5 Things to Look for: 49ers @ Colts (Preseason)

The Colts play their first preseason game of 2010 when the San Francisco 49ers travel to Lucas Oil Stadium to take on the defending AFC Champions this Sunday at 1pm.  Training camp has been a mixed bag so far for the Colts with good and bad news.  Here are five things I’ll be looking for Sunday:

Bob Sanders | AP Photo

1. The return of Bob Sanders

When he’s on the field, Sanders is a game-changer.  He can play the run and pass effectively.  He delivers bone-jarring hits and instills in the rest of his defensive teammates an energy and swagger that is clearly missing when he’s not there.  Dubbed “The Eraser” by his former head coach Tony Dungy, Sanders plays at only one speed when healthy: Destruction.

Unfortunately for Colts fans, the Colts organization, and Sanders himself, he’s been injured more often than not since coming into the league.  This year is the healthiest Sanders has been going into a season.  All reports from camp say he looks good.  Sanders says he feels good.  Will this be the year he plays a full season and helps the Colts in their quest to get back to the Super Bowl and erase the memories of last year’s loss to the Saints?

Sunday could be telling.  How much playing time does Sanders get?  Do they give him a series or two, or does he not play in the preseason at all as the team saves him for the games that count?

I think most fans would prefer that Sanders, and all of the Colts core members for that matter, sat in bubble wrap until the Colts kick off their season against the Texans on September 12th.  While I understand the sentiment, I feel it’s vital to get some of the players that missed a lot of time last season some game action before the regular season.

2. The Play of the Offensive Line

A unit that was already dangerously thin has suffered injuries to its two most vital positions: center and left tackle.  Center Jeff Saturday will reportedly be out the rest of the preseason and perhaps miss one or two regular season games, as well.  Though I believe Saturday will be ready for opening weekend, someone will have to play center for the next month.

The news with left tackle Charlie Johnson is no better.  Out with what reports are saying is a foot sprain, there has been no time table placed on Johnson’s return.  For his part, Colts coach Jim Caldwell has given the same information on this injury that he gives on most, be it death or paper cut, saying Johnson is, “day-to-day, but improving.”

So where does that leave the line?  Offensive tackle Tony Ugoh, who was in the process of making the transition to guard this off-season, is the likely replacement for Charlie Johnson at left tackle.  Replacing Saturday, on the other hand, would seem to be a more difficult problem.

Offensive guard/center Mike Pollak is listed as Saturday’s backup on the recently-released depth chart, though early-camp depth charts are more of a suggestion than hard-and-fast rule, kind of like pants.   Pollak, the Colts’ second round draft pick in 2008, has struggled during his various stints in the starting lineup, but will look to make the most of his opportunity this preseason.

Early reports out of camp seemed to suggest that the Colts were going to move 2010 fourth round draft pick offensive guard Jaques McClendon to center.  McClendon, however, has also been dealing with various injuries during training camp.  That, coupled with the fact that he’s still learning the Colts system, leads me to believe that he’ll see limited time with the first or second units this preseason.

The Colts offensive line rarely shines in preseason games when fully healthy, so it will be interesting to see how it will perform when manned by second-string players and players fighting for roster spots.  The last thing anyone wants to see is Peyton Manning or Joseph Addai suffer a serious injury because of poor line play.  If the starters can get healthy for the regular season opener however, this could be valuable playing time for some players looking to establish themselves in the NFL.

3. The return of… the return game?

Other than a few games in 2006, when Terrence Wilkins had some electric returns, including a punt return for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Jaguars of Jacksonville, the Colts return game could be summed up in two words: fair catch.

Special teams are vital to every team.  For years, the coverage units were killing the Colts, while the lack of a return game seemed to fly under the radar.  That was back when the offense was putting up 49 passing touchdowns and running for 1,800 yards, and actually preferred having a longer field to help pad their fantasy stats.

These days, however, the Colts could use a little support from their kick-off and punt returns, and they know it.  Enter Samuel “Guns” Giguere and Brandon James.  Both players entered the league as undrafted free agents (Giguere in 2008, James in 2010), but are expected to bolster return units that ranked in the bottom half of the league in both conventional and advanced statistics.

It is unlikely that either player will make an impact at his normal offensive position (wide receiver for Giguere and running back for James), as both positions are deep with good players, increasing their need to shine on special teams if they want to make the final roster.  Some will point out, rightfully so, that the blocking on special teams has been poor, but even when the blocking was there, past returners have been hesitant and sometimes timid when hitting the holes.

While it’s just the preseason and my expectations are tempered, I’m still excited to see what these two young players can do in a game.

4. The play of LB Philip Wheeler

Not since Oprah has a celebrity had such a big deal made out of their dietary habits, but that’s where we appear to be with Philip Wheeler, who likes his food like I like my women: rich.

Of more importance than what’s going into his mouth however, is how Wheeler is performing on the field.  Wheeler, who took over the starting SAM (strong-side linebacker) position last year after a season-ending injury to LB Tyjuan Hagler in week eight, had an up and down 2009 season, but enters 2010 as the unquestioned starter, with little depth behind him to challenge for the starting gig.

Now entering his third year, the Colts are expecting big things from the 2008 third round pick.   Wheeler, however, still seems to be having his ups and downs, apparently struggling to understand where he is supposed to be on certain plays.

We can all remember what happened in 2006 when the Colts had another weak-link at SAM, as Gilbert Gardner set out to personally crush the hopes and dreams of Colts fans everywhere.  While it was nice of Gardner to allow Jaguars fans to see what a real offense looks like for a week, it’s not really his job to make the opposing team look better.  The same goes for Wheeler.  If he continues to have his struggles, it could throw a wrench in the Colts’ plans to make a return trip to the Super Bowl.

5. Going Cuckoo for Stone Hands

Bob Sanders won’t be the only Colts’ player making his return to the field this Sunday.  Number four wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who saw his 2009 season end abruptly with a week one knee injury, will also be making his return.

Due to his injury and the emergence of Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie last season, Gonzalez finds himself in a battle for a starting job.  Some reports suggest that he’s battling Pierre Garçon for the #2 job, while others,  like Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, are suggesting that Gonzalez will be taking over the slot position from Collie.  No word on whether Gonzo will be making an attempt to unseat Camp Battle Participant Reggie Wayne from the #1 job.

Regardless of where he plays, having a healthy Gonzalez back is a major boost for this offense.  Gonzalez has great speed, is a better route runner than Garçon or Collie, and has amazing hands, hauling in over 70% of his targets since being in the league.  His ability to play both the slot and wideout also give the offense some flexibility that they lacked last year with the more specialized Collie and Garçon.

Gonzalez spent a few days in Tennessee this off-season to personally work with quarterback Peyton Manning, so I’m looking forward to seeing them get some reps together in the game to see where that timing and chemistry is.  If they can pick up where they left off in 2008, this group of WRs could put up numbers comparable to the 2004 season.

I’m not a big fan of training camp and the preseason, mainly because I’m a negative ninny who always expects the worst when it comes to injuries, but there is a real buzz about the Colts this year, and I’m excited to see what they have in store for us.  If they can improve in just a few areas — something the Colts seem to excel at year after year — they could be better than last year’s team that flirted with a perfect season and was, I’m told, still playing games in February.