INDIANAPOLIS – What caught our eye in the Indianapolis Colts’ 27-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium:
*Making progress: The production of the starting offense in two preseason games consists of one touchdown, one field goal, three punts and two failed fourth-down attempts, but Matt Ryan believes the necessary progress has been made.
More to the point, he believes he was exposed to the necessary situations to prepare himself for the Sept. 11 opener at Houston.
“It’s an awkward thing to explain, but there’s just this voice in your ear, right?’’ he said after completing 5-of-7 passes for 59 yards against Tampa Bay. “Being out there, there’s noise, there’s moving parts, you have Frank (Reich) calling plays in your ear. To me, that’s the stuff that I find value this time of year.
“And also feeling the pass rush around you. From a quarterback’s standpoint, the work we get in practice is great, but you can’t replicate being hit and them actually getting to you. No matter how long you’ve played, settling yourself down into that is important.’’
Ryan and most of the offensive starters – minus running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines (each healthy scratches) and center Ryan Kelly (COVID-19) – handled the first three series. Ryan’s 11-yard scramble was the only highlight on the opening drive while the second was sabotaged by a sack when Bucs’ linebacker Lavonte David looped inside and wasn’t picked up by Ryan’s protection.
“I don’t like the quarterback getting hit,’’ Reich said.
On the third possession, the offense got its act together: five plays, 48 yards, a 1-yard touchdown by Deon Jackson. Ryan kick-started the drive with a screen to his left that Jackson took for 26 yards, then hit Michael Pittman Jr. off play-action for a 17-yard completion and a first-and-goal at the 1.
“That felt like what we do,’’ Reich said. “Screen, play-action, run the ball.’’
Ryan finished the preseason 11-of-17 for 117 yards and an 84.7 passer rating.
“I think we’re in a good spot,’’ he said.
*Slow start for D: Gus Bradley’s starting defense was intact for the first two series, and had trouble dealing with Tom Brady right out of the gate. Brady saw his only action of the preseason and led an opening 11-play, 66-yard drive that resulted in Ryan Succop’s 30-yard field goal. He was 6-of-8 on the drive and kept it alive by converting a fourth-and-3 with a 10-yard completion to Tyler Johnson.
The defense stiffened in the red zone. On third-and-6 at the 15, Kenny Moore II limited Brady’s completion to tight end Cameron Brate to 3 yards.
Round 2 went to the Colts defense. With Blaine Gabbert replacing Brady and the Bucs pinned at their own 10, tackle Grover Stewart seemed to single-handedly force a three-and-out. Running back Rachaad White was smothered for losses of 5 and 2 yards, then for no gain. Stewart was credited with at least an assist on all three.
There still should be a level of concern with the reliability of the depth of the interior of the defensive line. Tampa Bay had too much success running once the starters were pulled.
*What to do with Sam?: As Chris Ballard and his personnel staff consider the moves to pare the roster to 53 by Tuesday, they must determine what to do with their No. 3 quarterback. That would be Sam Ehlinger.
He’s been the constant standout of the preseason. Throwing, running, just making plays. Ehlinger would be an absolute luxury for the Colts to carry behind Ryan and Nick Foles.
Ideally, the Colts waive Ehlinger and sign him to the practice squad Wednesday. But is Ballard willing to risk exposing him to waivers and allowing a team that views him as a viable back this season claim him?
Saturday night, Ehlinger completed 5-of-7 passes for 65 yards, but the highlight was a 45-yard scramble through the heart of Tampa Bay’s defense.
Ehlinger’s preseason: 24-of-29, 289 yards, four TDs, a 147.8 rating; six rushes for 71 yards and one TD.
There are decisions that will have a bigger impact on the season, but few will generate more interest with the fan base.
*Impressive debut for Haack: The loss of Rigoberto Sanchez to a torn Achilles Wednesday was a major blow to special teams. But the early returns on his replacement are encouraging.
Matt Haack averaged 50.6 yards on five punts with a net of – drum roll, please – 48.0. The left-footer pounded punts of 49, 45, 57, 49 and 53 yards, and his coverage units allowed a return on just the last one, then for 13 yards. Haack forced fair catches on his first two punts, at the Bucs’ 10 and 9. His first four attempts forced Tampa Bay’s offense to start inside its own 20.
“I thought he did well,’’ Reich said.
Haack also did the holding for placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship and did a good job of handling a pair of high snaps.
*About Coutee: It will be interesting to see how the Colts handle their receivers’ room. Is there a seat for Keke Coutee? Initially his value could be as a punt returner, if, that is, the team opts to ease Nyheim Hines’ return attempts with an expected heavier workload on offense.
Coutee averaged 10 yards on seven returns against the Bucs with a long of 17. The only blemish was a muff on his final attempt that teammate Rodney Thomas II covered.
On offense, Coutee could step in as the slot receiver if Parris Campbell is out with an injury.
*About Hot Rod: Blankenship won the training camp kicking duel with Jake Verity, then went out and had a spotless Saturday. He converted 39- and 46-yard field goals and two PATs.
Blankenship also replaced Sanchez on kickoffs. He registered one touchback, and the Bucs averaged 20.4 yards on five returns.
*About Weatherford: Sterling Weatherford made a strong push to earn a roster spot. The Hamilton Heights H.S. product led the defense with 10 tackles, nine of them solos.
*Injury update: Armani Watts suffered an ankle injury covering the opening kickoff and will be lost for the season.
“Pretty significant,’’ Reich said, adding Watts will require surgery.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.