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10 Colts Things We Learned During 2022 Preseason: Matt Ryan's Sense Of Urgency, Alec Pierce's Upside, Stephon Gilmore & Yannick Ngakoue's Impact and More

The Colts wrapped up their final preseason practice of 2022 on Thursday and have Friday, Saturday and Sunday off before returning to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Labor Day for their first practice ahead of Sept. 11's season opener against the Houston Texans. Here are 10 big things we learned during training camp, preseason games and preseason practices over the last six weeks:

Matt Ryan

1. Matt Ryan's sense of urgency could help the Colts early in the season.

Early in training camp – with well over a month before the season opener – Ryan talked about the sense of urgency he was working to instill in his teammates.

"You can't waste any time," Ryan said. "That's a message for young guys – it can't wait. It's every day, it's every rep we've gotta maximize the time we spend out here because before you know it, we're going to look up, we're going to be in Houston and we're going to be keeping score.

"We got to make sure that we keep that mindset daily, to have ourselves ready to go. That's one of the keys in training camp, one of the most difficult things is to stay mentally sharp day in and day out when it's the same thing over and over. But the good teams, the teams that develop this time of year are the ones that can do that."

About five weeks later, I circled back with Ryan: How did that process go? Did everyone stay mentally sharp from the first through the last day of training camp?

"I think the attention to detail (and) the focus has been good," Ryan said. "I think the barometer is always in those walk-thru periods. Sometimes during training camp, those can get redundant. The focus our guys have is really good. That's one of the things when you're not having to make a ton of corrections, or you're not asking for focus during those times. When guys just show up (and) do their job, there's not a whole lot of BS. That's encouraging.

"I think it's a credit to Frank (Reich) and the culture that he and Chris (Ballard) have created here and the guys that they've brought in. It's also a credit to the players for finding value in those periods. I say it all the time to our guys, it might be the only rep we get a certain look or a certain scheme, and if you don't view it as, that's a game rep or that might be the thing that makes a difference in a game then we are wasting our time. Our guys have certainly locked in during those times and done a great job."

Five of the Colts' first seven games are against AFC South opponents, including both meetings with the Jacksonville Jaguars (Weeks 2 and 6) and Tennessee Titans (Weeks 4 and 7). The Colts haven't won their season opener since 2013, haven't won in Jacksonville since 2014 and haven't won the AFC South since 2014.

The combination of Ryan's 14 years of experience and his sense of urgency shined on the practice field – where Ryan operated the offense at a fast tempo – and off the field, in every corner of the Colts' training camp facility at Grand Park and back at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

"He holds everybody accountable to the same standard whether you're the first guy on the depth chart or the last guy, everybody is held to that same standard," wide receiver Ashton Dulin said. "That just brings us all together as a room and it elevates everybody's game. He'll quiz you out of the blue at a random moment — walking down the hallway, what do you have on this play? It's fun. He's great to be around. Great leader, great person and we couldn't be happier to have him."

Maybe the best way to explain Ryan's impact and sense of urgency is you could feel it – and that feeling hasn't waned with the season opener just over a week away.

"You can feel it. He's got an urgency," Ballard said. "He's got an expectation not only from himself but from others. It's hard to demand much of others if you're not putting it out there yourself, which he does. Really, a special, special leader and a special guy. Fortunate to have him."

2. Michael Pittman Jr. took over the Colts' wide receiver room.

A few weeks ago, I asked wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne if there's something he's learned about Pittman over the last few months he didn't know when he was brought aboard Reich's staff in March.

"I think he's a true leader," Wayne said. "I think he embraces that role. I think it means a lot to him. And that's part of some of the things I'm trying to embrace in my role is trying to teach him how to be a leader and continue to be a leader, show him what it takes.

"I didn't feel like I was a full leader of my room until probably Year 11, right. I know what comes with it and he's getting it at Year 3. It can be a lot on you, it can be times where you go home and feel like you need another set of paychecks. But it also shows that teammates and everybody have faith in you to be able to take a room and go out there and lead not only by talk but by example."

The Colts' wide receiver room is young – Pittman's 1,679 snaps on offense are nearly 600 more than the combined career total for Ashton Dulin, Parris Campbell, Dezmon Patmon, Mike Strachan and Alec Pierce (1,076). But having Pittman, who had 88 catches for 1,082 yards in 2021 and looked like a go-to favorite of Ryan's during training camp, emerge as a leader of that group – that's been an important development over the last few months.

