- By Laurel Pfahler Contributing Writer
Indianapolis Colts first-year head coach Frank Reich used a midweek conference call with local media to talk about the challenges of preparing for an opponent the first week of the season.
The Colts host the Cincinnati Bengals in the opener Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, and both teams are in the same situation, facing a lot of unknowns in putting together a game plan.
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For Reich, it will be the first test of his new systems after taking over this offseason following a two-year stint as offensive coordinator for the 2017 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Here are five takeaways from what he said about the matchup ahead with Cincinnati:
1. Luck is ready
Three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck is back after missing all of last season because of a torn labrum on his right throwing shoulder, which he had surgically repaired in January 2017. Reich said Luck has cleared all hurdles to be able to open the season, but now he has to get through the grind of a 16-game schedule.
Luck has been known as a guy who can extend plays, but that also makes him susceptible to hits. Reich doesn’t necessarily want him to change the way he plays in that regard but said he needs to be smart in his decision-making.
“You don’t want to take away part of what makes him great,” Reich said. “I think there is a fine balance there and a continuum that you move back and forth between. A lot of it’s based on a situation, the play, the score, the time on the clock. It seems like a lot, but for a guy like that, that’s that smart and understands the game the way he does, what we’ve talked about is just like in the pass game where you take calculated shots, there are times when you’re scrambling and we can be more aggressive and there’s times we have to use good judgment and live to play another play.”
2. Force up front
Lakota West High School graduate Ryan Kelly also went through a lot last year after breaking his foot during 2017 training camp and then suffering a concussion with lingering symptoms shortly after his return.
Reich said he’s showing no rust. Kelly played 16 games as a rookie in 2016.
“He’s been a real bright spot, getting here, getting to know him and seeing him operate in the meeting room, on the practice field,” Reich said. “In our offense the way we run things, the center plays a critical role in the communication, as do most centers, but he just really picked up the new scheme exceedingly well and on top of that, physically he is just playing really strong and well at this point.”
3. Hit the ground running
Second-year player Marlon Mack shows a lot of promise as he steps into the starting role at running back. However, he is dealing with a lingering hamstring issue and did not practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday, so it’s unclear whether he will be available. Regardless of who carries the ball, Reich said the running game will be important, especially to help take some of the pressure off Luck.
“It’s incredibly important, certainly for him, our team, really anywhere,” Reich said. “Anywhere I’ve ever been a good running game is absolutely essential. I just think it’s hard to win consistently week in and week out if you don’t have a good running game.”
Former Bengals H-back Ryan Hewitt could make an impact on the offense as a versatile fullback/tight end type player, Reich said.
4. New defense ready
The Colts have shifted from an odd front defense to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, and Reich said it seems to fit the players well.
“It’s really all about pass-rush and putting guys in position to rush the passer,” Reich said. “We feel like it’s been a good adjustment. There’s been a few kinks along the way, but I think guys have handled it well, … and I think it’s accentuating our players in a way that will allow them to make plays on Sundays.”
5. Blocking the pass rush
As a former quarterback and offensive-minded coach, Reich has paid particular attention to the Bengals defense over the years and is most concerned about the team’s pass rush. He’s also a little envious of the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green tandem.
“I always look at the Bengals being one of the better defenses in the league,” Reich said. “They are really good up front, just long and athletic and good four-man pass rush. They have some unique blitz packages. On the offensive side of the ball, I think Dalton-Green has been one of the better connections in the NFL over the last number of years. They make big-time plays consistently, week in and week out, so we are going to get a good challenge in Week 1.”