Five to Watch: Colts at Packers

The Colts meet the Packers tonight in what could be a mini-preview of Super Bowl XLV. But being the preseason, there are storylines beyond just the first-team clash of two preseason favorites. Eric Hartz offers a viewer's guide.

1. Peyton Manning: All eyes are always on Peyton Manning when he's on the field for the Colts in the preseason. But during this matchup, in which he is expected to play most of the first half, No. 18 deserves a little scrutiny from fans.

The legendary quarterback was a little off to open last week's loss to the Buffalo Bills, hitting just 8-of-15 passes and throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Certainly, there's nothing to worry about, but he'll be facing a Green Bay secondary that's opportunistic (the Packers led the league in interceptions last season) and features the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Charles Woodson — who, incidentally, is the same player who beat Manning out for the Heisman Trophy in 1997.

Add in the fact that the last trip to Green Bay for the Colts was a disappointing 34-14 loss in 2008, when Manning was still recovering from two knee surgeries, and that one of the league's up-and-coming QB stars in Aaron Rodgers will guide the Packers, and you may get to see Manning in full-on regular-season mode, at least for a half.

2. Brandon James: James got the attention of many fans and Colts' followers during the early days of training camp, when he was actively involved in both the return game and at wide receiver.

The early excitement has cooled a bit, as Devin Moore has been the more impressive returner through two preseason games, and James hasn't been as involved in the offense as it initially seemed he might be.

But with Moore not expected to play Thursday, look for James to get a more featured role in the kicking game. Since he's been leapfrogged by Moore for the time being, he'll be looking to show what he can do.

3. Gijon Robinson: There's no doubt that this fourth-year tight end is squarely on the bubble, with rookie Brody Eldridge filling his former role on the first team for much of the preseason. The team's other backup tight end, Jacob Tamme, has continued his preseason success, with touchdown catches in the first two games.

At this point, Robinson seems dangerously close to the cut line, with his status ultimately being how many tight ends the team chooses to keep on the opening day roster. He needs to showcase something special, and carve out his own unique role on the team, to get himself on the right side of that line.

4. Ervin Baldwin: Watching this third-year pro in training camp this year, it was difficult to believe Baldwin hasn't found himself part of an NFL rotation on a 4-3 team. Although undersized, Baldwin seems like a perfect fit on the two teams he has been on in his NFL career — Chicago and Indianapolis.

He's quick, active, can get to the quarterback around the edge and seems to hold up well despite his size in the running game. Perhaps it speaks more to the talent the Bears and Colts have at the position that Baldwin hasn't been a more talked-about player.

Baldwin had two tackles and a quarterback hurry in the Buffalo game after recording just one in the preseason opener against San Francisco, so he did get more active last week. The problem is he is once again part of a logjam at defensive end. Beyond Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, he's also probably behind both Jerry Hughes and John Chick on the depth chart at this point. Add in DE/DT hybrids like Mitch King, Eric Foster, Keyunta Dawson and Fili Moala, and Baldwin — who seems to be a defensive end and nothing more — could again find himself out of a job when final cutdowns come. A sack or two against a strong Green Bay offense could give the coaches more tape to consider, however, and give Baldwin a little more light at the end of the preseason tunnel.

5. Jeff Linkenbach: Here's a guy you didn't think you would be hearing very much about in the preseason, as he seemed like a fringe player at best. But uncertainty at left tackle, with starter Charlie Johnson out since the first week of training camp, has given Linkenbach a chance to compete for a backup job.

Tony Ugoh seems to be doing a capable job in Johnson's absence, but he also figures into the team's plans at guard if and when Johnson returns to his regular spot. Linkenbach turned some heads in a starting role at left guard against Buffalo — Ugoh started at left tackle — and figures to get a fair amount of action tonight as well. Maybe he's not exactly the most exciting player to watch, but keep an eye on No. 72 Thursday — in a preseason full of dark clouds on the offensive line, seeing Linkenbach emerge as a reliable option could be a silver lining.


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