The Colts head into their bye week with a two game winning streak that has pushed them to 3-5 at the halfway point. Chris Ballard and Frank Reich have consistently utilized first and second year players for contributions along the way. For the first times in many of their NFL careers, they staged a fourth quarter comeback on the road. These opportunities to grow should help the team as the season progresses and give Indy’s front office a really good feel for where the team is headed when they start formulating the approach to the 2019 off season.
For now, let’s take a look at the impact young players had in a satisfying comeback win in Oakland.
Rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith are now both full time starters. They did not come off of the field against the Raiders and, barring injury, will likely play every snap in the second half of the season. Both players have continued to earn recognition from player evaluators, former players, and media personalities for playing a key role in a Colts offensive line that has started dominating in both phases.
The backfield continues to lean heavily on young players, with Marlon Mack leading the way in his second year. Mack has put together 10 straight quarters of highly productive film and has been rewarded with a bulk of the backfield load. He was on the field for 63% of the offensive snaps in Oakland and received 25 carries for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added 2 receptions on 4 targets for another 17 yards.
Rookie Nyheim Hines has been getting a lot of opportunities, even with Mack’s surge. He was on the field for 36% of the offensive plays while fellow rookie Jordan Wilkins was on the field for only 4%. Hines had another productive outing by rushing for 78 yards on 11 carries, an impressive 7.1 yards per carry average. He also caught 2 passes on 2 targets for 7 yards. Wilkins had 2 carries for 14 yards, 7.0 yards per carry in his own right.
No matter who is in the backfield, this group of young players — including the offensive linemen — have been highly effective. If Indianapolis can continue having success on the ground and remain balanced on offense, it should have a positive impact for Andrew Luck and the passing game.
As with the offensive side of the ball, the defense continues to rely heavily on contributions from young players. No player has had a greater impact in 2018 than rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. He played every defensive down in Oakland and produced 9 tackles, a QB hit and a forced fumble to seal the game. No player for the Colts has made a habit of game-changing plays more than Leonard.
Rookie defensive end Kemoko Turay continues to earn a lot of opportunities. He took the field for 46% of the defensive snaps and recorded a tackle. The quick release passing game for Derek Carr, Jon Gruden, and the Raiders offense made it difficult for the Colts’ defensive line to get an effective pass rush going. Turay tallied 1 tackle for the day.
Rookie linebackers Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams have both started seeing more regular opportunities on defense. Franklin was on the field for 20% of the defensive snaps, while Adams took the field for 16%. Franklin made a nice play in the middle of the field by knocking down a pass and added 2 tackles. Adams did not record a defensive stat.
Rookie safety George Odum also took the field for one defensive play but his only tackle was on special teams.
As has been the theme this season, it is the second-year players who are dominating the defensive side of the ball this year. Corner Kenny Moore took the field for 98% of the defensive plays, linebacker Anthony Walker was on the field for 82%, defensive tackle Grover Stewart played 34% of the defensive snaps, corner Quincy Wilson saw 20%, and corner Nate Hairston was on the field for 18%.
Moore recorded 3 tackles, Walker added 6, and Wilson recorded 1. Stewart and Hairston did not record a defensive stat.
The Indianapolis Colts are starting to form an identity that is heavily influenced by young players. Coming into this season, one of the biggest concerns was how the team would transition at the linebacker position. At this point, Darius Leonard is a legitimate rookie defensive player of the year candidate and Anthony Walker has looked really good. Even rookies Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin have flashed promise.
With veteran Frank Gore moving on to Miami, there were concerns about how the backfield committee approach would turn out. Marlon Mack has had injury issues and rookies can certainly struggle. Right now, all three running back have looked effective running the ball and the future at the position appears very bright.
For years the offensive line has been a weakness in Indianapolis. It has been partially responsible for the beating Andrew Luck has taken in his young career and certainly played a big part in the struggles the Colts have had running the football. Young players now make up the bulk of the line and they are starting to open up big running lanes. Andrew Luck has been hit and under pressure the least in the first eight games of 2018 than he has at any other point in his career.
There is still work to be done for the Colts to get where they want to go but it is amazing what happens when your scouting staff and general manager start to get things right. Two years in, Ballard’s plan is starting to make some sense.