Drew Brees needed less than one quarter to show he’s ready for the NFL regular season.
The Indianapolis Colts? Not so much.
It’s just preseason, but Saturday’s primetime game was supposed to count more than the others. This was when starters played the longest, the truest barometer of team progress, especially considering first-teamers probably won't see the field in the last exhibition. Colts coach Chuck Pagano had said earlier in the week his team would find out where it was.
The answer, evidently, was lost in space.
Blame it on Brees, who in his first taste of August exhibition football put on a clinic in exploiting weaknesses as Colts defenders were continually out of place or just flat outplayed in a 23-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We missed a ton of tackles today, including myself,” said Colts inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
“I’m sure we’re all a little disappointed in our production,” added quarterback Andrew Luck.
Advantageous down-and-distance opportunities were there for the defense to stop Brees, who had missed the previous two games with an oblique strain. But the eight-time Pro Bowl star kept converting.
The game’s opening drive told the story. Twice the Colts had him facing third-and-8 plays. He moved the chains the first time with a 12-yard strike to the back shoulder of a covered Marques Colston. Later, Brees couldn’t find an open man but saw plenty of open space for a 10-yard scramble to the Colts’ 3. He capped the 13-play, 80-yard drive with a TD pass to fullback Austin Johnson on the next play.
“It’s going to be something to sit down and watch and write notes and fine tune,” said Colts defensive end Ricky Jean Francois of Monday film study. “Come Denver (on Sept. 7), we can’t make the same mistakes we made tonight against that type of team.”
The Colts stopped Brees after one first down allowed on the next series, and Luck pulled his team even with a 21-yard TD pass to tight end Coby Fleener.
But back came Brees. Tight end Jimmy Graham, No. 9’s go-to guy, got a step on Jackson and Brees floated a perfect pass for a 38-yard gain. The Saints would need just seven plays to go 80 yards this time. Brees picked on Jackson again when he saw the linebacker trying to cover Colston in the end zone. The 13-yard TD pass seemed too easy.
“He can make every throw on the field,” Jackson said. “Drew Brees is the captain of (their) ship. There’s a lot of teaching tape.”
And with that, the eight-time Pro Bowl star took a seat with 32 seconds remaining in the first quarter. On the other bench, a Colts defense that had allowed just three points in two quarters before this game was wondering what happened.
At that early juncture, the Saints had run 28 plays for a dizzying 189 yards with Brees completing 9-of-15 passes for 128 yards.
“We’re just getting outplayed right now,” Pagano said at halftime. “They’re playing harder. They’re beating us at fundamental football. We’ve giving up big plays on defense. We’re not tackling very well.”
The Colts’ offense was also mostly out of sync. Luck had an ugly interception on an underthrown sideline pass to Fleener to give the Saints field position for a field goal.
“It was just a really bad throw,” Luck said.
Even more discouraging was a drive in the final minutes of the first half. The Colts earned a first down at the Saints’ half-yard line, but failed to punch it in for the TD.
“We need seven points there,” Luck said. “We’ve got to find a way to get seven.”
The Colts’ third-year quarterback, who completed 10-of-18 passes for 103 yards, pointed a finger at himself.
“I know I made a lot of mistakes that need to be corrected if we’re going to have a chance to be a good offense,” he said.
Just a few thousand fans from an announced crowd of 65,565 stayed in their seats to the end, when the Colts’ backups were unable to rally to victory in the final minutes. Everybody else had obviously seen enough.
The Colts fell to 0-3 in preseason while the Saints improved to 3-0. And based on how the starters performed, the disparity in appearance matched the team’s opposite records.
“It’s a long season,” Jackson said. “One thing about this team, we’ve got a resilient bunch.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.