A VERY, VERY IMPORTANT GAME

The Colts will play host to the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday in the 2010 preseason finale at Lucas Oil Stadium. It's a game that's critical to the evaluation of young players, Colts President Bill Polian and Head Coach Jim Caldwell say.

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Preseason Finale Critical to Evaluating Young Players, Caldwell Says

INDIANAPOLIS – To Jim Caldwell, the objective is clear. And it's very, very imant, too.

Caldwell, entering his second season as the Colts' head coach, said while the objective in the preseason finale Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in one sense is winning, in as real a sense it involves something equally important.

The regular season is approaching. Fast.

It's time to finalize a roster. It's time to make choices.

"It's still an evaluation process," Caldwell said as the Colts (0-3) prepared to play the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) in the 2010 preseason finale Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium at 7 p.m. "We still have a lot of guys that we need to take a real good look at to find out what we have, what they can do for us, where they fit.

"That's what this game will be. It'll be a huge part of our evaluation."

Because of that, the Colts' approach historically has been different in the preseason finale than in any of the first three games.

And Caldwell said he doesn't expect that to change.

The Colts in the first two preseason games – losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills – played their starters several series, with the first-team offense scoring on four of six possessions and with Caldwell saying afterward progress was made in several key areas.

This past week, front-line players played into the third quarter, taking an early 17-7 lead in a loss at Green Bay. But while the first three games were a combination of getting starters and front-line players prepared for the regular season and evaluating young players trying to make the roster, the Colts in the fourth preseason game historically have placed far more of an emphasis on the latter.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning last played in the preseason finale in 2004, and last season in a game at Cincinnati, the Colts played two regular starters in the preseason finale.

Caldwell said the Colts likely will follow much the same pattern.

"I think that would be the common refrain," Caldwell said. "If you look at our history, don't expect anything to deviate from the norm in that regard. Sometimes it depends a lot on the health of your team and those kinds of things as well. You take a look at those and have to adjust accordingly.

"We will look at that closer to game time and make our adjustments."

The Colts' emphasis on evaluation in the preseason finale stems in part from the organizational approach of extensively utilizing free-agent rookies when building their roster.

Linebacker Gary Brackett. Safety Melvin Bullitt. Defensive tackle Eric Foster. Cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Running back Dominic Rhodes. Wide receiver Terrence Wilkins. Defensive end Josh Thomas.

The former group played extensive roles last season, and the latter group played in the Colts' Super Bowl XLI victory following the 2006 season, as did Brackett. All made the Colts as undrafted rookie free agents, and Brackett said recently he doubted he would have made the roster without a chance to play extensively in the preseason.

Colts President Bill Polian said the preseason finale is critical to evaluating, and it's a reason he said teams will have to make significant adjustments should the NFL adopt an 18-game regular season that would reduce the preseason to two games.

"If we go to the enhanced season, then the football people have to find ways to create evaluative opportunities for the Pierre Garcons of the world, the Melvin Bullitts of the world, to make the team," Polian said. "We have to do that. And we have to have the ability to do that.

"That said, it's on us to find creative ways to do it, and we will."

Polian said not only are the roster positions at stake important, but at a higher number than many observers believe.

"The fact of the matter is that there are not 48 positions determined before we go to training camp," Polian said. "There are probably closer to 38 than 48. And when you're talking about a 53-man squad and a practice squad, which by the way counts, the fact of the matter is that when you go to camp there are probably 38 spots that you can count on, absent injury, and injury always occurs. So when you're really talking about it you probably figure that you have 35 spots for a 53-man team.

"I know there are some people that don't like to hear that, but the fact of the matter is there are a great many that are still open."

Which is why while Caldwell's not saying exactly how much starters and front-line players will play on Thursday, he did say to make no mistake: players fighting for roster spots will play. A lot.

"There are a number of guys that haven't had an opportunity to play a whole lot," Caldwell said. "This game is going to provide an opportunity for some. This is where they get an opportunity to show what they are capable of doing, how much they've learned and how they can apply it on the field of play. This is a very, very important ballgame."

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