Indianapolis Colts: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of the Preseason
Two games down, two to go.
The preseason is halfway over, and what we've seen so far from Indianapolis has many people excited for the 2014 season. The Colts' first team has been impressive, with both the defense and offense putting together some success over the last two weeks.
Depth, however, may be a different story. The Colts allowed both the New York Jets and the New York Giants to come back and win the game down the stretch, with the Giants overcoming a 26-point deficit.
With two more preseason games left before final cuts and just one left with the starters getting action, let's narrow down what we've learned already.
Offensive Line Surprising, but Still Needs Work
The Colts offensive line has been devastated by injury and was already a weakness going into the season. After losing Donald Thomas for the season and Khaled Holmes for a few weeks with an ankle sprain, the Colts were forced to play players at different spots and with little experience.
Fortunately, the Colts have actually held up pretty well in pass protection thus far.
Quarterback Andrew Luck has had time to throw, although that's been aided by a short, quick passing game. Rookie Jack Mewhort and undrafted free agent rookie Jonotthan Harrison have both held their own in pass protection. Veteran tackle Gosder Cherilus was actually the only first-team offensive lineman to have a negative grade in pass protection.
As a group, the first-team offensive line has done well. But in run blocking and as individuals, there have been some hiccups. Jack Mewhort struggled a bit in the first game, then did not play against the Giants. Lance Louis filled in in his absence.
Running Is Futile
With Ahmad Bradshaw still out, the only back with any sort of extensive experience is Trent Richardson. With a subpar offensive line performance in the running game, the Colts have not been able to find any sort of success on the ground.
Richardson, who has 34 yards on 14 carries so far this preseason, has not looked much different from last season. Hampered by the line's performance, Richardson's not particularly good at finding small creases. He's strong and has great balance, but his vision and anticipation are lacking, which are crucial when running behind a bad offensive line.
On the positive side, Richardson had an eight-yard run against the Giants that was the best I've ever seen from him in regard to his burst and vision.
The other backs, including Zurlon Tipton, Dan Herron and Phillip Tanner, have not fared any better. As a team (not including quarterback scrambles), the Colts ran for 44 yards on 26 carries on Saturday. If the Colts are going to attempt to be balanced at all, that must improve.
Pep Hamilton Has Learned
My big question coming into the season offensively was how offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton would begin games. After nearly a full season of trying to establish a power running game and starting slow, Hamilton made a shift near the end of 2013 to a more spread, uptempo offense to start contests.
It paid off, as the Colts looked more explosive than they had all season despite being short-handed at the skill positions.
After opening up with a quick first drive against the Jets, it seemed that Hamilton was ready to bring that uptempo offense to 2014 as well. That was confirmed against the Giants, where the Colts once again spent much of their time operating out of a shotgun formation and kept things fairly uptempo throughout the first quarter.
There are still areas that Hamilton can improve, including third downs (Colts converted just 30 percent on Saturday) and the red zone. Mario Harvey is not a good weapon, for example. But overall, there have been some very positive signs from the Hamilton-led offense thus far.
Hakeem Nicks Is Much, Much Better Than Darrius Heyward-Bey
For the third consecutive season, the Colts signed a reclamation project at wide receiver. But Hakeem Nicks was clearly a step above Donnie Avery and Darrius Heyward-Bey before he got to Indianapolis. Nicks at least had some history of productivity in the NFL, gaining more than 1,000 receiving yards in both 2010 and 2011.
There has been some talk of Nicks disappointing in camp, sparked by Pep Hamilton questioning whether he was in "game shape" or not.
Nicks has still clearly been the third receiver on the team behind T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne, but he's noticeably better than the rest of the receivers on the roster. With Hilton and Wayne out against the Giants, Nicks proved that the Colts really do have three players capable of taking on the load of a No. 1 receiver.
Nicks caught five balls for 53 yards, leading the Colts in receiving while also having a long catch-and-run wiped out by a silly taunting penalty. With it being the preseason, there's some grace there on the penalty.