"He wants to be able to go out there and show everybody that he can do everything the right way," Wayne said. "One thing I like about Pitt is, he kind of reminds me when me and (Marvin Harrison) were here, he never wants to come out. And that can be a leadership role in itself. When I first came in, I saw Marv doing that, so that's what made me say (shoot), I ain't coming out either. Things like that, he does a great job of leading by example. He works hard, he works on his craft, and if you're a young guy and you're seeing that, that in itself lets everybody know what they need to do."

So when Ballard talked this week about liking where the Colts' receiver room is heading into the season, the growth Pittman made as a leader is important to note.

And one other thing here – the Colts expect their wide receivers to block. That emphasis, which helped Jonathan Taylor create a remarkable number of explosive rushes in 2021, was initially led by Zach Pascal over the last few years. But with Pascal now with the Eagles, Pittman has naturally become the physical leader of the Colts' wide receiver room, too.

"Pitt's the leader of that room," Reich said. "He's really emerged as the No. 1 receiver. And what's great is he's emerged as a No. 1 receiver, but he's also emerged as the No. 1 blocker. He's not afraid to mix it up. And that challenges everybody — like, oh, we gotta block on every play. I mean, our No. 1 receiver does. So it just sets a high standard."

3. Alec Pierce made steady progress heading into his rookie season.

Toward the end of training camp, Wayne took an opportunity to go to the mall in explaining where Pierce was in his development.

"It's like going to Dillard's or Macy's and going and get that polo," Wayne said. "Some polos come on the hanger nice and fresh already, and some, s**t, you gotta iron. It's one of those things where he had to iron the creases out over and over and over to now he's comfortable and he's able to play faster."

Pierce was challenged daily in practice by cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 AP Defensive Player of the Year, whose veteran experience and off-the-charts football IQ meant he was able to identify the route Pierce would run before the ball was even snapped. The challenge for Pierce was to still find a way to win against Gilmore.

And that challenge wound up being good for Pierce, who as training camp went on started to win some of those one-on-one matchups against Gilmore.

"He's faster than what you think, his release game is quicker than what you think," Gilmore said. "So, he's very subtle. He's got great hands. I feel like if he keeps working, he's going to get better and better, and I can already tell he's gotten better since the first day he got out here."

Pierce's connection with Ryan grew stronger throughout camp, too, and Ryan highlighted Pierce's "route discipline" after the Colts' final preseason game against the Buccaneers. Here's what Ryan meant by that:

"At the quarterback position, one of the things I've always said is you need great decision making, timing and accuracy," Ryan said. "The timing and accuracy is half my part and half (the pass catchers'). They've got to be where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there.

"I think he's really done a good job of taking that to heart and understanding that it's one thing to be open, it's another thing to be open in the timing of the play. You can either win too early or win too late – not going to help us. You've got to win in the timing of the play. I certainly think he has picked that up very quickly."

So with Pierce's regular season debut on the horizon, he'll make it while riding a steady upward trajectory.

"We thought Pierce did some really good things and he's going to have to grow up in a hurry, but we think he will," Ballard said. "He's mature, he's smart and he's very talented."

4. Don't discount the offensive line playing nearly all of the preseason together.

In 2021's training camp, only one member of the Colts' projected starting offensive line – right guard Mark Glowinski – was a regular participant in practice.

In 2022, only one member of the Colts' starting offensive line missed practice (center Ryan Kelly, who missed the final two practices of training camp and one game with COVID). So for the vast majority of training camp, the Colts' starting five offensive line – Matt Pryor, Quenton Nelson, Kelly, Danny Pinter and Braden Smith – practiced together.

"Everything is kind of like a working machine — you get a few things out of place, it's not run as smoothly," Smith said. "So if you get everybody healthy working together, you get more reps together, you build that cohesion and the offense will look a lot smoother come to game time.

"... You can't fake chemistry. We're just a tight-knit group as is. We always have been. That reflects on the field the last couple years. You hear about some groups that aren't as close and it shows."

Even though the Nelson-Kelly-Smith trio is entering its fifth year together, there are still ways those guys can challenge each other that come from being on the field together, Kelly said. And with two new pieces in there (Pryor at left tackle, Pinter at right guard), having good continuity throughout practice helped those guys assimilate, too, building the "five-as-one" mentality offensive lines want.

So again, with an eye on AFC South-heavy first seven weeks of the season, the cohesion with which the Colts' line practiced could be important.

