Know when to watch preseason closely

After the Colts starters exit, see who plays next

When Colts starters exit after first quarter, pay attention to who plays next and how they play. Second-teamers who excel in preseason games earn NFL roster spots.

It’s fitting that the second NFL preseason game should be identified by the number two.

As in, start paying closer attention in the second quarter when the New York Giants visit the Colts Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. That’s when the starters come out and the reserves start trying to prove they belong on the final roster.

Too often, fans and even media get caught up in the production or lack thereof of first-teamers in these exhibition games. Other than injuries — Khaled Holmes’ ankle in the opener — the early results of preseason games are all about seeing if a team has found players that can shore up the roster.

It’s encouraging to see Andrew Luck work well with the best group of receivers he’s had, to see how the running backs run or the tacklers tackle. And while we’re paying close attention to the O-line, even that can be misleading because most NFL teams are vanilla in preseason. They don’t want to show too much. We would be hasty to presume the O-line is fine based on how the preseason games go because everything changes come September. The games are faster, strategy comes more into play. If the Colts are going to have Holmes and left guard Jack Mewhort double-team the tackle a lot, that opens up a blitzing hole. I’m more concerned with how the line adjusts to blitzes, and we’re not going to see a lot of that aggression now.

What we want to see is how rookie wide receiver Donte Moncrief adjusts to pro game. Specifically, how he handles getting jammed at the line, how often he gets separation, how well he uses his hands to make the tough catches and if his routes are precise.

What we want to see is who will help out at safety? LaRon Landry and Delano Howell might be the starters now, but both have had injuries in the past. Guys get subtracted every week from the equation. When one of those guys goes down, who is that proverbial next man up? Can Sergio Brown be reliable and more than just a great special-teams player? Does a guy like Colt Anderson stick? Is David Sims a possibility? You scan the roster names and watch the games and wonder. The Colts likely keep four safeties, and if history is an indicator, safeties three and four will eventually see the field at some point.

While we would like to see what the pass rush will be like for four games without Robert Mathis, again, don’t get too caught up in how Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden play Saturday night. They are going to start, you know this. But who can help pressure the pocket? Is Ball State rookie Jonathan Newsome polished enough to make an immediate splash? Will Joshua McNary build upon making some plays late last season and become a blitzing option? Again, be thinking in terms of numbers. The Colts’ 3-4 needs guys who can bring it on the edge and pressure the pocket to speed up a passer’s internal clock. The Colts will probably keep at least five outside rushers because Mathis is out for four games. Heck, they might even keep six. Who will those guys be?

So often guys shine in the second half against scrubs and people are quick to say “That guy just earned him a spot on the team.” Not necessarily. Talented guys who can play in the NFL should dominate against guys who will be out of work in a few weeks. That’s why the second quarter becomes more of an indication of what to expect. Second-teamers against second-teamers. And the ones who excel earn roster spots and most likely a chance to play with the first team at some point.

While we’re on the subject of backups, running back Dan Herron comes to mind. The Colts need a third running back. The position gets punished and depth is essential. We’re reminded of this need by the loss of Vick Ballard, who was going to be a perfect, hard-working, humble reserve until he blew out his Achilles. Maybe Herron can be that guy. He certainly played well with the second team in the opener against the New York Jets. Matt Hasselbeck smartly got Herron in open space on those short throws. Herron is a guy to keep an eye on.

There are others I’m probably not mentioning, but no need to give a role, err, roll call. Just pay closer attention come the second quarter Saturday night. The guys who play first after the starters are what preseason is all about. Prove you belong or they will find someone else.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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