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Offseason Notebook

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Offseason notebook: Why Colts are having joint practices with two teams, Julian Blackmon on shifting to strong safety, Alec Pierce on stretching the field

The Colts began their penultimate week of the 2023 offseason program on Monday. 

Wrapping up a few things we learned last week as the Colts get their second-to-last week of the 2023 offseason program underway on Monday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center:

The quote: "We did two [joint practices] in Philly as much as we could. I just kind of think doing two different deals with two different teams is really good. I know the players enjoy it, the coaches enjoy it. Like I said, it kind of breaks up camp and the competition just to see different looks. Does it help for the quarterback? Absolutely. You're seeing a different front structure sometimes depending on who you are playing, the coverages on the back end. There's a whole bunch of different things that go into it, but it definitely helps us as a football team I believe." - Head coach Shane Steichen

Context: Steichen announced on Friday the Colts will hold joint practices against the Chicago Bears (at Grand Park in Westfield) and Philadelphia Eagles (in Philadelphia) ahead of their second and third preseason games this summer. This'll be the first year the Colts will have joint practices against two opponents, which should benefit quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger, Gardner Minshew and Anthony Richardson in exposing them to several defensive schemes.

And that exposure will be important because generally in preseason games, teams run vanilla or generic offensive and defensive plays – rarely will you get an exotic blitz package or an intricate coverage, since coaches usually don't want to put those on tape before the games actually matter. But Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams (formerly of the Colts) and Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai may use joint practices to work on some more heavily schemed fronts and coverages – which in turn will provide valuable experience for the Colts' quarterbacks ahead of the 2023 regular season.

Steichen also emphasized the Colts will be "smart with the schedule" to manage players in Philadelphia with only five days between games against the Bears (Aug. 19) and Eagles (Aug. 24).

The quote: "It's definitely something that comes across my mind, but it's not something that I want to focus on. At the end of the day, I have a new job for me and that's strong safety and I'm willing to approach it and attack it as best as I can. That's one thing that I'm always willing to do – anything for the team. This is what the coach wants me to do, so I'll do my best and I'm just excited for this challenge. For me, it's just one day at a time because that's all I've got." - safety Julian Blackmon

Context: The "it" is a contract extension, as Blackmon is entering the final year of his four-year rookie deal (time flies, doesn't it?). But notably, Blackmon is competing at strong safety – a position switch for a guy who primarily played a deeper free safety over his first few years in with the Colts.

The Colts moved Blackmon around quite a bit last year – he played 295 snaps as a slot corner, with most of those coming after Kenny Moore II sustained what wound up being a season-ending injury in Week 12. But he still primarily played deep (348 snaps, per Pro Football Focus) instead in the box/close to the line of scrimmage (70 snaps). So there will be an adjustment for the 2020 third-round pick, but it's one he's embracing – and one that could benefit him next spring, when he'll either be up for a contract extension or will become an unrestricted free agent.

"(Strong safety) is more productive, honestly," Blackmon said. "You have to really tune in on your keys. I think that's the biggest thing that's a difference. At free safety, it's more instinctual whereas at strong, it's much more vocal. I just have to pay attention to my keys and understand what I'm supposed to be looking at pre-snap and I'll be good from there."

The quote: "I think we definitely want to be able to stretch the field vertically, create explosives on offense – especially in the passing game. That's something I think that reflects my game. I think that's what my strengths are as a receiver. I really hope to be that guy in the offense." - wide receiver Alec Pierce

Context: The Colts generated 85 explosive passing plays (15+ yards) in 2022, tied for 18th in the NFL – but a good chunk of those were on short catch-and-run or intermediate throws. Only 13 of those 85 plays came when a pass-catcher was targeted at least 20 yards downfield, a total which ranked 31st in the NFL.

Pierce was targeted on the majority (seven) of those 13 plays, highlighting his ability to stretch the field with his vertical speed and go-up-and-get-it ball skills. While Pierce is working on refining his route running to expand his responsibilities, being a reliable deep threat will be important to the overall health of the Colts' offense this season.

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