INDIANAPOLIS — Will the Indianapolis Colts stick to tradition in Saturday's game against the San Francisco 49ers?
They very well might.
Or, well, they might not.
With Saturday's contest being the third preseason game, most NFL teams treat that as a "final tune-up," as Colts head coach Frank Reich called it, for the regular season. Starters on both sides of the ball traditionally play about a half, if not a little longer, and then sit out the fourth and final preseason contest.
Reich confirmed most of the starters won't play in that final preseason game on Thursday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but as for the length of time they're in the ballgame against the 49ers, that's a little bit more up in the air.
"I don't pigeon-hole us into it has to be a half or come out for the third quarter," Reich said. "I just want to kind of keep it fluid there."
Instead, Reich wants to manage the playing time more on a drive-by-drive basis. Did the unit get what it wanted to out of this game? Did they put some points on the board? Did they get some big stops on defense?
"You want to end on a good note," Reich said. "You want to get a rhythm and score some points. When you feel like you are kind of hitting a high note just say, 'Okay that's good, let's kind of keep rolling with the next group.'"
What's clear is that, at least offensively, the Colts want to look much sharper on Saturday than they did on Monday night in their second preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens.
The first-team offense was on the field for five total drives and had four three-and-outs and one turnover. They did help put points on the board in their remaining drive, but that was due in large part to the foot of Adam Vinatieri, who nailed a 57-yard field goal.
Perhaps a blessing in disguise for the unit is the quick turnaround from Week 2 to Week 3 of the preseason, tight end Jack Doyle said.
"It's always good to get back out there whether that's practice – the best way to get back out there – or a game coming up quickly," Doyle said. "You just want to get back out there when you feel like you're not in a rhythm. You just want to keep working at it. That's the competitive nature of people who play this game or coach this game. So yeah, it makes you excited to get back out there and keep finding that groove."
Reich said the Colts put in two quality practices this week to get ready for the 49ers contest. This time around, because it is treated like a dress rehearsal of sorts, a little more game planning is typically implemented than a usual preseason game.
But the main focus simply remains on improvement. Whatever the team needs to do to get ready for its season opener Sept. 9 against the Bengals is paramount.
"Yeah, you would like to go into every practice, every game, every meeting and come out of it, you know, 'Yeah, we accomplished this, this and this,'" quarterback Andrew Luck said. "We know we will never be perfect. We will work to get there. I think more importantly, more important than that is, 'Hey, did we get better? Did we improve upon the things we wanted to improve on, as an offense, as a defense, as a special teams, personally, as a team?' So I think that's the most important part of it."
Some other items to keep an eye on during Saturday's preseason game against the 49ers:
» Safety Malik Hooker and tackle/guard Denzelle Good are expected to make their 2018 debuts. While Good, who is coming off a hamstring injury, remains in competition for the starting right tackle job, he won't be given a huge workload in his first game back on Saturday. Reich said Good is expected to get about 20 snaps with the second-team offense.
» Speaking of right tackle, Reich said rookie Braden Smith will not be the starter for Saturday's game — at that position, anyway. Smith, who started Monday night against the Ravens at right tackle, will be at his natural position of right guard this week. Any number of other players could get the start at right tackle against the 49ers, including Joe Haeg, Austin Howard, Tyreek Burwell, Le'Raven Clark, J'Marcus Webb or even Mark Glowinski.
» The Colts "want to be cautious" with starting defensive tackle Denico Autry, who suffered an ankle injury Monday against the Ravens. Reich said "I don't think it's real serious, but … we know what Denico can do. He's had a really good camp." Translation: don't be surprised if Autry doesn't play on Saturday and definitely on Thursday in the last preseason game. Look for Hassan Ridgeway, who has an NFL preseason-leading four sacks so far, to possibly get increased reps in Autry's absence.
» Running back Robert Turbin, who suffered an ankle injury in the Colts' preseason opener Sept. 9 against the Seattle Seahawks, was able to return to the practice field in a limited capacity for the first time on Thursday, but Reich said his chances to play on Saturday are "slim." If he's good to go by Thursday's preseason finale against the Bengals, however, Turbin could be a candidate to get a lot of carries, considering he's suspended the first four games of the regular season.
» In a bit of bad luck, the Colts saw three cornerbacks miss practice time on Thursday in Nate Hairston (hamstring), Quincy Wilson (hand) and D.J. White (groin). They're all considered day-to-day, the team said, but if they don't play on Saturday, look for guys like Chris Milton, Lashard Durr and Robert Jackson, among others, to get increased snaps at corner. Henre' Toliver could get some more looks at the nickel cornerback spot, too.