Indianapolis Colts: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of the Preseason
With the third preseason game is supposed to come clarity. Week 3 of the NFL preseason is one in which teams play starters deep into the first half, if not into the third quarter. It's a week that, at its core, is aimed to shed light on the team, both on the first-string units and the bottom-dwellers who have to go through first cuts before the final preseason game.
A dominant defense through two weeks was picked apart by Drew Brees. A previously efficient offense turned the ball over and scored just 10 points on six drives.
What can we ascertain from these first three games? It's time to sift through the rubble.
Secondary: Potential Still Present
Sure, the Colts allowed the Saints to march up and down the field with little resistance on Saturday, even the first team. But it wasn't the fault of the starting secondary, which had exceptional coverage throughout the night.
The Saints were successful due to a couple indefensible throws from Drew Brees and utilizing mismatches against linebackers, not by taking advantage of the secondary. With Greg Toler playing at a high level, Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry healthy and Darius Butler back in his natural spot in the slot, the Colts' secondary is back at the level the front office hoped when they signed Toler and Landry last offseason.
This group has always had a high ceiling, but also questions.
Through three games, the potential is shining through, even with a second safety not yet solidified. The questions, due to both injury and inconsistent play, showed up last season. The Colts are hoping that this is the year the potential is reached. So far, the signs have been positive.
Offensive Line, Trent Richardson a Mixed Bag
While the secondary is leaning toward reaching its potential, the offensive line and running game have been decidedly more disappointing. The run blocking has been more bad than good, and it shows in the numbers. The Colts' first team ran for 19 yards on nine carries against New Orleans.
At the heart of it all, of course, is Trent Richardson, the oft-maligned, oft-defended back to which the front office hitched its cart to last September.
Over the last three games, Richardson has had two of the most decisive, hard-cut runs I've seen since he arrived in Indianapolis. But he's also displayed the indecisiveness and inability to find creases that plagued him in 2013, leading to his 2.55 yard-per-carry average (51 yards on 20 carries).
It continues to be hit-or-miss for this group, and that figures to continue this season until they prove otherwise.
Zach Kerr Is the Real Deal
When the Colts signed the 2014 crop of undrafted free agents, Zach Kerr immediately stood out as one who could potentially make the final roster.
Three games into the preseason, Kerr is proving to be as talented as any of the bench players on the roster. Kerr has a grade of positive-7.0 from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the highest grade of any Colt and the third-highest grade of any defensive tackle this preseason.
Kerr has been a force in both pass rush and run defense, adding a sack to his resume in the New Orleans game. Kerr has been an absolute force during the last two games and has earned a place on the roster behind third-year player Josh Chapman.
The Colts have had good luck with UDFAs over the last few years, and Kerr leads a group that could be very profitable for Indianapolis in 2014, which includes center Jonatthan Harrison and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.
Andrew Luck Still Needs to Earn His Spot Among the NFL's Elite
Over the offseason, the hype ran wild regarding Andrew Luck. NFL executives put him in the top tier with the Big Four quarterbacks, per Mike Sando of ESPN.com (subscription required), and NFL.com's Chris Wesseling named Luck in the tier just under the Big Four.
But Saturday's loss to New Orleans reminded us that Luck still has to prove himself worthy of such hype. He's done well in his first two seasons, carrying a below-average roster to playoff spots and a win. But the top-five numbers have not been there yet.
Luck was inconsistent and clearly bothered by a lack of pass protection against the Saints. Even in successful games against the New York Giants and New York Jets, Luck didn't show much throwing the ball downfield, preferring to dink and dunk his way down the field.
Dan Herron Has Earned Himself a Roster Spot
While Richardson has been disappointing, former Ohio State running back Dan "Boom" Herron has been a bright spot throughout the preseason.
Against the Saints, however, Herron was as good as he's been all month, running hard and decisively and showing his explosive side with a 43-yard run. Herron finished with 68 yards on eight carries and now has 104 yards on 18 carries for a 5.8-yard average.
But Herron also has been productive in the passing game, catching 10 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. Herron's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a big asset for Indianapolis' conservative offense.
He's been the most effective Colts back this preseason by a large margin. He'll sit behind Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at the start, but he's made sure that he has a job come September.
Robert Mathis Is Missed
Against the Jets and Giants, the Colts defense looked like they might be alright without Robert Mathis. The first-team defense was fast and managed to make the quarterbacks uncomfortable enough to look horrific.
But when facing an efficient, dangerous New Orleans offense, the Colts' pass rush was lacking. Not only did they allow Brees time to pick apart the short zones, they also allowed Luke McCown to come in and lead a length-of-the field scoring drive.
In addition to giving the quarterbacks time, the pass rush repeatedly lost containment and allowed the passers to turn into runners on crucial downs, picking up first downs with their legs despite not being particularly dynamic athletes.
Without Robert Mathis, the Colts could be in trouble against the Denver Broncos in Week 1. If the Colts can't find ways to get to the quarterback, the defense will be in trouble. With the unit's blitzes failing to land all night, fans are hoping that it's merely a case of simple preseason playbooks than anything else.
Nothing Is Guaranteed
The Colts are the heavy favorites to win the AFC South. Preseason wasn't going to change that, and it hasn't.
But preseason should give us a little nod of reminder that the AFC South, and a playoff spot, won't come guaranteed. The Colts, whose first team was impressive against the Jets and Giants before getting outmuscled by New Orleans, have the division's best quarterback, and that goes a long way.
That does not mean, however, that teams will just fold over.
Jacksonville Jaguar rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has been impressive and seems like he could be ready to take over the starting job sooner rather than later. If he's effective at all, the Colts will be hard-pressed to win in Jacksonville. The Houston Texans are in a similar boat, with a terrifying defensive line that will be fine if they get semi-competent play from their quarterback.
Preseason Perspective Needed
Sure, there were some negatives to take from the Colts' loss to New Orleans, but let's keep things in perspective.
In 2009, the Colts lost to the Lions in Week 3 of the preseason and only scored seven points in the starter-heavy first half. They went on to start the season 13-0 and went to the Super Bowl. In 2010, the Colts lost to the Packers 59-24 in Week 3 of the preseason but went on to start the season 6-1 before a wave of injuries hit.
Some preseason perspective: since '05, #colts with 9 preseason wins and 8 playoff appearances.— Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) August 24, 2014
The Colts have a history of preseason struggles, but it rarely translates to regular-season struggles. There are some trends to be pulled out, but overreactions are the bane of preseason.