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Colts at Bills: What to watch for

WESTFIELD, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason opener Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills:

  • Kickoff: 7 p.m.
  • Broadcast: WXIN; FOX59.com (Indianapolis market only)

Good Start

We’re not talking about getting off to a 1-0 start. Late Thursday, the scoreboard will be for the gamblers among us. The overriding objective for Frank Reich and his staff is to see the progress that’s occurred over the past three weeks at Grand Park Sports Campus manifest itself in competent, competitive performance against the Bills.

That might be difficult on one level since more than a few front-liner players probably won’t play. The list includes quarterback Andrew Luck (calf), center Ryan Kelly (shoulder), running back Marlon Mack (coach’s decision), tight end Jack Doyle (oblique) and defensive end Jabaal Sheard (knee). A few rookies are dealing with minor injuries, including wideout Parris Campbell (hamstring) and Ben Banogu (hamstring).

We won’t be surprised if Reich and Chris Ballard have decided to put other starters through pre-game warm-ups, then give them the night off. Maybe left tackle Anthony Castonzo, wideout T.Y. Hilton, tight end Eric Ebron, safety Clayton Geathers, linebacker Darius Leonard, defensive end Justin Houston.

Yes, generally speaking, players need to play in the preseason. It’s hardly ideal for the first serious contact to come Sept. 8 against the Los Angeles Chargers. But the goal is to be as healthy as possible for the Chargers. In last year’s preseason opener, Mack suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss four of the first five regular-season games and rookie wideout Deon Cain suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“For every team it’s always that time you’re ready to go play another opponent,’’ Reich said. “It’ll be a good challenge for us.’’

Whether the Colts rely on starters, backups or bottom-of-the-roster players, they’ll be looking for – demanding – execution and aggressiveness.

Brissett’s Offense

Preseason is every backup quarterback’s time to embrace significant reps. Hello, Jacoby Brissett. He has shouldered all of the reps with the No. 1 offense during camp and will assume Luck’s reps during the preseason. There’s every reason to believe Luck’s first game snaps with the No. 1 unit will come Sept. 8 against the Chargers.

Brissett is immersed in a solid camp, and could enhance his value moving forward by authoring a solid preseason. Remember, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. If Luck is able to put the calf injury behind him and start all 16 games, the preseason will serve as Brissett’s audition tape.

Coordinator Nick Sirianni wants to see Brissett carry over his work in camp to Buffalo and beyond.

“Yeah, just the same thing he’s been bringing every day,’’ he said. “Just the execution of the play, the understanding of the play, getting us into the right protection call, finding the open guy, getting us into the right run-check if we have a run-check on.’’

You know, just play quarterback.

Brissett is expected to play about a quarter before being replaced by Phillip Walker. No. 4 Chad Kelly, a Buffalo native, might see action late.

Game for the Young

Injuries and the team’s decision to keep several players out of the game mean more invaluable playing time for the wave of young players. If Leonard and Anthony Walker don’t play at all or play limited snaps, look for Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed to work up a sweat. Speed is coming off an impressive week of camp. Safety Khari Willis and corner Marvel Tell III should expect heavy workloads. Corner Rock Ya-Sin has been one of the can’t-miss players in camp, but he’s still a rookie and needs every full-go rep he can handle.

We’ve continually talked about the depth at receiver, and this is the time players either emerge or fade. It’s uncertain how much time – if any – Hilton and Devin Funchess will play, while returnees Chester Rogers and Zach Pascal might see limited reps. That means Brissett and Walker will be working with Deon Cain, Reece Fountain, Marcus Johnson, Krishawn Hogan and a few others.

Cain’s Back

Speaking of Cain, Thursday night represents his first game exposure since he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in last year’s preseason opener at Seattle. Cain was on the field for 20 snaps and had one reception before his rookie season ended.

The 2018 sixth-round draft pick has practiced extensively in camp and shown no lingering effects from the knee injury. But there has to be a sliver of doubt in his mind until he tests his knee in an actual game.

“We’d like Deon to get out there and play a quarter, a quarter-and-a-half,’’ Reich said. “And it’s important for him, and he’s ready. Obviously we wouldn’t put him out there if we didn’t think he was ready. It’s that time.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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