"Continuity on the offensive line is so big," Ryan said. "Whether it be in the run game or in pass protection, but there's really a rhythm in the run game of combination blocking of double teams and knowing when to get off and there's a feel. I say this having never done it but I've watched it you know, you just can see it. You can see they have a feel for each other and so, the more those guys get work next to each other – they already have a lot of time on task, a lot of these guys of working with one another."

5. Yannick Ngakoue looked like a tremendous fit on and off the field.

Let's start on the field. Ngakoue's energy was a daily staple of Colts training camp, with the defensive end exploding off the edge to blow up plays and chasing guys down 20 or 30 yards downfield. And the proven pass rushing talent of Ngakoue, who's one of two players in the NFL to have eight or more sacks in each of the last six seasons (Aaron Donald is the other), should have a positive impact on the guy playing next to him:

DeForest Buckner.

"Having a guy like Yan is going to free up Buck because now that tackle has to really sit back, and that's going to free up a lot of space so Buck can really get in that B-gap," defensive line coach Nate Ollie said. "Because if you got an end that's kind of slow, that's going to hinder Buck's sack numbers. But you got Yan who can really get off on that ball, that's going to allow Buck to have room and space to rush through that B-gap."

Buckner faced double teams on a shade over two-thirds of his pass rushing snaps last year, and the Colts see Ngakoue not only affecting quarterbacks on his own, but giving Buckner more opportunities to collapse the pocket from the interior. And because the Colts have Buckner at defensive tackle, teams can't focus all their attention on Ngakoue on the edge, either.

"When you have a great player like that, that allows you to not get chipped so much because they have to focus on Buck," Ollie said. "Or they have to game plan for (Ngakoue), and that'll free (Buckner) up. I feel like they can both benefit off each other tremendously."

The Colts knew how Ngakoue could impact their pass rush when they traded cornerback Rock Ya-Sin for him back in March, though. He's fit the attacking style defensive coordinator Gus Bradley leans on from his front four (Indianapolis is the third NFL stop Ngakoue has had with Bradley).

But what the team learned about Ngakoue over the last few months was just how much of an off-the-field impact he could have.

"What I'm coming to appreciate about Yannick more and more is what a leader this guy is," Reich said. "He's going to put up great individual performance and production, but ultimately, he's about the team. And I really believe that he's going to be a great fit for us."

Ngakoue, too, has made a strong commitment to making an impact in his new community.

6. The attacking focus on the D-line suits Grover Stewart, too.

Back when he was hired as the Colts' D-line coach in March, Ollie described the mentality he wants his players playing with.

"I am a train on my track and I'm ready to go," Ollie said. "Like, if you get on my track, you get messed up."

Again, that's a staple of how Bradley wants his defenses to play. While a lot of focus went to Buckner, Ngakoue and Kwity Paye during training camp, Stewart messed up a bunch of dudes who were on his track, too.

"That's a powerful dude," Ollie said. "Him going forward, it's hard to stop him."

Stewart blew up a bunch of plays during training camp and looked like a guy well-suited to Ollie and Gus Bradley's attacking mindset.

"Grove pushes the whole group," Ollie said. "He's very underrated at what he is not only as a person but as a player, as a leader and what he does for that room. He challenges guys not only with the way he talks but with the way he practices, the way he runs to the ball.

"We're all expecting a great year from Grove to shake the NFL up."

7. Like Ngakoue, Stephon Gilmore looked like a tremendous fit on and off the field, too.

Watching training camp practices, you're looking for flashes – a splash play here or there – to jot down in your notebook. Gilmore was one of the most consistent players in terms of those flash plays – a pass break-up, tight coverage forcing an incompletion, an interception – at Grand Park.

"From a quarterback's perspective, he's the kind of cornerback you fear because the way he sees the game, he knows what's coming before it's coming," Reich said. "He's so quick to recognize routes, concepts, and then he has the ability to make plays on the ball and turn it over."

Gilmore was deliberate in free agency, waiting about a month before he decided Indianapolis was the best place for him to continue his career. But coming to the Colts meant a different emphasis than he was used to in the past – an emphasis that the five-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team AP All Pro and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year took to well.

"This guy is very, very humble in his approach," defensive backs coach Ron Milus said. "He doesn't say a lot. All I hear is a lot of 'yes, coach, okay, how do you want me to do that?' It's not like he's bucking anything that we're trying to get done because this is different from what he's been accustomed to. He's been, for the most part, he's tracked the best receiver, he might be in the slot, sometimes you might be outside — and our style is a little bit different. He's either going to be left or right and I don't know how much he'll be inside, but that's a little bit different than what he's accustomed to. But I told him, I'm very glad to have him, very glad he's part of this organization."

