INDIANAPOLIS – Coby Fleener had a few Indianapolis Colts fans nervous before the first regular-season game. Showtime settled everyone down.
Fleener, a tight end from Stanford University who was the team's second draft pick, had been erratic in his pass catching and blocking during training camp and preseason games. It was understandable he'd need time to get the hang of NFL blocking. But, he had been one of Colts quarterback (and top pick) Andrew Luck's favorite targets in college, so some dropped footballs raised eyebrows.
Fleener is apparently one of those players who thrive when the pressure rises.
Fleener caught six passes for 82 yards, with a long of 24 yards, in the Colts' 41-21 loss to the Chicago Bears last Sunday. He was targeted 10 times, second-most to Reggie Wayne's 18.
“In the NFL, they say from Game 1 to Game 2 you make your biggest strides,” Fleener said. “As a rookie, to get that first game under your belt and get an understanding of what to expect going forward is very helpful.”
If the Luck-to-Fleener combination progresses another notch for the Colts' home opener against the Minnesota Vikings at 1 p.m. Sunday, that'll be huge for the offense.
"Coby played as good a game as he's played since he's been here, counting the preseason, (with) the catches that he made and then the run game," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "He did a nice job in the run game."
Luck understandably looks to Wayne as his safety net, particularly given Wayne can catch any pass within four feet of him – high, low, inside, outside – in incredible fashion. The possible return of Austin Collie this week could boost production, too. Luck and Collie displayed nice rapport during training camp.
But there's reason to believe Luck's longtime connection with Fleener can be exploited, too.
Fleener says their past helps their present.
“You kind of know what to expect from each other,” Fleener said. “The guys who have been with Andrew now are starting to do that, too. That's been developing through camp more and more.”
Fleener and fellow rookie tight end Dwayne Allen have additional responsibilities in pass protection, as well as the running game. That leads to some major challenges in matchups, as Fleener found out quickly.
“It's definitely an eye-opener to go against Julius Peppers as your first block in the NFL,” Fleener said. “Everyone is bigger, faster, stronger. Outside of that, it's the same sport you've been playing for the past however many years.”
The Vikings sport one of the NFL's best pass rushers in Jared Allen, so Fleener will probably have to deal with him at some point this Sunday.
“It seems like we're not getting the easiest bunch to start off with, but it's great competition,” Fleener said. “Dwayne and I are excited to start off against one of the best players in the NFL.”
Hilton, Justice back at practice
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and right tackle Winston Justice both practiced on Thursday, a sign they will likely play on Sunday.
Dwight Freeney and Austin Collie did not practice, however. Collie has been expected to return, so his absence may put that expectation in jeopardy.