Panthers at Colts: What to look for today

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts open the preseason Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium:

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: FOX59

Are the young QBs ready? 

The Colts remain hopeful – that’s the word we’re sticking with until we learn otherwise – Carson Wentz is available for the Sept. 12 opener against Seattle. Regardless of Wentz’s status, it’s imperative Frank Reich and Chris Ballard determine whether Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger is a viable option either as a short-term starter or long-term backup.

Will the moment be too big for them? The joint practices with Carolina were encouraging. There still were inconsistencies, but Eason and Ehlinger had their moments. Now, an actual game.

Eason will start with Ehlinger replacing him, likely in the second quarter.

We’re not expecting top-line quarterback play from either, primarily because they’re completely void of NFL-level game experience and they’ll be operating behind either a patchwork offensive line if right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith play – we doubt that’s the case – or a complete group of backups. The Colts probably will turn to the No. 3 center with Ryan Kelly (elbow) and Danny Pinter (right foot) out. Guard Chris Reed might get the assignment.

As Reich said, Eason and Ehlinger don’t been to be a “superstar.’’ But they need to look the part of NFL quarterback. Make the throws and convert the plays when required.

About that o-line

The projected starting five won’t be together until late September or early October. That’s the best-case scenario for the return of left tackle Eric Fisher (Achilles). Kelly and left guard Quenton Nelson (foot) have missed extended time, although Kelly might return to practice next week since the initial timeline had him missing two weeks.

As much as the o-line has been in disarray, it’s given position coach Chris Strausser and assistant Kevin Mawae an opportunity to do a deep dive on depth at the position. Sam Tevi, Will Holden and Julién Davenport have shared the bulk of the left tackle reps with less than stellar results. One of them is going to have to be an effective plug-in until Fisher is cleared. Pinter’s situation – he was on crutches with his right foot in a boot during Friday’s practice – complicates matters inside. He likely will be the interchangeable part on the interior and is the best option at center until Kelly returns.

While most of us will be judging the effectiveness of the group Sunday – can it protect the QB and give the backs running lanes? – it’s probably more important to gauge how each holds up individually. At some point, the starting unit will be on the field. But at some point, the depth will be called on for short-term work.

D-line depth

Reich made it clear most of his front-line players won’t play Sunday. DeForest Buckner has missed the past several days with a foot injury and the Colts are being “overly cautious’’ with him. Shoot, we wouldn’t mind if his first game action was against the Seahawks. We’d also be surprised if his running mate, Grover Stewart, and end Tyquan Lewis suit up Sunday.

The absence of top-end talent – rookie Kwity Paye is out with a sprained right ankle – provides an opportunity for the coaching staff to sort out a deep position. Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu, Al-Quadin Muhammad and Isaac Rochell should share reps outside while Antwaun Woods, Andrew Brown and Joey Ivie could get work inside.

Will the pass rush be able to generate the necessary pressure without Buckner, Paye and Lewis? Turay and Banogu have been hard to block in camp. Let’s see if that’s the case Sunday.

Opportunities for wideouts

We wouldn’t mind having to wait until Sept. 12 to see T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal in a game situation, although they might get some work Aug. 21 at Minnesota. It’s really not a good idea for a player’s first serious contact to come in the season opener.

Perhaps the coaching staff wants to get Parris Campbell some work since he’s coming off the knee injury, but again, we would limit his preseason reps to limit the risk of injury.

That should leave a ton of game reps for prospects fighting for the last couple of position spots on the 53-man roster. We’re looking at rookie Michael Strachan, who’s having a solid camp, Dezmon Patmon and DeMichael Harris. An injury has forced Ashton Dulin to miss camp time, and that’s hurting his chances of making the active roster.

Getting their kicks

The Colts brought in Eddy Pineiro to provide camp competition for Rodrigo Blankenship, and neither has flinched. They’re 15-for-15.

It still will be interesting to watch how they perform during the three preseason games. The eye test tells us Blankenship has the stronger leg, but that’s as unscientific as it gets. His kicks just seem to have more power behind them.

We’re expecting Reich to give each kicker opportunities, whether that’s during each game, or game-to-game.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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