By TOM JAMES
With Sunday’s regular-season opener with the Oakland Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium coming up quickly, the Indianapolis Colts still have more than a few questions that need to be answered.
First and foremost, just how much production are the Colts going to get from a retooled offensive line? With a pair of new starters in offensive guard Donald Thomas and offensive tackle Gosder Cherilis, Indianapolis needs to find some consistency in both run and pass blocking.
Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo, offensive guard Mike McGlynn and center Samson Satale are the three returning starters.
But Castanzo missed the Colts’ final pre-season game with a sprained knee. McGlynn was also sidelined later in the pre-season with a bruised knee. Both are expected to be in the starting lineup against the Raiders.
Indianapolis drafted a pair of offensive linemen — guard Hugh Thornton and center Khaled Holmes — to push some of the veterans. But Thornton and Holmes were both sidelined for most of training camp, each with high ankle sprains.
So the jury is still out. Will the Colts offensive line be better than the one which allowed quarterback Andrew Luck to be sacked 41 times as a rookie and struggled to provide enough open space for the running backs? That all remains to be seen.
Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano, though, remains optimistic.
“I thought they’ve done a nice job. You saw all the work that we put in as far as the run game goes. Those guys are starting to gel and starting to click and they’re coming together every day and they’re getting better every day and they’re working at it. From a communication standpoint, the communication is getting better. They’re getting on the same page so the run game and pass protection, they’re picking things up,” Pagano voiced.
“You’ve got a little bit of leakage here and there, some pressure. [But] I think our offensive line has gotten better each week and I think they’ll continue to progress and get better as we move forward.”
Developing the cohesion along the offensive line, with a couple of new pieces, is paramount.
“The good thing about it, a guy like Donald and Gosder were here the whole offseason. That whole group was here the entire offseason. Other than maybe a day here, a day there, that group was together. Now I know it wasn’t in pads and all that stuff. But from a terminology standpoint and learning a new system and [offensive coordinator] Pep’s [Hamilton] terminology, those type of things, they’ve been together,” the Colts coach said. “I’m not worried about that. They spend a great deal of time together. I think by the time we hit the opener against Oakland, we’ll be in good shape there.”
With the injuries along the offensive line during the pre-season, veteran backups Joe Reitz and Jeff Linkenbach have helped to provide some relief. Reitz and Linkenbach are both versatile enough to play offensive guard and offensive tackle, if needed.
“Oh yeah, [Linkenbach’s] got four-position value. He can play both tackle spots. He can play the guards. He’s a really bright guy and understands everything that’s going on. You got to credit a guy like that,” Pagano stressed. “He just comes in here every day, prepares and practices as well as anybody. He’s durable. He’s accountable. You can rely on him. So his versatility and position-wise really gives him a ton of value.”
The same can be said for Reitz, who was signed as an offensive tackle, was moved inside to guard and was moved back outside during training camp.
“We know Joe’s an athletic guy, a big guy and got size for that position, obviously. He [has come] in [during the pre-season] and did a nice job,” Pagano said.
HOW ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
The Colts’ offensive line isn’t the only question mark to begin the regular season.
The defense has also been energized by the addition of a handful of new starters — nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, strong side linebacker Erik Walden, left cornerback Greg Toler and safety LaRon Landry.
All five were veteran free agent signees during the offseason. And all five are expected to make an immediate impact.
Indianapolis coaches and fans got a taste of just how good the defense could be during the team’s two pre-season wins. The Colts did not allow a touchdown in victories over the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns.
Starters got a heavy dose of playing time in those two games, which should help the newcomers quickly mesh with the team’s key returnees — defensive end Cory Redding, outside linebacker Robert Mathis, inside linebacker Pat Angerer, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Antoine Bethea.
“Preseason for us is an evaluation process like every team. But I think for us we’re also trying to fit guys into their mold and we’re also trying to find out what they can do as well,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky explained.
“With LaRon [Landry], I saw tape when he was with the Jets, but I’m saying, ‘How can he benefit us? Is it pressuring him more? Is it sending him more? Is it him covering?’ All those things. In the post, is it him being a drop-down safety? So all those things come in to factor when you’re around a guy and you see him actually live than on tape.”
If there is an area where the Colts could thrive this season, it’s in the defensive backfield. The dual combinations of Davis and Toler at cornerback along with Landry and Bethea at safety are intriguing.
Manusky, for one, likes what he’s sees at cornerback.
“I think number one: both physical guys. They can play press. And they understand the game of football. Across the board, those two guys, and actually with Darius ([Butler] playing as well and then with Cassius [Vaughn], we got a good group of guys right now that are working well together,” he said.
“I think communication with the safeties during this preseason has been real good. They’re accepting the challenge and they’re going out there and playing pretty good football right now.”
Toler has a chance to be a difference maker in the secondary.
“He’s like a thoroughbred. He’s built like that. He can run. He can change direction and he’s got speed and he can press receivers at the line of scrimmage. A guy that has all those skills, that’s what you look for in a cornerback and that’s what he has. Different technique when he came from Arizona, a little bit different than what we’re teaching,” Manusky noted. “So it’s always a transition, even with Cassius last year and Darius, even when we picked up Vontae last year. All those guys, it’s technique and fundamentals. We always rely on that. That’s what he’s been doing. He’s doing a good job of staying with those and sometimes when he doesn’t, it seems it’s not the good things that happen.”
COLTS BY THE NUMBERS
Indianapolis returns 13 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters from the 2012 season.
Six of the Colts’ top eight scorers are back along with their top three rushers, seven of their top eight receivers, and eight of the team’s top 10 tacklers.
Indianapolis signed several veteran free agents during the offseason, but two of the most closely watched figure to be running back Ahmad Bradshaw and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Both come to the Colts with some baggage. Bradshaw has had foot issues during his NFL career and underwent two surgical procedures after last season. Heyward-Bey has had consistency issues with his overall play.
But if they can produce up the abilities, they’ll give Indianapolis some much needed additional offensive firepower.
Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney and assistant coach Bruce Arians.
Yes, Freeney’s sack totals dipped in recent years. But he was a player that other teams had to account for when drawing up their offensive blocking schemes. He had a knack for coming up with big plays when needed the most.
As for Arians, it’s not so much the X’s and O’s that will be missed. New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is good at what he does. But the former offensive coordinator/interim head coach had a definite swagger about him that rubbed off on Indianapolis’ younger players.
As expected, the Colts made an interesting personnel move Sunday as rookie running back Kerwynn Williams was waived. Williams had made it past the team’s initial final cuts Saturday.
He was quickly replaced on the roster by rookie tight end Jack Doyle, who played at Western Kentucky. Doyle — an Indianapolis native who played at Cathedral High School — had been in the Tennessee Titans’ training camp.
Six players were named to Indianapolis’ practice squad: outside linebacker Daniel Adongo, center Thomas Austin, quarterback Chandler Harnish, tight end Dominique Jones, inside linebacker Josh McNary and cornerback Sheldon Price.
With two additional spots available on the practice squad, Williams could return if he is not signed by another team.