INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts have navigated 23 practices over 18 days of training camp at Anderson University.
The team traversed the course of its first week back at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center and its third preseason game last Friday.
Monday means the start of a very short game week as the Colts travel to Cincinnati on Wednesday for a Thursday night battle with the Bengals.
The Colts' roster must be at 80 players by 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday. When the team lines up at Houston on September 11, the roster will be much smaller.
All the work to get to this point and what is at stake in the coming days makes this a very important week for all parties associated with the team.
From Head Coach Jim Caldwell the message is clear. There are positions to be won on the team.
"Yes, there sure are. It's almost all across the board," said Caldwell. "This next game is a very important game, and it usually is for different reasons. Obviously, we're evaluating a broader range of individuals this time around in this last ballgame than we typically are this time of year."
The club approached last week against Green Bay as if it were a regular season game in terms of preparation – game-planning, practice schedule, meetings and in other ways. Starters knew they would be playing into the second half of the game as the team tried to replicate as closely as possible how a typical game week is structured as league play arrives in mid-September.
Indianapolis was able to gain a 14-10 halftime advantage that became 14-13 when most of the veterans exited the fray. The Colts built the lead to 21-13 before yielding 11 points in the final minute of a 24-21 loss last Friday.
The coaching staff worked through the weekend and the players had Sunday off after being back at work on Saturday. As the players convened Monday, Caldwell said the mindset for his players should be that there are jobs to be won.
"There's no question about it," he said. "I think that is one of the things that we make sure we communicate. Not only that, but there is a lot of improvement to be made. This week is a very important week for us. It's not one where we can look at it as an opportunity for us to heal and recuperate. We have to improve."
One player who had a good showing last week was third-year quarterback Curtis Painter. Painter directed the club on three long drives in the second quarter that accumulated 180 net yards and resulted in 14 points against Green Bay. He hit nine of 15 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns – 57 yards to wide receiver Reggie Wayne and seven yards to wide receiver Chris Brooks – in the period and for the game, he completed 11 of 21 passes for 171 yards and a 111.4 rating.
Prior to the third preseason game, Indianapolis signed veteran quarterback Kerry Collins. Collins will see action at Cincinnati this week, and the plan to use him will influence the short practice week, along with playing time for some players on Thursday.
For this specific reason and others for the Colts, week four of preseason could look a little more like week three than in past years.
"I'm really not sure as of yet," said Caldwell about how he plans to use veteran personnel at Cincinnati. "There are going to be some that will play, but who those veterans are just depends. We just want to give him (Kerry Collins) the best opportunity to run our system. We'll have to make sure he has some guys in place that know what they're doing."
The unusual 2011 off-season also has played a part in the evaluations that go on this time of year. Caldwell acknowledges the scope is broader this time around for roster decisions.
"Ordinarily you come into this time of the year and you're really looking at the back end of the roster," he said. "This year's different because you haven't had those five months, four or five months previous to this time, to work through some of those issues. So now we have to make those decisions within this frame of time."
As the team prepares for the finale, players on the 80-man roster surely will know there is something for which to play in Cincinnati.
"I think in terms of this ballgame, there are some veterans that are going to make their stand in this particular game," he said. "There may have been ordinary circumstances where they may not have played in this game where in this particular year they're playing and not only playing, (but) it's going to weigh heavily upon the decision whether or not they're going to be able to make it."
Among the things the Colts are known for is the willingness to infuse young talent into the program. Annually, the number of new players is in double digits. Knowing that, newcomers will be putting everything into these final days of preseason.
"I'm not sure how that will work in terms of just the numbers," said Caldwell. "I haven't (gotten) a real clear idea as of yet. We have some good, young guys who have been playing well for us. Hopefully, we'll get the best fit for us. Oftentimes, it does not matter for us what their rank is, we'll use the best man for the job."
Safety and team captain Melvin Bullitt is living proof of it. He made an impact in 2007 as an undrafted free agent. As preseason games conclude, he has advice for some of the younger players, too.
"I would tell them they are going to get an opportunity in the game. I definitely did," Bullitt said. "This is a great organization to come to as a rookie, especially undrafted, because it doesn't matter what round pick you were, you do what you're supposed to do (and) you're going to get a shot to make the roster. If you go out there and make plays, you'll be here when September starts."