INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason opener Saturday against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
*Kickoff: 1 p.m.
*Spread: Bills by 5½.
*History lesson: The Bills lead the overall preseason series 6-3 and have won the last six meetings. Now you know.
*Welcome, Anthony: The future is now for the Colts’ quarterback of the future. Anthony Richardson makes his NFL debut in a starting role, and the reason is rather basic.
“I want to see just where he’s at,’’ Shane Steichen said. “You know, get him out there with the guys and go from there.’’
Training camp only offers a glimpse of where Richardson is on his individual learning curve. The defense never is in a giving mood, but quarterbacks wear a red jersey. We’ve seen Richardson’s quick, compact release and accuracy that remains a work in progress. We’ve also watched him use his feet to avoid pressure and test the defense with RPOs, but the only way to truly gauge the threat Richardson creates is putting him out there against an opposing defense intent on stunting his growth.
The No. 4 overall pick in the draft might play at least a quarter, but we’re more interested in the number of snaps he handles. Twenty sounds like a good number. That would expose him to several different situations.
We expect Richardson to be the starter when the Colts open the season Sept. 10 against Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium. He must prove he’s up to the task, and that begins with the Bills.
*Shaq’s back: One of the more encouraging sights of camp has been Shaquille Leonard being heavily involved from the outset. There’s been a gradual ramping up for him, which led to reps in full-padded team work that involves some level of contact.
Actually getting back on the playing field for the first time since Nov. 6 at New England should give Leonard a very good idea how close he is to being ready for the season opener against the Jaguars.
We don’t believe he needs a ton of reps, but experiencing non-scripted, full-go work against the Bills is the next step on Leonard’s return from a second back surgery Nov. 15.
*Offensive line: Until Braden Smith missed Thursday’s practice with a knee injury, the starting unit handled every first-team rep. Smith was joined by left tackle Bernhard Raimann, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and right guard Will Fries. Rookie Blake Freeland stepped in for Smith.
That type of continuity is critical in the development of the offensive line.
But it’s worth pointing out that was the case last summer when the same five lined up for the vast majority of first-team reps: left tackle Matt Pryor, Nelson, Kelly, right guard Danny Pinter and Smith. The preseason opener — also on the road against the Bills — sent up warning flares.
The Colts’ pass protection allowed four sacks and two other QB hits, and run blocking was largely ineffective. Smith was penalized for a false start and Kelly for holding. Pryor was called for holding, which was declined because he gave up a sack of Matt Ryan. In the second quarter, the Bills got to backup Nick Foles for a sack/fumble, which Terrel Bernard returned 69 yards for a touchdown.
The team is confident an o-line that was part of allowing 60 sacks last season — second-most in franchise history — will collectively enjoy a bounce-back season under position coach Tony Sparano Jr. and assistant Chris Watt. That will be critical to the development and success of Richardson.
It would be wrong to downplay the importance of the steps taken by the o-line against the Bills, next week against the Chicago Bears and the following week against the Philadelphia Eagles.
*Corner concerns: We’ve laid out the makeup of the cornerbacks room, and no matter how you spin it, there’s concern. Three draft picks — all taken in the April draft — and seven players who entered the league as undrafted rookies.
Kenny Moore II probably will miss the Bills game with an ankle injury, and injuries have slowed the development of JuJu Brents and Darius Rush. That’s given Dallis Flowers and Darrell Baker Jr. added reps with the No. 1 defense.
Buffalo’s dynamic tandem of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs won’t play, but Matt Barkley and Kyle Allen will offer significant challenges to the Colts’ secondary.
*Wideouts: Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce should get some work with the Richardson-led starting unit, and they need every rep they can get with the rookie. But it’s important for the supporting case of wideouts to sort themselves out. We’re looking at rookie Josh Downs and vet Isaiah McKenzie in the slot along with Ashton Dulin, Amari Rodgers and Mike Strachan.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.