Packers v. Colts: A Lot to Like

Three defensive linemen up in Aaron Rodgers grill. Colts say, "Pass rush? We have that." (AP Photo | AJ Mast)

Even though Peyton Manning — and his new sidekick Kerry Collins — did not take the field Friday night against the defending champion Green Bay Packers, the Colts showed signs of things coming together. There is still work to be done, and some areas on the team that were previously weaknesses look like strengths, but other areas that were strengths a season ago are cause for concern.

Defensive Line

As I mentioned on the podcast earlier this week, the Colts defensive line is showing early signs of being the best unit the team has put on the field for a very long time. The number of players who can legitimately get pressure on the quarterback is impressive — Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, John Chick, Eric Foster, Drake Nevis, Tommie Harris, and Fili Moala. It’s a deadly group, it’s a deep group, and it will give a lot of teams fits in the regular season.

The bigger surprise is that Indy is developing an impressive run stuffing unit as well. With Antonio Johnson, Fili Moala, Tyler Brayton, and Jamaal Anderson on the field, there is a lot of size and run stopping expertise available.

Against the Packers, Freeney tallied two sacks and Harris one. Chick had a sure-sack foiled by a blatant hold that went uncalled, but he has looked very good so far in preseason. It will be difficult for the team to justify cutting him.

The team allowed only 45 yards on the ground at a 2.2 yards per carry clip. The longest Packers run went for nine yards.

There are going to be some talented and promising defensive linemen not on the 53-man roster this year. When is the last time Colts fans could say something like that? “We have more talented and promising defensive linemen on the preseason roster than we can even keep on the team.” Unheard of.

Linebackers

Ernie Sims saw the field for the first time in a Colts uniform, following his recovery from an appendectomy, and he was very active in the first half. Pat Angerer showed impressive coverage skills, even though a pass down the middle to Jermichael Finley netted a touchdown. With a match-up like that, all you can really ask for a linebacker running down field is to stick as close to the receiver as possible and attempt to get his hands up to knock down a pass. Angerer jumped a moment late but nearly broke up an excellent throw from Aaron Rodgers.

Angerer picked up a sack. Wheeler added another late in the game, from a standing defensive end position.

Wheeler has played inspired football in the preseason. With Adrian Moten as the other likely linebacker to make the squad, the group looks talented and deep.

Safety

Without Antoine Bethea, there was a big opportunity for the safety hopefuls to get a lot of time on the field. The good news is that there are some talented players on the team who should provide promising depth.

Joe Lefeged should make the team because he plays solid defense and has added special teams value as a returner. David Caldwell tallied six total tackles and while he was not flawless, he continues to show enough skill that keeping him around on the practice squad seems likely, at minimum. Mike Newton terrorized passing lanes. He picked up an interception, knocked down another pass, and had great reads on the quarterback’s eyes when the ball was thrown in his direction.

Although Al Afalava did not play, he has looked good in preseason and could also be a front runner for a potential roster spot. If Bethea and Bullitt are joined by any combination of Afalava, Lefeged, Newton, and Caldwell there is reason to be confident that the group has talent and a lot of upside. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the safety depth a team strength just yet, but there is potential.

Cornerback

Outside of Jerraud Powers, there is much to be desired at cornerback. Jacob Lacey has not been inspiring anyone in preseason and he was abused against Green Bay. Justin Tryon seems like the second most talented cornerback on the team but for some reason the coaching staff seems unconvinced.

The young players behind them include 2010 third round pick Kevin Thomas, Terrance Johnson, Cornelius Brown, Brandon King, and Chris Rucker. It is rather likely that Thomas makes the team based on his draft caliber alone — he has shown some flashes but is clearly not ready to usurp the top three just yet.

Rucker was unable to play against the Packers so the group could be a little better if he continues improving, but fans won’t be able to reach a final determination on that until, and if, he plays against the Bengals. The others are somewhat indistinguishable at this point in the preseason. Johnson and Brown have done a couple of things to get noticed but there is very little to inspire a great deal of confidence at this point.

I would still not be surprised if the Colts brought back Kelvin Hayden after final cuts for a more reasonable price.