Gilmore's ability to not only play sticky man-to-man coverage, but make plays on the ball while in man, shined during training camp. Bradley said Gilmore has the kind of instincts and ball skills he values in zone coverage, too. And then Gilmore's attention to detail (like knowing what route a receiver will run based on where he lines up) and even-keel demeanor have made him not only an excellent scheme fit, but an excellent cultural fit, too.

And the feeling is mutual.

"I like the vibe here, I like the guys, I like the coaches," Gilmore said. "Everybody here does everything to help the team win. So that's one thing I noticed, whether it's the training staff, the weight room, everyone is all collected as a whole. That's one thing I'm excited about."

8. Rodrigo Blankenship earned the kicking job.

Ballard was asked on Wednesday if he'd consider bringing in another kicker to continue to push Blankenship. The answer was quick and succinct: "Nope," Ballard said. "He's our guy."

Blankenship won the Colts' kicking competition – he beat out Jake Verity – by displaying solid consistency and improved leg strength throughout practices and preseason games.

"I think he's just been more consistent overall with really the percentages that he's hitting, and he's been able to hit from longer distances," special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone said. "The other day (in a training camp practice) we had four kicks over 50 in that end-of-game situation period that we did and he hit 3-of-4, which was really good to see."

Blankenship, too, will be tasked with handling kickoffs this season following the season-ending injury to punter Rigoberto Sanchez.

9. The Colts stayed relatively healthy.

Sanchez and tight end Drew Ogletree both suffered season-ending injuries in training camp, and safety Armani Watts sustained a season-ending ankle injury in the Colts' final preseason game. Cornerback Isaiah Rodgers Sr. sustained a concussion in the Colts' preseason opener that sidelined him until this week. Tackle Dennis Kelly had a procedure on his knee, too. So the Colts didn't completely avoid injuries during July and August.

But what the Colts did avoid were nagging soft-tissue injuries – a pulled calf, a strained hamstring, etc. And the team's altered training camp schedule, with practices starting at noon and an emphasis on rest, recovery and sleep, might've had something to do with that.

"That just gives us that time to rest and get away from ball and take time to actually get work done on our bodies and recover," wide receiver Parris Campbell said. "I think that's been huge for the whole team." 

And it's not just that the Colts stayed relatively healthy – players felt fresh, too, throughout the grind of camp. Reich said he talked to a number of players about how they're feeling, including Ryan, and heard the same message.

"He (Ryan) feels as fresh as he's been out of camp," Reich said. "I think it's been a good plan. I give our training staff, strength staff and sports science staff – they did a good job."

And perhaps the most encouraging injury-related news the Colts got came this week, when linebacker Shaquille Leonard returned to practice.

Neither Ballard nor Leonard are putting a timetable on when the All-Pro will play in his first game. But Leonard's dedication to his recovery process from a June back procedure impressed everyone in the building, from his 5:45 a.m. arrivals to the extra work he put in with coaches.

"This guy's been the ultimate pro," Reich said. "I've really not been surprised, but just thankful for his approach. From Day 1, he's never taken his foot off the gas so that when we got to this point, it gives us the best chance possible to get him back as soon as we can."

10. The Colts will lean on rookies – including a handful of undrafted free agents.

Four undrafted free agents – center/guard Wesley French, linebacker JoJo Domann, cornerback Dallis Flowers and safety Trevor Denbow – made the Colts' initial 53-man roster; Denbow was placed on injured reserve this week, but the Colts will lean on French, Domann and Flowers for depth and special teams contributions this season.

Back in April, before the NFL Draft, Ballard predicted that the depth of this year's draft class meant a minimum of four undrafted free agents could wind up making the team's roster. And that's exactly what happened, with those four players all earning their spots through strong competition in training camp.

"Chris Ballard and his staff, they just do an unbelievable job," Reich said. "I really think that's a competitive advantage for us. I know every team works hard, and everybody has good scouts, but man, you just talk to our coaches and they'll tell you how much they appreciate our scouts, Chris' staff, and how we work together and the guys that we get. And now it's the players' job and our job as coaches to develop these guys. We like having a young roster, we like developing guys and feel good about these young guys we have."

The Colts have a good track record of identifying and developing undrafted free agents, from cornerback Kenny Moore II to wide receiver Ashton Dulin to tight end Mo Alie-Cox, among others. We'll see if another success story – or stories – can come out of this year's group of undrafted free agents.

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