Mocking the Colts: Peyton Manning and Preseason Performances

The Indianapolis Colts community is enduring another preseason with themes that are far too familiar. Just three seasons ago fans were left wondering about Peyton Manning’s recovery from two off-season knee surgeries to repair an infected bursa sac. Not unlike this season, there were rumblings and questions regarding his status heading into the regular season — whether he’d be able to play and how effective he would be if he did.

We learned in 2008 that while Manning was affected during the first three or four games of the 2008 season with limited mobility (funny concept with Peyton Manning), he was going to play through the final stages of his recovery, including any pain or stiffness that went along with it. Now preseason is halfway over and Manning remains on the physically unable to perform list, and no official word on when he will be ready to take the field is available. As Coltzilla’s Greg Cowan discussed over the weekend, this has left some people in a panic.

While there are certainly different perspectives on the issue, only one makes a great deal of sense to me. Tony Dungy put it best, “unless he’s dead, he’ll be under center opening day.” There is no reason to legitimately believe otherwise. He’ll play through pain if he has to and he respects the history of the game enough to not sit unless he is completely incapable of doing so. Dropping a division game in the first week of the season puts a great deal of pressure on him and his teammates as the season progresses and I don’t believe for a second that he’ll pass on the responsibility of running the offense to any of the Colts backup quarterbacks now, or even to others who seem to be getting attention from members of the media, unless he is forced to do so. Scott Bolander provides his own insightful analysis here.

The other theme that Colts fans know very well is what it is like to look absolutely awful during preseason football. Very little effort is made during training camp and preseason competition to game plan for an upcoming opponent, very little work is given to the core/star quality players who will spend most of the time on the field during the regular season, and the offense and defense tends to play a very vanilla game plan. For those wondering why this happens the answer is relatively simple and we’ve discussed it a bit before. This time of year is ALL about player evaluation and development.

The best way to determine which players are most likely able to contribute to your team should they be called to service during the regular season is to get them a lot of time on the field, get them experience against a higher level of competition than they’ve ever faced before — which is why the Colts generally will have their second team against an opponent’s first team, and third team against an opponent’s second team, most of the time — and put them in a situation to display the talent, ability, instincts, and athleticism to play the base/generic role players at their position are required to play most of the time during the year. If a player stands out as capable of being disciplined in his responsibilities and roles, or stands out as having great instincts, or simply finds ways to make plays, it weighs in the coaching staff’s mind, and will influence the decision the front office will make when cut downs occur. It is this process that has played no small part in helping the Colts uncover undrafted talent, or turn another team’s throw-away into a mainstay.

What good does it do the team to prove to itself during the preseason that it can beat up on the Rams, Redskins, or any other team. None. No trophies are awarded. No playoff points are earned. A greater risk is taken the longer first team players are exposed to potential injury. AND the players who the coaching staff is less familiar with, the younger players and lesser experienced players, the free agent additions who are new to the system, they don’t get that time on the field. The coaches don’t get as much time in a lesser controlled environment to make their evaluations. How is that a winning scenario? It isn’t. And that’s why the Colts handle the preseason like they do.

What this process does do is put a lot of pressure on individual players to perform. It is this part of the preseason game against Washington last week that needs to be analyzed because it’s entirely fair to form opinions about players who are on the field when the lights are on — during these coach appointed opportunities to shine. Players can either make the most of it or go find another career.

One player who has not done anything to improve his impression on the Colts fan base is Curtis Painter. He was inaccurate against Washington, missing easy opportunities to keep offensive drives going. He was incapable of getting more than one first down in four first half possessions. The offense seemed out of sync, out of rhythm, and incapable of producing.

Dan Orlovsky, his primary competition, started off the second half with a drive that looked like a professional offense. While he is certainly not a long-term starting caliber quarterback, and while no Colts fans would want to see the season come down to his ability to win a majority of the games, he at least gives the impression that in a short-term role he could get a handful of wins. It will be interesting to see if his development in the offense continues and if Painter is bumped down on the depth chart or cut at some point during the season when Manning’s health is no longer a concern.

Another player who has a lot of eyes on him this year is defensive end Jerry Hughes. While he has not looked impressive there is one thing that makes diagnosing him difficult. Right now, he is nothing more than third down pass rush specialist. This should not be unfamiliar to Colts fans who watched Robert Mathis develop from a situational pass-rusher in his first three seasons into a starter. Don’t get me wrong, Mathis was a big-time producer even early in his career (particularly on special teams) but his situation was also significantly different.