Flags, Flags and More Flags
With the NFL's instruction to put more emphasis on illegal contact by the defense and the fact that the preseason is filled with rookies, camp bodies and practice squad players, the 2014 preseason has been a flag fest.
In the Colts' loss to the Giants, there were 26 penalties called, 13 on each team. Last season, the Colts were the least-penalized team in the game with 4.1, while the Giants were ninth with 5.7 penalties per game, according to NFLpenalties.com. The difference in the preseason has been staggering, disrupting the flow of the game and wiping out too many plays.
And while illegal contact is a legitimate penalty that should be enforced correctly, it's seemed to have gone too far. There have been far too many penalties called on minor incidental contact for my liking, both on penalties on the Colts defense and penalties that helped Indianapolis' offense.
The problem has been widespread throughout the league. According to SB Nation's Kevin Nogle, this year's preseason has averaged nearly six more penalties per game in the first 22 games. If this continues into the regular season, the NFL could have a problem on its hands.
But, it's important to remember that preseason is always more flag-filled, partly by design and partly because of the inexperience of many of the players. Former referee Jim Daopoulos had some insightful words published on Comcast Sportsnet this morning:
We're in the preseason right now and they have over twenty developmental officials and they're just trying to learn the game right now. They are basically telling them, 'get out there and throw [flags] and we'll tell you what's good.' It's a learning process right now. I know it's kind of tough for everyone to watch, we hate watching all these flags. It's just nature of what goes on in the preseason in the NFL.
The Most Talented Defensive Line in Years
The Colts have often had a defensive line problem in recent years. Although Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were always pass-rushing phenoms, the rest of the defensive line has been lacking, to say the least. It was a big reason why the Colts' run defense struggled for so many years and a big reason why the Colts struggled to also get a consistent pass rush last season.
So far in the 2014 preseason, the Colts look like they might just have their most talented defensive line yet.
The starting lineup is stout, with Cory Redding and Arthur Jones flanking third-year nose tackle Josh Chapman. Redding and Jones were both very good in 2013 (Jones with the Ravens), and Chapman has been eye-catching this preseason, earning a positive-2.5 grade against the run in just 23 snaps according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The defensive line has depth as well, with a quickly developing Montori Hughes and Ricky Jean Francois coming back and undrafted rookie Zach Kerr making waves. Kerr had a team-high positive-3.5 grade from PFF against the Giants, making an impact both in pass rush and run defense.
The success of the line has opened things up for the linebackers to make plays, and because of it, the defense has been impressive, especially the first and second team.
Undrafted Free Agents Impressing
Along with the aforementioned Zach Kerr, the Colts have several rookie UDFAs that may be playing their way onto the team.
Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy had a very good game against the Giants, playing well in coverage (positive-1.3 grade by PFF overall) and also participating on special teams. Purifoy returned two punts for 37 yards against the Giants. If Purifoy keeps up his strong play, he'll be a favorite to stay on the team. He's currently battling with Marcus Burley and Sheldon Price for the final cornerback spot.
Center Jonotthan Harrison has been forced into the starting lineup with Holmes out, and the line has transitioned quite seamlessly. Other than some snap issues against the Jets, Harrison has been more than adequate. There are still some chemistry problems that could be ironed out, but Harrison has fit in quite well overall.
Though he was not a favorite to make the roster, Dewey McDonald is forcing people to take notice with his recent preseason play. McDonald has a positive-3.3 grade from PFF over the last two games, tied with Kerr for the second-highest grade on the defense.
Depth Is Still an Issue
While the team has many reasons to be excited, there are still valid concerns, led by the team's lack of depth across the roster. The defensive line and wide receiver groups have some depth, but the rest of the team is lacking, to say the least.
Against both the Jets and Giants, the Colts allowed comeback wins, with the allowing of 27 unanswered fourth-quarter points to the Giants being especially concerning. Overall, it's the preseason and it doesn't mean much at all to how the Colts will play when the games start to count. But it does hint toward a lack of quality depth that most analysts expected from this team in 2014.
If the team suffers injury setbacks like they did in 2013 or any of the five years prior, there could be problems.
All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.