WESTFIELD, Ind. — Training camp and the preseason always are a matter of how much is enough. How much work is required to adequately prepare players for the upcoming season?
That’s especially true when the preseason schedule rolls around.
The Indianapolis Colts open their three-game preseason Saturday night at Buffalo, so it’s only natural to wonder how much exposure is needed.
The short answer: Some, but not a lot.
And there’s a caveat: Game reps will vary from player to player.
Chris Ballard, Frank Reich and their support staff put a plan in place during the offseason to guide the team through training camp and the preseason. They tailored things to address the Colts’ notoriously slow starts to the regular season: 1-4 last year, 2-2 in ’19 and 1-5 in ’18.
“We’ve had four seasons, three out of the four have had slow starts,” Reich said following Saturday’s walkthrough at Grand Park Sports Campus. “So, a little bit it to address that. A little bit is not just reacting to that, but just thinking that’s what feels right.”
And what feels right is playing the starters more than has been the case in the past. Not too much, but just enough.
“Maybe a little bit more than we’ve played in the past – not a whole lot more – but maybe a little bit more,” Reich said. “Just a little bit more for the starters.”
It’s tough to assess Reich’s intended approach last summer because injuries kept a handful of players out: quarterback Carson Wentz (foot), guard Quenton Nelson (foot), center Ryan Kelly (elbow), wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (neck), linebacker Shaquille Leonard (ankle), cornerback Xavier Rhodes (calf), left tackle Eric Fisher (Achilles).
But many healthy starters saw limited exposure. Right tackle Braden Smith and right guard Mark Glowinski were on the field for 21 snaps, all in game 2 against Minnesota. Cornerback Kenny Moore II handled eight reps against the Vikings.
“The more looks you can get, the better,’’ Smith said. “But I also get obviously preseason games don’t count toward the regular schedule. Obviously the coaches know what’s best. We’ll do what they tell us to do.”
Jonathan Taylor didn’t step on the field for one preseason snap last year, and there’s every chance that’ll be the case again this summer.
The NFL’s reigning rushing champion might not be an outlier.
Asked if there are players who won’t play at all in the preseason, Reich replied, “Possibly. Not many, but we’ll take a look case-by-case. But for the most part, I want the guys to think everybody is playing. Then Chris and I will meet with the coaches and the scouts and we’ll work through it.”
The approach to the preseason schedule doesn’t simply hinge on the need to get off a stronger start. This is a much different team than the one that ended 2021 with a pair of disheartening losses.
“New defensive system, new quarterback,” Reich noted. “And again, I’m just talking incremental – maybe an extra series from what we would normally do (with the starters). Nothing is etched in stone. Chris and I have talked about this at length.”
The initial plan – again, subject to change – is for front-line players to play roughly a quarter against the Bills. It’s actually based more on reps than the number of series.
“We kind of have a number (in mind),” Reich said.
The second preseason game against Detroit – Aug. 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium – will be impacted by the Colts and Lions having joint workouts Aug. 17-18 at Grand Park. Those are expected to be intense practices, which will result in both teams greatly dialing things back for the game.
Reich and Detroit coach Dan Campbell already have discussed that.
“There’s a good chance the starters won’t play in that game because we’ve got two good days of work against them,” Reich said. “It’s highly competitive.”
Starters then likely will play to some degree in the Aug. 27 finale against Tampa Bay at Lucas Oil.
As Reich mentioned, the offseason changes with the team – along with the history of slow starts – required an adjustment to the training camp/preseason blueprint.
Gus Bradley has installed a new defense which was followed by the additions of, among others, edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Brandon Facyson, and safeties Rodney McLeod and rookie Nick Cross.
And then there’s Reich dealing with his fifth starting quarterback in as many seasons. Matt Ryan is entering his 15th season and has looked in total control of the offense at training camp, but game action is simply different, even in the preseason.
It’s worth noting Ryan didn’t play during the preseason last summer with Atlanta. He last stepped on the field for a preseason game Aug. 22, 2019 against Washington. He handled 30 snaps and attempted 14 passes.
Former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning used to joke he wanted to take one hit during a preseason game just to get serious contact out of the way.
Reich doesn’t disagree.
“I think it helps,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an absolute rule, but I do think it helps. There’s nothing like getting out there and playing live football. There’s just nothing like it. It’s what’s so great about this game. It really takes guys to another level. I think it’s good for everybody to get out there and play.”
“Preseason – The more looks you can get, the better. But I also get obviously preseason games don’t count toward the regular schedule, but obviously the coaches know what’s best. We’ll do what they tell us to do.”
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.