ANDERSON –It is not that preseason openers in the past have been unimportant. There never is an unimportant time when a team takes the field.
This year's preseason opener, however, carries a little more juice and intrigue with the shape of the team and the personnel constituting it being dramatically different than in past years.
The overwhelming minorities on the roster and coaching staff are returnees – only 27 players remain who finished on the 2011 active roster and only three of 20 coaches return from last year as well.
With the Colts sporting a new general manager (Ryan Grigson), head coach (Chuck Pagano), coordinators (Bruce Arians, Greg Manusky, Marwan Maalouf), quarterback (Andrew Luck) and a few others, Sunday's contest with St. Louis at 1:30 p.m. in Lucas Oil Stadium will be an intriguing time for those with emotional investments in the club.
By Sunday, players will have gone through 21 training camp practices and countless hours of film study to get ready for the first preseason game. With the possibility of the starting lineups having about 10 new faces, plus some familiar faces in new roles, the preseason lid-lifter seems to carry a little more weight than normal.
Robert Mathis, now an outside linebacker and not a defensive end, is a relocated new face, and he finds Sunday carrying a little more buzz.
"Yeah, it's very important. It's not just a first preseason game," said Mathis. "It's a first stepping stone to what we're trying to get accomplished, and that's to go as far as we want to go. Hopefully, this Sunday we'll take a step in the right direction."
Fans will see a new-look product, and the team is anxious to take that first step under its new head coach.
"We're going. Coach said we have 10 home games this year, two preseason and eight regular, and we're trying to win them all," said Mathis. "Whatever you want to call it, we come to play. Apparently, we have a lot to prove."
Arians will make his return to Indianapolis in home gear for the first time since coaching quarterbacks with the club from 1998-2000. Now in charge of the offense, Arians wants to see where his units stand.
"We're definitely tired of hitting each other. We'd like to hit somebody else," said Arians. "It's always fun to get to that first one to see what you got and where you need to head to and what parts are solid and what parts need to be greased up a little bit. We have to find some things out about some young guys in the second half, too."
Indianapolis will be looking at the vast majority of the 90 players on the roster. There will be unfamiliar names now that will make a difference in games in November and December. Manusky believes there is real importance to this year's games because of the new personnel on hand.
"I think every year that you're in it, it depends again on the veterans on your football team," said Manusky. "You're going to have situations where you're kind of resting those starters a little bit more than usual. But for us, the more reps that we get the better off we'll be.
"I think a preseason game dictates a lot, based upon the personnel that we're playing with the first group, the second group and the third group. But the best thing is you feel where they're fitting, where they're fitting in the run game and see how individuals can strike and separate blockers. The preseason games are vitally important to see how these guys play in space and if they can make plays in space and tackles in the open field."
Safety Antoine Bethea has played on previous veteran Colts squads that virtually were set heading into preseason. That is not the case in 2012. It is a different time.
"I know we will come out and we will have a lot of energy," said Bethea. "We'll have a lot of energy. It's a different time and a different scheme, and we'll all learn together."
Tom Zbikowski is Bethea's running mate at safety. A 14-time starter in four previous seasons with Baltimore, Zbikowski believes the newness in the Indianapolis lineup for himself and others heightens the preseason importance.
"It's not a dry run-through. You have to approach it as a real game, which we will," said Zbikowski. "It's a time to see what coaches are on the sidelines, who is in the press box, how you deal with things, especially after the first drive just how we're going to settle down, how we're going to change things. We're going to make our adjustments, see what is going on, see how we get a feel for everything, and how we just play as a unit is the biggest thing. None of us has played together yet, so it's a good opportunity for that."
Zbikowski operates on a battery that never needs charging. If a game is in progress, he wants action.
"I like playing. I don't really like watching from the sideline," said Zbikowski. "I do like to see these young guys start developing and would really like to see them perform because for them, the other 31 teams are watching. It's being judged and evaluated by everyone. It's an opportunity to show what they can do.
"It's a time for us to see how we perform when it's the real deal. Not forget the techniques we're doing. Not forget the communications we're doing, just another day at the office, really."
Mathis welcomes the chance to mix it up with an opponent. It will be a welcomed change for the entire team, and it is a feeling shared across the league by teams that have been toiling in training camps. For Indianapolis, the stepping stone approaches and Mathis is ready to compete.
"It's evaluations and reactions. Just seeing how you stack up against other guys around the league. It's way more than just a preseason game. It's a stepping stone, a first stepping stone for us. … (It's a) new Colts era. The fans, they're excited. We're excited. They're excited. Let's just give them something to cheer for. … Build a monster, that's what we're doing. So let's go."