Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Colts hope their luck is better in 2018

A team rebuild without the franchise quarterback is an understandable cause for concern, so all eyes were on Andrew Luck’s right shoulder when the Indianapolis Colts arrived for training camp. Then he started throwing, the shoulder felt great, and the focus turned silly. What’s with the mustache?

Although Luck proved he’s ready after 19 months off due to the shoulder that required surgery, this team is in a truly hairy situation with more questions than answers as it prepares to open the 2018 season at home against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. Second-year general manager Chris Ballard didn’t inherit much from the fired Ryan Grigson, but at least he’s got his own head coach now in first-year man Frank Reich, fresh off a Super Bowl win as Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator. And the direction is clear: Find young talent and play fast. The most obvious trend has been roster turnover. Just 16 players are still in Indy from the last time Luck played a game on Jan. 1, 2017.

The second-biggest priority after Luck’s health is figuring out who is blocking for him. That’s how he got hurt in the first place, taking too much punishment. And the Colts have four-fifths of that equation solved for now, bolstered by the addition of first-round left guard Quenton Nelson, who looks to be the best O-line prospect they’ve had in more than a decade. They just have to settle on a right tackle between Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, rookie Braden Smith or J’Marcus Webb. Even the team’s website had that starting spot blank a day after the roster cut to 53 players. Stay tuned.

While Luck has two Pro Bowl pass catchers in wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Jack Doyle, the opportunities are there for others to fill a void. Free-agent tight end Eric Ebron arrives from Detroit and is expected to stretch the field, presuming he can limit his drops. Beyond that, what’s to stop the Bengals and every other opponent from doubling Hilton and forcing Luck to rely on everyone else? Free-agent addition Ryan Grant and Chester Rogers could help at wide receiver, but it speaks volumes that Ballard added wide receiver Marcus Johnson in a trade with Seattle. The position is thin.

Reich enjoyed utilizing a quick-hit passing attack that enabled Philadelphia to win a Super Bowl. But opponents are sure to load up the defensive box unless the Colts can not only throw the ball deeper but run effectively. The latter is yet another lingering question because second-year running back Marlon Mack is hurt again (hamstring) after being injury prone as a rookie. Veteran Robert Turbin is suspended for four games. That leaves rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins as well as journeyman backup Christine Michael.

If the Colts can count on anything, it’s having ageless kicker Adam Vinatieri back for his 23rd NFL season. The NFL’s oldest player, at 45, showed he still has the leg with a 57-yard field goal in preseason. He’s on the verge of passing Morten Andersen for all-time NFL records in field goals (565) and scoring (2,544). Vinatieri needs seven field goals and 58 points.

Presuming the Colts can at least score, starting with a Bengals defense that ranked 18th last season, another undeniable issue is whether the team can prevent opponents from scoring more. The reality is a defense that ranked 30th in points and total yards allowed lacks playmakers, then Ballard released one of his best defenders in John Simon, who was trying to convert from outside linebacker to defensive end but wasn’t a fit for the Colts’ new 4-3 scheme. Simon was an admired, overachieving character guy whose locker-room presence will be missed. But, again, Ballard wants youth and speed. If anyone didn’t get it, this decision was a stunning reminder.

The Colts haven’t had a strong pass rush since Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney last played together in 2012. Their 25 sacks ranked 31st last season, which explains why Ballard drafted pass rushers Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis in the second round. But Lewis has been placed on injured reserve with a toe injury (possible return after Week 8) while Turay and other young players showed in preseason they’ve got a lot to learn.

So if the Colts can’t get steady pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, for starters, then that makes covering a wide receiver like A.J. Green that much more difficult. Cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir won’t be able to play tight man-to-man on a guy like that without a safety over top. And even Pro Bowl cover guys can’t cover forever, not that the former undrafted free agent Moore or journeyman Desir are that talented.

What the Colts do have are two promising, young safeties in Malik Hooker (second year) and Clayton Geathers (fourth). Hooker, a first-round pick last year, displayed impressive ball-hawk skills with three interceptions last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Geathers is a tenacious hitter with a knack for jarring the ball loose. Considering what’s in front of them, they’re going to get a lot of work.

The Colts were 26th against the run last year and then subtracted nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, who was released one year into a three-year, $30 million deal because he didn’t fit the scheme switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3. So that leaves veteran Al Woods and free-agent addition Denico Autry to hold down the middle. Jabaal Sheard is a decent defensive end, albeit more of a pass rusher, but the other end position is wide open. So expect opponents to run wide to test those edges.

Ballard didn’t like what he saw in inconsistent linebacker Antonio Morrison as a team leader, so he jettisoned him to Green Bay in a preseason trade. The hope is that second-round pick Darius Leonard can be groomed to become a unit leader by free-agent addition Najee Goode, who will be playing for his third team in seven years. But Goode and Anthony Walker are the only guys who have ever started an NFL game, and they have a combined six starts.

Fans missing the Peyton Manning, perennial-playoff-team glory years are anxious to see the Colts return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, but that might be asking a bit much with so many holes to fill and the time needed to figure out so many new pieces with such a young roster. At the very least, with Luck back in the fold, an improvement from 4-12 a year ago is a must.

SERIES HISTORY: 29th regular-season meeting. Colts lead series, 17-11. The last time they met at Lucas Oil Stadium was in 2015 in the AFC wild-card playoffs, when the Colts won 26-10. The Colts were on the verge of a win at Cincinnati last season before Carlos Dunlap returned a fourth-quarter interception for a game-winning touchdown in a 24-23 Bengals victory. Colts tight end Jack Doyle had a career-high 12 receptions for 121 yards with one score.