Offensive Line

While this group is still undergoing some growing pains, there is an awful lot to like about how things are shaping up. First, consider that the Colts put up 112 rushing yards, on a 4.1 yard per carry average. This was no accident, the line was opening up some legitimate holes for running backs for much of the game. Second, even though there were some struggles with communication trying to handle pass rushers like Clay Matthews, the group did not seem like it will have a lot of difficulty providing enough time for a quick-release quarterback like Manning to keep his jersey clean.

Anthony Castonzo showed continued development and looks like the left tackle the Colts have been trying to find since Tarik Glenn retired. Ryan Diem looked comfortable and capable at right guard. With Jeff Linkenbach already more capable than Diem at right tackle and Ijalana continuing to develop, the right side of the line should be stronger than last year.

In all, there is reason to believe there will be both quality starters and depth at almost every position along the line. It is certainly possible that no particular position will be “dominant,” but it won’t need to be for the Colts offense to improve.

Running Backs

For veteran running back Joseph Addai, Friday’s game must have been a shock. He hit the line of scrimmage more than once with room to really do something and he took advantage of it. Addai led the team with 44 yards on 8 carries, at a 5.1 yard per carry clip.

Delone Carter continues to develop in the offense and looks like a player who will be capable of doing damage on the ground. He may be considered the team’s short-yardage specialist but he has enough straight ahead speed that if he finds a crease, he can get chunks of yards in a hurry. Not to mention, it’s hard enough to get him down meeting him head on in the hole, trying to tackle him from the side will prove more difficult.

Donald Brown was unable to do a whole lot with the ball but he did show marked improvement as a blocker. It is clear that he has spent a great deal of time focusing on developing his pass blocking skills, which could help him justify his spot on the team. This is still a make or break year for Brown.

Although there is a log-jam of backs vying for a fourth spot on the roster it seems like only two have a solid chance. Devin Moore could make the team because he brings special teams value as a kick returner. Javarris James could stick with the team because he has experience and has improved as a pass blocker. Neither Chad Spann or Darrin Evans have distinguished themselves enough from their competition to command anything greater than a practice squad spot.

Wide Receivers

Reggie Wayne returned to the field on a mission to liberate Paintertopia. Painter entered the field on a mission to take all the help he could get from the veteran receiver. Wayne caught six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown — he abused the Packers secondary and looks in mid-season form.

Pierre Garcon was Pierre Garcon. He failed to haul in passes that were routine and made an amazing catch on a long pass near the goal line. If he can somehow think more about catching routine balls, instead of what he is going to do after the catch, he could be a force in the NFL. Until then, boom or bust.

David Gilreath took a big step toward a roster spot with his performance last night. While he only had two catches for 13 yards, one went for a touchdown. He averaged 10 yards per punt return with a long of 30 yards. Final roster spots are filled with players who have the ability to play multiple roles. Gilreath showed he is one of those guys.

With Austin Collie, Blair White, and Anthony Gonzalez still on the sidelines, the remaining receivers are likely playing for a practice squad spot. At this point, Chris Brooks may be making the biggest case with his excellent fade route for a touchdown.

Tight Ends

Outside of blocking, the tight ends were mostly non-existent. Against teams that like to blitz a lot, that may be the case even during the regular season.

Quarterbacks

Painter’s performance in the second quarter was probably enough to ensure that he stays on the roster, assuming the Colts keep three quarterbacks. Orlovsky blew his chances when he followed up Painter’s best performance with a lackluster one. The team will get to see how Kerry Collins fairs in the offense against the Bengals.

In all, there was a lot to like about the Colts performance against the Packers. The defensive line looks like an emerging force, Painter played well enough to convince some that he can win some games if he has to play, the offensive line continues to solidify, and the running game looked promising.

Give Peyton Manning an offense with an improved offensive line and running game, along with healthy receiving weapons, and he will put up a lot of points. Give him a defense with an aggressive line that creates havoc behind the line of scrimmage, even against the run, and a lot of opponents are going to need a handicap. If Polian can work his magic again to shore up the secondary before Week 1, there is very little about the Colts that should make fans uncomfortable.

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