Late last week we shared a few important things to watch for during this week's preseason game, with the Colts facing the Steelers tonight at Heinz Field on NBC's Sunday Night Football.
Today, in order to prime for tonight's game, we'll dig a little deeper into the game, and highlight a few key matchups that will be important for both the final score, and the team's makeup going into the regular season.
The Colts' first and second string OLBs vs. the Steeler's offensive tackles
I include both first and second string linebackers here, because it's unclear how long Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney will be in the game. Last week they were the first players to sit, playing just one series. This week head coach Chuck Pagano hinted that the starters would have a bit longer playing time, but whether that applies to Mathis and Freeney is unknown.
For the team, the pressure applied on Ben Roethlisberger will decide whether or not the defense will be able to stop the Steelers from marching up and down the field. The secondary is going to be questionable, and as the narrative will likely be all season, the pass rush's success will probably parallel the defense's success. The outside linebackers will not only put pressure on Roethlisberger, but forcing the Steelers to pay extra attention to them will open up space for blitzes in the middle of the line.
For individuals, we should get a prolonged look at how Mathis and Freeney are adjusting to the new scheme. For Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, going against the Steelers suspect offensive line (paired with Roethlisberger's tendency to hold on to the ball) should give them another opportunity to have a strong outing. Last week, Hughes had two sacks while Addison had at least three pressures on the quarterback, and are looking like they could be some very good depth at that outside linebacker position.
Anthony Castonzo vs. The Zone Blitz
Really, the entire offensive line could be put here, as their development will be critical for the season's success or failure, not to mention Andrew Luck's development. But, I'd like to highlight Castonzo, the Colts 2011 first round pick, for this week's game.
The right side of the line was awful last week, causing pressure aplenty to rain down on Andrew Luck. That side will be the weak link throughout the season, and will be needing improvements next offseason. Hopefully, however, the left side can be set for the long term with Anthony Castonzo, and possibly Joe Reitz. Reitz had the best game of the first string last week, with Castonzo's few small mistakes bringing him in second.
But, while Reitz could be a nice bonus surprise at left guard, Castonzo is somebody who the Colts NEED to work out long-term. While having a top-end left tackle isn't a necessity to win, it's still important to have a serviceable player at the least. If the Colts have to use a high pick on a left tackle again in the next coupld of years, it would severely hinder their trip back to being a winning franchise. Castonzo had a mixed rookie year, but was hampered by an ankle injury that appears to be completely healed for 2012. With the rest of the offensive line full of question marks, the Colts need him to be consistently solid, especially in pass protection.
He could face players such as Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, and second year player Chris Carter from the linebacker position, but will fortunately miss seeing James Harrison, who is still out due to injury.
Justin King vs. Emmanuel Sanders
The Colts will likely assign Jerraud Powers to shadowing emerging wide receiver Antonio Brown throughout the first half of Sunday's game, so King will likely be facing Emmanuel Sanders. The Colts and their fans haven't exactly been reassured by King's play in training camp or the first preseason game, where King tackled well, but was unimpressive in coverage.
Sanders has flashed ability in the past, but a foot injury in Super Bowl caused him to miss the rest of the game, and lingered in 2011, allowing the emergence of Brown as the number two WR in Pittsburgh. With Mike Wallace holding out however, Sanders is the starting "X" receiver, which will lead to King likely being tested deep throughout the game.
If Powers leaves early, King could get a chance to mark Antonio Brown, who is more of a possession receiver, but impressed the Steelers enough for them to give him a very large extension this offseason.
Drew Stanton and Chandler Harnish vs. the Steelers' backup secondary
Last week, the Colts' backup quarterbacks looked good in the second half of the Colts' blowout win against the Rams. The Steelers secondary will likely be their weakness this year, but it may still provide a better test for the Colts' backups.
Watch for Stanton and Harnish to fall back to earth a little bit this week, along with the rest of the Colts' team. However, for young quarterbacks like Chandler Harnish, the Colts may see some resolve in him this week that convinces them to invest in his development over the next year or two. We've seen what teams can do with a developed backup, gaining draft picks back from them if they flash talent (such as the Eagles with Kevin Kolb). At the very least, they could provide somewhat of a safety blanket if Luck's luck runs out behind the patched up offensive line.
Of course, if Luck gets hurt for any period of time, we'll all be to distraught to care about the backup quarterbacks anyway.
Jerrell Freeman vs. Moise Fokou
This matchup isn't between the Steelers and Colts, but rather the competition between the two inside linebackers for Pat Angerer's starting spot. Angerer will likely be out for six weeks, and one of the two 'backers will start in his place over the other.
Personally, I think Freeman is the better fit, but we'll get more of a feel for it this week. Watch each player this week to see the differences between the two. From the one performance so far this season, Freeman seemed like the more conservative, patient player, while Fokou was more aggressive. Neither player was tested in coverage very much, and that may be the deciding factor, so keep an eye on them during pass plays.
The noise coming out of camp has been that Freeman has the inside edge to start tonight, but the Colts may not stick to that. Either way, both players should both get a decent amount of playing time.
Although I agree your point about Constanzo having to prove himself...or else the Colts have some big problems, I'm not sure the preseason will tell us much about the long term. On the other hand, what happens in preseason on the right side of the line will make a big difference for the remainder of this season. There is little hope that Justice, McGlynn, Olsen, Link are long-term answers. However, it will be interesting to watch who will step in to be the stopgap that protects our number one draft pick. I just hope someone can play well enough.
Great job. The Freeman vs. Fokou match may not be that big--they both may make the roster and get lots of time. Love the King matchup--it will either expose the shaky secondary play or give us great hope. I'm leaning toward more questions but we'll see.
The preseason sure has more intrigue than we're used to. It's been a great discussion as a result.