What We Learned: Colts at Lions

The Colts lost to the lowly Lions by a point, 18-17, in preseason action Saturday, but that doesn't mean there weren't lessons to be learned from the team's third preseason test. Eric Hartz explains why Colts fans have had a less-stressful preseason this year, tells why we should take it easy on Anthony Gonzalez, and more inside . . .

1. Peyton Manning is ready to roll: In 2008, the Colts' franchise QB missed the entire preseason, and both he and the team got off to a slow start, going 3-4 through the first seven games. But Manning and Co. raised their games in the season's second half, ripping off nine straight wins to close the slate, and Manning picked up his third MVP award.

If the last two preseason games are any indication — we won't count the preseason opener, where Manning was sacked three times in just six plays — No. 18 looks to pick up where he left off last year.

Manning has been sublime in limited action since then. Against Philadelphia, he completed 10-of-14 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Against Detroit, he was 12-of-15 for 123 yards and a touchdown — a number that would have been even better if not for a drop by Anthony Gonzalez, which we'll get to in a moment.

Even without the Gonzalez gaffe, Manning's stats still translate to a 76 percent completion percentage, 10 yards per attempt, and a whopping 141 quarterback rating. Those are numbers most quarterbacks dream of.

Of course, these games don't count, but Manning has been going against first-sting defenses for the most part. But if we're looking for perspective, there's this: a year ago, fans were wondering if Manning was going to be healthy enough to even play in the regular-season opener, let alone whether he would be in classic. A year later, it's comforting to know that for all the questions still surrounding this team, No. 18 is as good as ever.

2. We shouldn't overreact to the drop by Anthony Gonzalez: At least, I hope we've learned this. Maybe not.

Yes, Gonzalez made a bad drop, after a great route and a great pass from Peyton Manning. Yes, it would have been a first down and likely killed what looked like a scoring drive. But it's just one play in a preseason game, right?

Some don't think so.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King offered up this odd comment in his Monday Morning Quarterback column:

I think the most significant single play of the weekend could well have been the right-in-his-hands drop by Colts wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez late in the first half at Detroit. The Colts are trying to give Gonzalez one of two jobs -- Marvin Harrison's right wide-receiver spot, or the slot receiver job. But Peyton Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore are waiting for Gonzalez to raise his game and grab one of the jobs. After the Gonzalez drop, Manning threw six more passes, none to Gonzalez, and Dallas Clark was back in the slot, his comfort zone with Manning. Manning's going to throw to players he trusts, and with Gonzalez dropping a ball like that one -- and not making enough plays otherwise in the preseason -- he could well make Manning lean on Clark and rookie Austin Collie more inside, and Pierre Garcon outside. That really solves all your fantasy problems with the Colts, doesn't it?

Gonzalez dropped seven passes last season, tied for 14th in the league. He also caught 57 of the 79 passes targeted for him, which was 19th-best in the league, percentage-wise. Those are the stats, which really don't mean as much as the bizarre assertion by King that somehow THIS ONE PLAY shattered Manning's confidence in Gonzalez.

Fans shouldn't be too hard on Anthony Gonzalez for this drop
Scott Boehm/Getty Images

That's simply wild speculation by King, who as an NFL insider should know that the Colts aren't trying to "give" Gonzalez any position — he's already earned his spot, and Manning's trust, with his solid play over his first two seasons.

Now, it's not terribly difficult to critique Peter King, and there are those that are capable of doing it much better (and funnier) than me. But the most ridiculous statement in King's focus on Gonzalez is that he isn't "making enough plays otherwise in the preseason." The Colts have three receiving touchdowns in the preseason, and Gonzalez has one of them (the first score against Philadelphia). He also made a couple of heads-up plays vs. the Eagles, breaking up two passes that looked like interceptions, and had a pair of catches against the Lions, including one on the team's first possession where he had to handle a low ball from Manning. Later in that drive, he drew a pass interference call that set up Dallas Clark's TD catch.

I've said in the past that I don't believe Gonzalez has the same upside as Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison, but he's proven in his first two seasons that he has the tools to be a very effective receiver in this offense. That body of work is far more convincing evidence than a single play in a preseason game against the Detroit Lions.

3. The keyword for the defense this season is CONSISTENCY: We've heard all about "wrinkles," "aggressiveness," and even "blitzing," but the feeling I'm getting from most Colts fans is that they simply want the defense to be consistent — to play well for an entire series, not two plays here, or two plays there, and give up big gains on third downs so frequently.

Marcus Howard got a lot of pressure on the Lions' quarterbacks Saturday
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The stats aren't pretty — the Lions rolled up 412 offensive yards, and Detroit rushed for 151 yards — and the most maddening one is that the Lions converted on 9-of-15 third downs (60 percent). But the Colts did make some defensive plays Saturday. Marcus Howard was in the backfield much of the game and recorded a sack and two hurries. Melvin Bullitt, Clint Session and Daniel Muir all knifed through the line to stop running backs. Tim Jennings provided some good coverage and Jerraud Powers made an interception late in the first half.

But Muir also reached for a weak arm tackle near the goal line that Kevin Smith easily ran through on one play, Powers got dragged for a few yards on another, and Philip Wheeler looked a step slow for much of the night. The feeling one got for much of the game was that for every good play the Colts defense made, there were one or two that could have been made. Maybe it sounds like a broken record, but it's the truth.

And, for the second time this preseason, the number of rushing yards was simply unacceptable. The Colts were without three of their biggest weapons against the run Saturday — Ed Johnson, Gary Brackett, and Bob Sanders all sat out the game — but if there's anything the Colts, their coaches, and their fans don't want to see, it's teams running the ball down their throats again and again, while the clock runs and No. 18 watches from the sidelines.

4. Yes, there are some injury concerns. No, it's not time to panic: I'll use this last item to share something a friend of mine tells me nearly every season when I freak out about injuries: it's more important to be healthy at the end of the year than at the beginning.

Sure, the Bob Sanders wait-and-see game is frustrating, and it seems like every other day in the preseason, a different player has gone down with an ailment of some kind. Heck, the Colts didn't have their entire starting secondary for two of the preseason games. But Marlin Jackson came back strong the other day, and Antoine Bethea and Kelvin Hayden should be ready to go by the beginning of the regular season.

Sanders remains a question, of course, but the fact is that this is the NFL and injuries are a fact of life. Every team has them, every team has to deal with them, and nobody likes them. Think back to 2006 — the Colts didn't look like they were going anywhere in the playoffs as the regular season wound down. But Sanders and Dallas Clark returned healthy for the playoffs and the team wound up as Super Bowl champions. In 2007 and 2008, the team managed 12 wins, but the injuries — to Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Marvin Harrison in '07, and to Sanders, Ryan Lilja and Gary Brackett in 2008 — ended up costing them in the playoffs.

Everybody wants to see the best players on the field, but it's simply not realistic to expect that a key player or two won't miss time. The goal is to get through the regular season grind with minimal effect in the win-loss column — and the last two years have proved that the Colts are some of the best in the business with finding ways to overcome injuries to win — and be as close to full strength as possible for the playoffs.

So, take a deep breath and check back in a few months. If the injury list in late December is still as long as your arm, THEN it's time to panic.

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