It doesn't matter if the Indianapolis Colts win the “game” (i.e. first half) against the Cleveland Browns tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium.
They'll tell you it does. They'll tell you this is a dress rehearsal at 7 tonight, the closest approximation to a real game that the NFL's too-long, over-hyped preseason has to offer. That part is true. Game 3 of the preseason features the most front-line players for longest period of time.
“What you'd like to do is play a half, go in, make your adjustments and come out and play a series in that third quarter,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.
But the Colts don't have to win the first half – on the scoreboard – to consider the game a success and the team ready for the regular season. Too many parts are missing, especially on offense. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Ahmad Bradshaw are sitting out for health reasons.
Secondly, what team is going to fully show its hand on either side of the ball before the games count?
Surely some things remain unrevealed in the preseason, and that includes formations and plays that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has in mind as well as defensive maneuvers (blitzes, coverages) that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will employ.
We're trained as sports fans to judge games by the score, and rightfully so. But the preseason, even Game 3, is a different breed.
How should we judge the Colts in this game? Progression, progression, progression.
The Colts need to move a step forward in all phases of the game during the first half and early third quarter. If it's a win on the scoreboard, that's a bonus.
On offense, progress means precision and points.
“Always improve, No.1,” quarterback Andrew Luck said. “You want to win, like any game. And again, put drives together. Put good long drives together. Score points. Be an efficient offense.”
Luck will be at a disadvantage without his regular tight ends, but he still has the wide-receiver weapons of Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Much has been made, at least on Twitter, from Colts fans about Heyward-Bey being a starter over Hilton. I'm more inclined to judge value on targets and catches than whether a receiver is on the field for introductions.
That said, I'd expect Luck to distribute the ball to all three receivers against the Browns. Wayne might not play as long, Pagano said, given his veteran status.
The offense also needs to show improvement in the running game, even with Bradshaw out. Vick Ballard said earlier this week he'd like to put some yards up in Game 3. It's important to see if the Colts offensive line can establish some runs, even if it's not Hamilton's touted “run-first” approach. Rookie guard Hugh Thornton should see time. Can he make an immediate impression?
On defense, progress means pass rush and playmakers.
The defense needs to build off the pass-rush success it had against the New York Giants, although some success came vs. second- and third-team units. Can they force a couple of strong three-and-outs? Can they force Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden and offensive coordinator Norv Turner's retooled offense into mistakes?
I'd like to see a step up from rookie pass rusher Bjoern Werner after a game under his belt. Turn a pressure into a sack.
LaRon Landry could make his Colts debut, putting the Colts secondary together with fellow starters Antoine Bethea, Vontae Davis and Greg Toler for the first time this season. It'd be good to see some plays made – pass breakups, strong coverage, maybe a pick – by the refined unit.
The kickoff return game remains unsettled and maybe that's where newly acquired David Reed (from the Ravens in the Delone Carter trade) comes into play. Neither Kerwynn Williams nor Cassius Vaughn has claimed the spot yet.
It's safe to say there are no worries about kicker Adam Vinatieri, punter Pat McAfee or punt returner Hilton. Those are solid spots.
The Colts worried their fans with a subpar performance in their first preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills. They regained traction, and settled nerves, with their win over the Giants.
“You don't want to go out there and lay an egg, no matter if you're out there for a series or a whole half or whatnot,” Wayne said. “Whenever you step out there, you want to put your best foot forward. Now, being that this is the game that we play the most, it may be more emphasis on that. But whenever you're out there on that field, you want to go out there and put your best foot forward.”
Progress is the word. A win on the scoreboard would be a nice, but nonessential preseason byproduct.