INDIANAPOLIS — The wait is finally over. Indianapolis Colts football is back.
Two hundred and twenty-four days after seeing the 2016 season come to an end, the Colts (0-0) on Sunday take the field for their 2017 preseason opener against the Detroit Lions (0-0). Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The two teams have actually already gotten off to a head start on the matchup, as the Lions came to Indy on Thursday for two days of productive — and fully-padded — joint practices with their counterparts to the south.
But, as we all know, while practice is critical, nothing beats the real thing when it comes to gametime.
So what should fans be looking for when the Colts begin their four-game 2017 preseason slate on Sunday afternoon?
1. Scott's Show
The starting offense on Sunday will be led by Scott Tolzien, who has has benefitted from first-string snaps the entire offseason. Tolzien is a seven-year NFL veteran, but as a backup in San Francisco, Green Bay and, now, entering his second year with the Colts, he only has three career regular-season starts. But the Indy coaching staff has confidence that Tolzien can run their offense effectively; Tolzien himself said Friday his goals for Game 1 were to have "a clean operation and to compete."
2. Defensive Identity?
In his first few months as the Colts' general manager, Chris Ballard's primary strategy was clear: address the defense. He did just that, transforming the defense into a younger, quicker unit than its 2016 version by signing several free agents just entering the primes of their careers (like John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard and others), and then by having a defensive focus in the draft, too. Sunday's game will be the first chance for defensive coordinator Ted Monachino's group to begin establishing its identity for the season.
3. New Specialists
Gone are punter Pat McAfee and long snapper Matt Overton. Signed are lefty punter Jeff Locke and rookie long snapper Thomas Hennessy, with competition from Rigoberto Sanchez and Luke Rhodes, respectively. The Colts' fan-favorite "Fourth Down Army" is now a thing of the past due to McAfee's retirement and the release of Overton, but their replacements are well aware of the level of play expected out of Indianapolis special teamers thanks to the trail blazed by their predecessors. The one constant, however, is kicker Adam Vinatieri, who isn't showing any signs of slowing down as he officially begins his 22nd NFL season on Sunday. So while the Colts' specialists will feature a new look, having No. 4 back to boot footballs between the uprights is always comforting.
4. Run, Run, Run!
A quarterback's best friend is a quality run game — or at least the threat of one. The Indianapolis Colts this year return their top two running backs from 2016 (Frank Gore and Robert Turbin), but have a multitude of options behind these two veterans just champing at the bit to show what they can bring to the table. Among those options, of course, is 2017 fourth-round pick Marlon Mack, whom head coach Chuck Pagano has been impressed by so far. Look for the Colts to get the run game going early and often on Sunday, and then sustain it throughout the contest.
5. Here's Your Chance
After going out and bringing in the largest free agent haul in team history this offseason, and then adding several young, talented players in the draft, Ballard also hasn't been hesitant to add competition to the roster by selecting several undrafted free agents, each of whom feel they have something to prove. Take a look at the center position, for example, where Deyshawn Bond, who went undrafted out of Cincinnati, is likely to get several snaps at center after starter Ryan Kelly suffered a foot injury this week in practice. Other spots to follow will be the aforementioned running backs group, as well as at wide receiver (Bug Howard, JoJo Natson and others), quarterback (Phillip Walker) and tight end (Darrell Daniels and Steven Wroblewski).
6. Clean It Up
Oftentimes, the first couple preseason games are filled with players trying to shake the cobwebs out, so that can mean a few more penalties and overall mistakes than usual. But what's important to Pagano and his staff is how his players react to those scenarios. Sure, preseason games don't count in the win-loss column, but there's something to be said about building positive momentum once the Colts travel to take on the Los Angeles Rams Sept. 10 in their official 2017 opener.
7. Lines Of Communication
It's the preseason for the coaching staff, too. Although the Colts have several of the same coaches back from last season — Pagano, Monachino, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and special teams coordinator Tom McMahon among them — these preseason games serve as the perfect time for the staffs to nail down their communication plans, which not only include relaying plays to the field, but also things like breaking out the Microsoft Surface tablets and figuring out how to best adjust certain plays and formations. The Colts prepare for as many scenarios as they can in practice, but preseason games are where these processes really get buttoned up.*
The analysis from those producing content on Colts.com does not necessarily represent the thoughts of the Indianapolis Colts organization. Any conjecture, analysis or opinions formed by Colts.com content creators is not based on inside knowledge gained from team officials, players or staff.*