INDIANAPOLIS – The question hovered heavily over Lucas Oil Stadium, even with the roof and window open that allowed in a gentle breeze to circulate the Sunday afternoon air.
Is the game too big for these guys?
That would be Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger.
Are they ready? Will one show enough during the preseason to prove he’s a viable short-term starter until Carson Wentz returns, or a long-term backup?
The early returns were favorable, which had to have the Indianapolis Colts breathing a tad bit easier Sunday evening.
Eason hadn’t taken a snap in a game situation in over 600 days. His rookie season was impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic that erased the 2020 preseason, and Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett left him zero snaps during the regular season.
Sunday’s start in the preseason opener against Carolina was, Eason admitted, “a long time coming.
“Last time was in Vegas, 2019. The biggest thing was the anticipation part of it. Felt great being out there with the team and seeing a live defense.’’
He absorbed three sacks behind a patchwork of not-good-enough offensive line – none of the projected starters stepped on the field – but his lively arm lit up Lucas Oil. Eason completed 15-of-21 passes – there were probably three drops by his wideouts – for 183 yards and a 97.9 passer rating.
There was an impressive touch pass to Parris Campbell on a deep out in the first quarter that picked up 37 yards – “He couldn’t have thrown it any better,’’ Campbell said – and a laser to rookie Michael Strachan down the left side for 32 yards that kick-started an efficient 2-minute drive to end the first half.
“The 2-minute drive was a clinic,’’ Coach Frank Reich said. “Did a great job and he hit some really nice throws the whole first half. Had a couple of lasers in there.
“Thought he went out there and showed himself well.’’
When Eason traded his helmet for a baseball hat at halftime, it was Ehlinger’s turn.
His first NFL appearance started poorly: an interception on his first drive when he appeared to be a tick late on a third-down throw to rookie tight end Kylen Granson. But he recouped, and ended things in storybook fashion.
Ehlinger’s final two drives resulted in Benny LeMay’s 1-yard touchdown and Ehlinger’s 2-point PAT run that made it 18-all, and Eddy Pineiro’s 30-yard field goal that won it 21-18 with 7 seconds remaining.
“Sam came in and had the rough start with the interception, but we had a mental error on that play,’’ Reich said. “Somebody ran the wrong route . . . still wasn’t a good throw.
“Then Sam bounced back. That’s the kind of thing we want to see from our quarterbacks: mental toughness to be able to have a glitch and be able to come back and play good football.’’
On his first scoring drive, Ehlinger hit rookie Tarik Black for 47 yards down the right seam and benefitted from rookie Tyler Vaughns’ one-handed 25-yard reception that gave the Colts a first-and-goal at the 1.
On the game-winner – 16 plays, 61 yards, 6:02 off the clock – he completed all three of his passes for 29 yards but did his heaviest damage with his legs. Ehlinger broke containment four times and scrambled for 25 yards, twice converting third-down situations.
“Whatever it takes to win,’’ he said. “Individually things started off a little shaky. I just tried to aim it (on the interception) instead of letting it rip. Tried to be too cute with it.
“I got a little more comfortable there at the end. I’m just glad I was able to get my feet wet and get some experience live.’’
That live experience was the next necessary step for Eason and Ehlinger. They’ve been tossed into a training camp competition for the backup role since Wentz underwent surgery on his left foot Aug. 2 that threatens his availability for the Sept. 12 opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
Reich intends on splitting the reps between Eason and Ehlinger the rest of the preseason. Ehlinger gets the start in Saturday’s road game against the Minnesota Vikings.
No one should underestimate the value of those live reps. Again, Eason, a 2020 fourth-round draft pick, was afforded none as a rookie and Ehlinger was a sixth-round pick in April.
Reich smiled when asked about his first exposure to live action at the NFL level. It was the 1985 preseason against the Buffalo Bills.
What did he remember from that special moment?
“That when I got on the field, Walter Payton was on the other side and I was trying to get a grip on that,’’ he said. “I just remember feeling like, ‘It’s not so bad.’ It’s kind of fun when you get in the action with the big boys and you want to say, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be here.’
“I’m sure that’s what they both felt today.’’
Issues at left tackle
The Colts headed into training camp trying to solve a dilemma at left tackle, and it appears that will remain an issue until Eric Fisher completes his rehab from a torn Achilles. He might miss the first month of the season.
Julién Davenport was the starting left tackle for the first two series before giving way to Will Holden. On Holden’s first pass protection opportunity, he gave up a sack to end Marquis Haynes.
Eason was sacked a second time later in the first half when right tackle Sam Tevi, one of the left-tackle options, was beaten by Yetur Gross-Matos.
Along with three sacks, the Panthers were credited with four hits on Colts quarterbacks.
Three of the Colts’ top four wideouts were kept out of the game: T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal. Parris Campbell played sparingly and had one catch for 37 yards.
That left ample opportunities for wideouts trying to earn a spot on the 53-player active roster.
Dezmon Patmon had a team-high five catches for 49 yards while Black had three catches for 67 yards, Strachan three for 57 and Vaughns three for 46.
Ehlinger’s first completion – a 10-yarder – went to Granson, his high school teammate at Westlake (Austin, Tex.).
“I loved it. I loved it,’’ he said. “That’s so cool. I mean, what are the odds? I’ll bet that’s never happened before. Same high school, same draft class, first completion.
“It might have made history.’’
The Colts selected Ehlinger in round 6 and Granson in round 4.
Tons of non-participants
Either because of injury or coach’s decision, the Colts held out the vast majority of their front-line players.
The list included four-fifths of the offensive line: Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith. Fisher remains on the PUP list. Also not playing: Hilton, Pittman, Pascal, Carson Wentz, DeForest Buckner, Kwity Paye, Mo Alie-Cox, Jonathan Taylor, Grover Stewart, Kenny Moore II, Xavier Rhodes, Nyheim Hines, Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Khari Willis, Jack Doyle and Tyquan Lewis.
Cornerback T.J. Carrie did not return after suffering an injury to his right leg in the first quarter. Later, cornerback Marvell Tell III was sidelined with a groin injury and wideout Quartney Davis with a shoulder injury.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.