WESTFIELD, Ind. — The Indianapolis Colts opened up their 2019 preseason Thursday night with a 24-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field.
The Colts didn't get much production from their first-team offense in its 2019 debut, while the first-unit defense held its own against a more-than-capable Buffalo offense led by second-year quarterback Josh Allen.
But from an evaluation standpoint, Thursday night's game was a prime opportunity for the Colts to throw some of their younger players out on the field and get some quality live snaps against an actual opponent. Head coach Frank Reich said there will be plenty to discuss Saturday when the team reconvenes at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind., to resume training camp practices.
"What we talked about in there, real briefly, is the way we roll is we gotta be real critical of ourselves — coaches and players," Reich told reporters after the game. "How can we get better? How can we learn from this film and have a great week and get a lot better this week?"
Here are the FIVE THINGS LEARNED from Thursday's loss to the Bills:
• TOUGH RUNNING: Reich's primary goal this season is for the Colts' offense to improve in the run game — so much so that he wants Indy to rank in the Top-5 in the league in rushing after ranking 20th in 2018. But the Colts didn't get off to the best of starts in this area Thursday night, as the first-team offense got a combined one yard on six total rushing attempts in its three series. Reich said after the game that his playcalling was intentionally vanilla, but that shouldn't have any bearing on how the run game should look. "We couldn't run the ball at all," Reich said. "Yeah we were vanilla … but it shouldn't matter in the run game. You know, we were expecting to run the ball. We know this is a very good run defense — Leslie Frazier is a great defensive coordinator; this defense is always tough to run it against year in and year out. But that was disappointing."
• SOLID HOMECOMING: The "Kelly" last name carries a lot of weight in Western New York, where Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly became a beloved Bills icon as the team's quarterback in the 1980s and 90s. And those genes certainly run in the family; Jim's nephew Chad has showed plenty of flashes of talent as a young NFL quarterback the last couple years. That trend continued Friday, as Chad Kelly, just miles away from his hometown of Buffalo, put on a show leading the Colts' offense, not only completing 13 of his 19 passing attempts for 121 yards but also running the ball four times for 53 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown keeper. "Chad, obviously, made a few nice plays; had the touchdown run and made a couple good throws under pressure," Reich said. "You know, I was happy for Chad, here coming home to Buffalo it was nice that he played well and did some good things in that second half."
• PHILLIPS THE MENACE: Carroll Phillips saw his 2018 season end prematurely after suffering a groin injury and being placed on injured reserve in mid-November. The Illinois product is clearly trying to make up for lost time, as he turned in a solid performance for the Indy defense Thursday night, finishing with two sacks and also recovering a fumble on a botched snap in the second quarter. Phillips is hoping to continue setting himself apart for an extremely talented Colts defensive line room. "When they put me out there, I just try to help the team out anyway I can, hustling to the ball, making big plays," he said after the game. "I just wanted to challenge myself while I was out there and see what I could do, make a few plays and try to help the team out"
• THEY'RE BACK: Speaking of guys coming back from injury, two Colts wide receivers made notable returns on Thursday in Deon Cain and Marcus Johnson. Cain, a 2018 sixth-round pick out of Clemson, was wowing everyone in training camp last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury during the Colts' preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks. He finished Thursday's game with two receptions on four targets for 15 yards. Johnson, meanwhile, has worked his way back from an ankle injury suffered Week 6 last season against the New York Jets, just moments after he hauled in his first-career touchdown reception. Johnson on Thursday had two receptions for 27 yards, including an acrobatic catch along the sideline that required him to drag his toes to stay in bounds. "Just building the confidence back," Reich said. "I think you can't underestimate how important that is, when a guy's coming back from a season-ending injury, to get the first game under your belt. I know you're doing it out in practice, but there's just something different about doing it in a game."
• HEDLUND PERFECT: It would be understandable if Cole Hedlund would've entered Thursday night's game a little rattled, considering it was the undrafted North Texas product's first-ever NFL game. On top of that, the lake effect around New Era Field was making its presence known, with swirling winds and a pregame thunderstorm that required stadium officials to clear the field during warmups. But once the clouds cleared and the lights came on, Hedlund showed he was more than good to go; he hit all three of his field goal attempts, as well as his only extra-point try. His first-ever NFL kick came from 42 yards out, and went right down the middle, setting up the rest of his night. "It felt absolutely amazing," Hedlund said. "Perfect snap from Luke (Rhodes) and perfect hold from Rigo (Rigoberto Sanchez), and, you know, just went through the approach, had good rhythm and just the moment felt absolutely amazing. And it was awesome to celebrate with my teammates."