One Big Storyline
The Colts haven't won their season opener since 2013, a fact that's relevant for the franchise but not necessarily for the coaches and players who'll be on the field Sunday in Houston. Reich acknowledged the Colts "haven't been good in openers" in recent years, but no player or coach on this team has been a part of every one of those eight consecutive Week 1 losses.
"I suppose externally there are some forces that want to make me feel more pressure about that, but this is a different team, it's a different year," head coach Frank Reich said. "What's done is done. Let's just get ready to play this game, this season. Take it one at a time. It's hard to do, but that's what the good teams do. So, we have to do a better job, I have to do a better job. Looking forward to this first week."
Think of all the changes that've happened since the end of the 2021 season: A new starting quarterback, a new defensive coordinator and coaching staff, new accomplished veterans on defense and an injection of youth on both sides of the ball. This is a different team – and this version of the Colts hasn't lost eight straight openers.
"It's a new year, brand new team, brand new situation," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "Anything that has happened in the past really doesn't matter, but I think with guys having that sense of urgency and really being locked in on the details. I think coming in with a fresh start, 0-0, new quarterback, new system defensively, it's a lot of things we have to go out there and prove. Guys can't wait. It's Week 1. Everybody is 0-0, it's a new situation and we're just looking forward to getting to it."
The more important thing on Sunday, then, is that the Colts play an AFC South opponent – the first of five intra-divisional games in the first seven weeks of the season.
"Every time you play (the division) you're either moving forward and putting somebody else behind – which is always a good thing," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I'm excited about it. I'm excited to get down there. I think we're all ready. This time of the year it's like there's some much buildup, so much buildup – you just want to get to game time. So, try and take a deep breath during the week, simmer down a little bit and make sure we get into the routine of getting prepared. It is exciting to start with a division game."
The Colts prepared for the season with a heightened sense of urgency not because they wanted to end a streak, but because they followed the lead of Ryan and the other captains on this team. The Colts didn't have to go from zero to 60 in terms of their intensity this week, since it was already at a 60. And the team feels like that'll set them up well to begin the season, while acknowledging that Sunday is just game one of 17.
"I think we've done a good job here, there's not been much talk about (the opener losing streak) other than going 1-0 every day, that's our mentality," Reich said. "Everything that you learn over the years is it's a long season. You have to take it week by week. To try to make everything a must-this or have-to-that, in the long run, that doesn't normally play out well for you. There's already a lot of motivation, a lot of reasons to want to play our best football. So we're going to stay confident in our preparation in our players and take them one by one."
Who's In, Who's Out
The Colts' final practice report of the week, with game designations:
The Colts feel like linebacker Shaquille Leonard is making good progress from a June back procedure, but also feel like the right thing to do is to keep him out for Week 1.
5 Things To Watch
- The new-look offense with Matt Ryan. The Colts' offense was "so generic" during preseason, Reich said, so the brief looks we got at Ryan against the Bills and Buccaneers were not an indication of what we'll see Sunday in Houston. Reich, obviously, wasn't going to tip his hand with anything schematically during preseason games, but what the Colts run will be a blend of their longstanding core concepts and some things Ryan liked in Atlanta. Beyond what the offense looks like in terms of X's and O's, though, Ryan gives the Colts' offense and advantage with how he operates with the ball in his hand. "Matt, he just thinks so fast and he's so poised in the pocket to get through the progression," Reich said. "And the result of that is a couple things. You don't always have to be perfect on the play call, and secondly, the ball's going to get spread around — you may be first in the progression but you don't know the ball's going there. And he has the ability to get it to the fourth guy in the progression."
- The new-look defense with Gus Bradley. Just like the Colts' offense was generic, so was Bradley's defense during preseason games. Bradley has evolved his Cover-3 defense over the last decade-plus into doing different things (like match coverage), and he said he tries to stay a year or two ahead of offensive trends in the league. What will that look like with the collection of talent – DeForest Buckner, Yannick Ngakoue, Stephon Gilmore and Kenny Moore II have all been Pro Bowlers and/or All-Pros – he has at his disposal with the Colts? "There are some nuances that we had a chance to practice in training camp that we didn't show as much obviously in preseason games," Bradley said. One thing to definitely expect, though: An attack-oriented defensive line led by Buckner, Ngakoue, Grover Stewart and Kwity Paye.
- Jonathan Taylor, obviously. The Colts held Taylor out of preseason games, so Sunday will be the All-Pro running back's first game action in just over eight months. The start of Taylor's encore season – in which his only goal is to win a Super Bowl – begins this weekend. "Excited to go back out there and play," Taylor said. "It's been since January since I've actually played. So, just being able to go out there and have fun again in a game setting and not just a practice setting."
- Debuts for three key rookies. Wide receiver Alec Pierce and safety Nick Cross are both listed as starters on the Colts' unofficial depth chart, while Jelani Woods looks in line to rotate in at tight end. The Colts will may lean on a handful of rookies – like Rodney Thomas II, JoJo Domann and Dallis Flowers – to fill out Bubba Ventrone's special teams units, too, while Eric Johnson II may be part of the defensive line rotation, too.
- One matchup on each side of the ball. Let's start on offense, with when Michael Pittman Jr. lines up against cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 3 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Pittman competed against Stephon Gilmore in training camp and developed a strong rapport with Ryan, and now will test that rapport against a cornerback whose pre-draft player comparison was...Stephon Gilmore. On defense: This'll be the third time defensive end Yannick Ngakoue will square off against left tackle Laremy Tunsil in his career; Ngakoue had one sack in each prior meeting.