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5 Things To Watch: Colts' First Preseason Game Vs. Carolina Panthers

The Colts kick off the 2021 preseason at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Here are five things to watch for when the Colts take the field.

1. The Quarterbacks.

Obviously, right? Sunday will be the first time both Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger play in an NFL game. Heck, Thursday's joint practice with the Panthers was the first time either quarterback faced a different NFL team's defense.

Eason will start, with the tentative plan to have him play into the second quarter and then have Ehlinger tag in. When the Colts play the Vikings on Aug. 21, that'll be reversed, Reich said, with Ehlinger starting and Eason subbing in.

The Colts will "semi-game plan" for the Panthers, per Brady, so there will be a little bit extra on Eason and Ehlinger's shoulders from a scheme perspective.

"Looking for them, more of the same, I feel like they've been getting better," Reich said of what he wants to see from the quarterbacks. "It's not been perfect but move the sticks, make the play in situational football that we need to make to extend the drive, to finish the drive, and then make good decisions. Be a good decision maker.

"We think we have a good football team, right, so if one of those guys is our starting quarterback Week 1 they don't have to be a superstar. We want to see them go out and play good football, trust the teammates around them, trust the running game, make the plays in the play-action game and then on third down and red zone, where you gotta be right, be right."

Also: Sunday will mark the first time Eason and Ehlinger will ditch their red non-contact jerseys actually be live in an NFL game.

"It's kind of fun. You know you're going to get hit and there's something about that that brings out the best in you," Reich said. "I'm counting on that bringing out the best."

Sunday's game, too, will be critical for developing trust for Eason and Ehlinger not only with their wide receivers/running backs/tight ends/offensive linemen, but with Reich and Brady, too.

"As coaches, we want to grow that trust with (Eason) and we want to see that in live action," Brady said back in June. The same goes for Ehlinger, of course.

It's not yet known when Carson Wentz will return from his Aug. 2 foot procedure — Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay told the quarterback earlier this month he wants him 100 percent when he's back — but if he's not, Sunday's game and then next Saturday's trip to Minnesota will go a long way toward determining who starts against the Seattle Seahawks.

2. World's Strachan-gest Man

Mike Strachan's last name is pronounced "Strawn," but you probably knew that by now. The 2021 seventh-round pick from Division II Charleston has been one of the stories of training camp and has made splash plays almost every day, including an eye-popping show of size and strength in snagging a touchdown during Thursday's practice with the Panthers. He followed up Friday by high-pointing a deep ball from Ehlinger in one of the highlights of the day's action.

"I want to see him make some plays, which he did," Reich said after Thursday's practice. "He had one bust that I saw on a route, but you know, really still optimistic about Mike. We want to see him make those big plays, he made a couple of those today. Excited about his development, he's still heading in the right direction."

There still are aspects of the offense Strachan is working on nailing down, as Reich alluded to. And Strachan hasn't played an actual, live football game since 2019, since Charleston's season was postponed last year due to the pandemic.

But if Strachan looks anything like the guy who's made plays at Grand Park on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, you'll notice No. 17 quite a bit.

"We thought with him coming from a small school, he would be rawer than what he is," Brady said. "He's actually pretty intelligent as far as just how he's trying to set up routes."

3. "Strap The Chinstrap Up"

The Colts' defensive line — missing DeForest Buckner and Kwity Paye, by the way — annihilated the Panthers' offensive line in one-on-one pass rushing drills during Thursday's practice. It was quite a show of force for Brian Baker's group, which has swarmed with disruption throughout training camp.

"I want people, when they see us on the film, say holy cow these guys play fast, they run sideline to sideline, they're up the field, they're knocking guys back, they're pursuing to the ball, they're getting the ball out and it's energy every snap," Baker said earlier in camp. "And I want that frickin' offensive line, when they see us on film, understand they gotta strap the chinstrap up and they gotta do it for 60 minutes. Alright. And that still ain't going to be enough. That's the tempo, that's how we want to play up front. That's the personality that we're trying to get these guys to go to."

Sunday will be the first opportunity for Baker's unit to show that energy and physicality in a game setting. But based on that one incredible one-on-one period — with guys like Andrew Brown, Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu, Isaac Rochell, Antwaun Woods and Grover Stewart dominating — and throughout the last few weeks, you'll see it translate from the practice field to preseason games, and then into the regular season and beyond.

4. O-Line Depth

The Colts will be without center Ryan Kelly (elbow), left guard Quenton Nelson (foot) and left tackle Eric Fisher (Achilles) during Sunday's game, meaning we'll get a good look at where the team's depth stands behind those three players who've been named to a combined eight Pro Bowl rosters.

Will Holden, Sam Tevi and Julie'n Davenport have got looks at left tackle in camp; Chris Reed, formerly of the Panthers, has slid in at left guard. And at center, the Colts rotated through Reed, Joey Hunt, Will Fries and Jake Eldrenkamp at that spot with Kelly and Danny Pinter out on Friday.

"It's giving good quality reps to some of these other guys – just creating depth for our offense, which is going to be beneficial throughout the season," Brady said.

Center will be interesting to watch given the lack of experience at that position for most of those guys (only Hunt has played center in an NFL game before). But the Colts have someone who can help on their coaching staff in assistant offensive line coach and Pro Football Hall of Fame center Kevin Mawae – who, too, was part of the Chicago Bears' coaching staff in 2016 that successfully converted Pro Bowler Cody Whitehair to center on short notice.

"He always has great advice," Reed said. "He played 16 years in the NFL, Hall of Famer, so he's got a depth of knowledge we like to tap into all the time. He's a great resource for us." 

5. Who Else Shines?

First things first: Reich said a number of starters on both sides of the ball won't play on Sunday. Panthers coach Matt Rhule is keeping all his No. 1s on the sideline.

Reich said he does plan to get his starters some playing time in the preseason with upcoming trips to Minnesota and Detroit this month. But for Sunday, it might be an extended opportunity for guys fighting to make the roster to show what they can do.

The Colts have fostered strong competition for roster spots over the last two weeks. We highlighted above some of the players who've already made strong first impressions, but who else steps up and flashes on Sunday will be important to watch for all 60 minutes.

That could mean someone like Andre Chachere, who was praised earlier in camp by defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus for not only his play, but his positional versatility (he can play safety, nickel and outside corner, Eberflus said). Or a tight end like Farrod Green or Julian Thomas, both of whom have got some opportunities early in camp.

It could be any player who gets on the field, really. So stay tuned for the entire game — you might see someone playing himself on to the roster, after all.

The Indianapolis Colts hit the field for their 13th practice of training camp.

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