When Mathis joined the Colts he was the only other legitimate pass rushing defensive end on the team, even as a rookie. So when obvious passing downs occurred, he saw the field and was asked to do one thing only, “get after the quarterback.” Fans are getting a look at Hughes as an every down defensive end in the preseason. The demands on his body are more significant than Mathis was expected to endure early in his career, and there’s a good chance that he gets tired or winded with that much time on the field — and could be less productive on passing downs as a result of the increased work load. A player who thrives on speed and agility can really take advantage of a match-up when he has fresh legs and the offensive lineman across from him has played the whole game looking at an entirely different breed of player.

The good thing is that all of this experience and all of the repetitions Hughes is getting against NFL-caliber offensive linemen is teaching him a lot. He learned against the Rams that keeping track of the ball can be tricky without game-planning when he faces a team that likes to run bootlegs. Clearly he will need to get more comfortable doing so if he wishes to have an opportunity to develop into an every down player like Mathis. Until then, the only way to get a really good read on him is to see him during the regular season (and there is almost no chance he will be cut) in the role he should be expected to fill. As long as Mathis and Freeney are around, that role will likely be limited to late-game breathers, short-term injury-related reps, special defensive packages, and special teams.

Other players who stood out and improved their stock include safety David (DaC) Caldwell, defensive tackle Drake Nevis, defensive end John Chick, linebacker Adrian Moten, defensive tackle Eric Foster, running back Delone Carter, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo, and guards Jacques McClendon and Joe Reitz.

Caldwell looked very comfortable at free safety. He flowed to the ball well and displayed good vision. He did miss a tackle that he should not have, but finished with a team high seven tackles anyway. If he can continue playing well, and gets a lot of reps in place of Antoine Bethea (who left with a hamstring injury in the first quarter) he could either be a long shot winner for a final roster spot or guarantee a place on the practice squad. In either event, the game was a win for Caldwell.

Nevis continued to be a disruptive force in the middle for Indianapolis. He is big, fast, and strong. Finding an interior defensive lineman who is as quick as Nevis off of the snap, especially with a deadly quick low gear for putting a lot of stress on the interior of the offensive line, is not easy. He still has to work on his discipline against the run if the team plans to use him as a nose tackle at any time but there is little doubt that he is very capable of playing a significant role as an interior disruptor in the defensive tackle rotation.

Chick has had the opportunity to get significant repetitions in the first two preseason games and he has used that opportunity to play clean football. He is not a run-stopping specialist but has also not been a huge liability against the opponent ground game. He is much more of a pass rusher and had the opportunity to display his speed and quickness with a sack near the end of the first half. Chick is pushing hard to earn a spot over Jamaal Anderson who missed the game with a groin injury.

Moten continues to be a resourceful linebacker who excels in pass coverage. There is a very good chance that he will make the team if he continues to display a specialty in that area and if he can develop into a special teams contributor. His interception against Washington could be a good beginning for him.

Foster is another player who plays on the Colts defensive line who exhibits a tremendous motor. Unlike the aforementioned Nevis, Foster is definitely an undersized defensive tackle and may not be fast enough to be a speed rusher off of the edge. However, he has developed the ability to slide off of blockers in the direction of the football and used that ability to stop two runs for losses against Washington. Resourceful defensive tackles who are dynamic enough to play inside and out are valuable rotational players.

Carter continues to display the feature Colts fans were wanting to see from him, he is a very strong, bowling ball style, running back who hits the line, the hole, or the pile with the same force every time. He should be a productive short-yardage back immediately and has enough speed to be dangerous if a hole does open up. As mentioned before, though, he is more of a straight line runner than he is one who can make fast players at the second level miss in the NFL.

Castonzo’s inaugural start went about as well as one could expect. While he did struggle a bit dealing with Brian Orakpo when he changed directions and attempted to get pressure up the middle, he was very consistent is every other phase of the game. Though it is still early, his athletic ability alone makes him a day one upgrade over former starting left tackle Charlie Johnson.

McClendon and Reitz continue to share time at left guard. McClendon got the start in the first game and Reitz started against the Redskins. Both players exhibit enough discipline and athleticism to inspire confidence in the team’s fan base, though both need to continue developing. As has been discussed numerous times on the podcast, getting a full read on the left side of the offensive line will be difficult until the coaching staff settles in with a group who can have more time to develop a synergy.

Every other position on the offense is much more steady. None of the five primary wide receivers last year has any reason to feel threatened. McNeil and DeVree are competing for the opportunity to fill a fourth roster spot at tight end (neither will see significant offensive action unless Eldridge is injured at minimum). The running backs competing for a fourth roster spot at that position were not overly active. Devin Moore’s 22-yard kick return continues to give him an edge of the others (he brought it out from 7-yards deep in the end zone).