseason games so far. This is a talented young group of depth wide receivers. We’ll see how many make it onto the final roster, but we can expect a number of them to be given another chance to prove themselves against Detroit.
Those wide receivers who do play against the Lions will have been given a real opportunity. Despite drafting Jeff Okudah 3rd overall last year, Detroit’s secondary is a real weakness. They got torched last year by the Houston Texans, with Will Fuller killing them with deep receptions over the top. If Jacob Eason is the team’s quarterback for large parts of Friday’s game, then the Colts wide receivers could have some opportunities to catch some deep passes and make some impressive deep plays.
If those are the keys to a Colts victory, then what should Colts fans be looking for when they watch the game on Friday? What questions should they be hoping to get answers to? What will make the game a success for the team? It might be painful, but all Colts fans should be looking at the situation at left tackle.
The Colts’ offensive line has been uncharacteristically weak recently due to injuries. Nelson and Kelly look well-placed to return soon, which will be a huge boost to the team. That does, however still leave a hole at left tackle. There have been promising signs that Fisher’s recovery is going well, but there’s still every chance he may have to miss the first few games of the season. His absence leaves a substantial hole for the team to fill at left tackle.
Chastened by their struggles at left tackle last year when Anthony Castonzo was injured, the Colts worked hard to improve their depth at the position year. Unfortunately, players like Sam Tevi bought in to play left tackle have disappointed throughout training camp and preseason. Julien Davenport looked more reliable against the Vikings, but the position has often been a liability in recent weeks. Getting to play next to Quenton Nelson will certainly make any left tackles’ life much easier, but they’ll have to play better themselves too.
It’s not clear yet whether it’ll be Tevi, Holden, or Davenport who will be playing left tackle for the Colts this Friday. Whichever one plays, the team will be looking for them to make the position their own and show they can be relied on until Fisher returns. Fans will be hoping that’s a role they don’t have to fill for long.
On the other side of the trenches, Ben Banogu will be a player to watch. It’s fair to say Banogu had been underwhelming in his first two seasons in the NFL. It’s not a stretch to say that his place on the roster this year could have been at risk. Happily, for everyone, Banogu has had an impressive training camp by all accounts. He capped this off by being the player of the game against the Vikings. I’m interested to see if Banogu can continue this form against the Lions and put himself in a position to become an impactful player in the regular season.
Unfortunately for the team, Rock Ya-Sin hasn’t made the same leap as Banogu this offseason. I thought Banogu and Ya-Sin were similar in many ways as the team’s top two 2019 draft picks who had both disappointed in their first two seasons. We haven’t yet seen signs that Ya-Sin will break out this season and show why the Colts drafted him so highly.
We know that Kenny Moore and Xavier Rhodes have nailed down their starting cornerback positions. The final cornerback starting spot is currently held by Ya-Sin but is still up for grabs. Some journalists are saying that Ya-Sin has outperformed his rivals in training camp. But until he nails that slot down, there will still be an opportunity for Tell, Rhodes, or Carrie to usurp him. We don’t know which cornerbacks will see the most snaps against the Lions, but whoever is chosen will have the opportunity to lay a serious claim to a starting spot this season.
Mercifully for the Colts this offseason, there aren’t many injury concerns this weekend. The likes of Wentz, Nelson, and Kelly won’t be declared fit to play yet, and even if they were fully healthy, it’s unlikely Reich would have played them anyway in the last preseason game. One injury concern I will be monitoring is Kemoko Turay, who was dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Vikings game. It would be a real advantage for the Colts if Turay could be healthy to play the Lions and got a chance to build some momentum and hopefully put together a season where he stays healthy and can play at his best.
I’ve mentioned a few key points about the Detroit Lions already, but some other areas are worth highlighting. It feels mean to point out that the Lions aren’t a very good football team, but it does need saying. Some pundits predict the Lions to be the worst team in the NFL this season. I happen to disagree, believing that the Texans will occupy that unillustrious position. Nevertheless, the Lions will likely still be one of the worst teams in the league. They certainly have positional weaknesses in many areas of the field.
We know Jared Goff is a competent quarterback, but it’s hard to say how good he’ll be for the Lions; or if he’ll even play against the Colts. Whoever plays under center for Detroit won’t have a lot of weapons to deal with. Losing their clear number one wide receiver in Kenny Golladay will certainly hurt the team, which won’t help the fact that they also lost Marvin Jones this offseason. The Colts have some talented players in their secondary, and they should have an opportunity to prove how good they are against an underpowered Lions offense.
To give credit where credit’s due, the Lions do have the makings of a solid offensive line, with standout prospect Penei Sewell joining Frank Ragnow on an offensive line with plenty of potential. We’ll see how much game time Sewell and Ragnow get against the Colts, but it could be a good opportunity for the Colts’ young edge rushers to test their mettle against potentially some of the top linemen in the league.
The Colts should have enough depth to beat a Detroit team that looked short on starting quality last year, although preseason games are an entirely different beast to the regular season. Colts fans should have the opportunity to watch some young depth players make their mark whilst we continue to follow the progress of experienced starters returning from injury.