Practice? We’re talking about practice?

 

INDIANAPOLIS — Believe it or not, there was a lot to take from the Colts’ mini-camp practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Wednesday. With the sun shining bright and retractable roof wide open, the setting couldn’t have been any more perfect for fans to get their first taste of this new era of Colts football.

I for one came away feeling a lot better about our beloved Colts.

Without any heavy contact permitted during these mini-camps, it’s hard to really analyze a lot of what is going on in the trenches. Whether or not the Colts are getting solid pressure defensively or successfully protecting from pressure on offense is something we’ll have to wait to see. The same applies for the run offense and defense.

However, there are some signs of good things to come in other key areas.

For starters, of course, Andrew Luck looks every bit the part of a franchise QB, and he’s barely gotten his feet wet. Even though he missed a lot of receivers by a foot or two most of the day, he throws a very catchable ball. I’m sure by the end of training camp he won’t be missing any of those open targets, either. It’s hard to assess much else due to no pressure defensively, but if you were there you got the sense he’s already ahead of the curve. Repetition with his receivers will go a long, long way in turning those missed throws into big gains.

During the play-action and rush offense drill portion of the practice, Luck was showing good run fakes and really moved well laterally to make throws downfield. Most of the formations during these drills had both rookie tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen on the field together. Nate wrote a little here about what he saw from the two-tight end sets. You could see right away how the pre-snap options at Luck’s disposal in these formations could create major headaches for opposing defenses.

Another solid portion of the practice was during the 2-minute drill. With the first team offense on the field, Luck directed a scoring drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Austin Collie on a nice fade route in the right corner of the endzone. Now, it’s important to remember there’s very little defense going on at this point, but the importance came in the execution of the no-huddle and play-calling during the 2-minute drill. It was hard to tell a difference between the past and present, and I truly expect the no-huddle or 2-minute offense to remain strengths for the organization as if the coaching staff and QB never changed.

Judging anything from the offensive line was tough, especially with key guys like Anthony Castonzo still missing. This will be an area of focus once training camp is under way. 

Now, defensively, it was very hard to sort through the action and find positives without real contact allowed. So, with that in mind, I spent all my time keeping an eye on how the team lined up on defense and whether or not guys were in good position in coverage on any given play. This is actually where things got a bit more interesting for an outsider.

The term “hybrid” has been tossed around early and often as the Colts are making the change
from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base defense schematically. Certainly we will see many hybrid looks, but we may also see truer 3-4 action than most are anticipating. For instance, defensive end Dwight Freeney was practically playing the role of a 3-4 outside linebacker throughout all the drills in Wednesday’s practice. Rarely did the All-Pro defensive end have his hands on the ground before the ball was snapped, even switching sides with his tag team pal Robert Mathis on multiple occasions.

While both players have tormented opposing quarterbacks for years as the league’s top edge rushing duo as 4-3 defensive ends, they’re already showing some glimpses of being versatile enough to play that 3-4 outside linebacker position.

For example, as outside linebackers in the 3-4, Freeney and Mathis will be dropping into coverage occasionally instead of the usual ‘rush the quarterback 99 percent of the time’ business they’ve been up to all these years. Mathis displayed good instincts on most of his drops in coverage, almost intercepting an Andrew Luck pass at one point. He looked comfortable in space to say the least. I was more worried about Freeney being able drop into coverage effectively, but he pleasantly surprised me several times by getting in good enough position to either break up a pass or make a tackle if contact were allowed at the time.

Very encouraging stuff, fans.

During another drill, defense was practicing blitz packages against the offense. It would be silly to analyze a lot of that action but I would like a note a few observations.

Jerry Hughes still looks pretty bad. Players weren’t going full throttle by any means, but I caught Hughes going all out trying to beat his man on an edge rush during one play. He is fighting to keep his roster spot when it comes down to it, so I wasn’t shocked to see the extra effort. Unfortunately, Hughes got manhandled by tight end Kyle Miller on the attempt. I hope I’m just wrong about what I saw. It will be a great disappointment if the scheme change doesn’t help Hughes finally make an impact for the Colts.

Also during the drill, safeties Antoine Bethea and Tom Zbikowski were sent on a couple of blitzes (mostly Bethea). Before the snap it was hard to tell who was going to blitz by how they lined up. As the ball was being snapped, one would drop into deep middle coverage and the other would crash to the offensive line. Some of the blitzes were very aggressive and had nobody deep, with both safeties covering receivers man-to-man. The aggression of this defense is easily going to be the biggest change for Colts fans after years of the play-it-safe Cover-2 scheme.

Schemes aren’t the only things changing in Indy.

ESPN blogger Paul Kuharsky spoke about a noticeable change in the behavior of the players during the three day minicamp, calling it “less serious” than in past years. I’d have to agree with Kuharsky, as players were taking part in some horseplay (Colts, horseplay, get it?) or some light-hearted joking around. To recall one of these moments, Mathis was jumping around and chanting Luck’s name during the snap count, and would eventually get a round of laughter after the play resulted in an incomplete pass by the rookie quarterback.

Don’t get it twisted, though. A serious tone remained throughout the practice. It’s just a different type of serious than the likes of what we’re used to from the Manning era. Just goes to show it’s possible to be serious and have fun at the same time. The frenetic pace of the Wednesday practice was impressive, and the command the coaches have on quickly installing the new systems both offensively and defensively is very apparent.

All in all, the free preview brought more optimism about the direction in which this team is heading.

Training camp can’t start soon enough.

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