Heading into the season, it was widely accepted that the Indianapolis Colts were in a rebuilding year. Some projected a losing record. Numerous others suggested that a .500 season should be considered a big accomplishment. Neither of those groups could have imagined some of the things that have happened in 2018.
Even fans who were confident in Andrew Luck’s return to football after nearly two years away from the game had to admit hesitation. What can you realistically expect from a player who underwent major shoulder surgery, suffered an apparent setback during his recovery, and didn’t officially start the football portion of his throwing program until training camp only a few months ago?
If I had to guess, even the most optimistic fan wouldn’t have thought that 13 games into the season Luck would be among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards, have a quarterback rating just under Aaron Rodgers but above Tom Brady, and sit second in the NFL in touchdown passes.
Coming into the season, it was expected that a major transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 Tampa 2 style would take time. There is simply no way to acquire all of the players a team needs to effectively run the system in one year. While the Colts defense isn’t where fans or coaches want it to be just yet, there are tremendous first year strides that no one would have predicted.
The Colts are currently sitting at 11th in total defense, 18th in point per game, 15th in pass defense, 9th!!! in run defense (the Achilles heel of the Tampa 2), 12th in sacks, and 8th in forced fumbles. Not only is this defense already an average or even above average unit, it has players who are flashing in a much brighter way than could have been imagined.
Chris Ballard should be seriously considered for executive of the year. His draft picks and free agent additions on the offensive line have completely changed the face of the organization. Injuries to Jack Doyle and Ryan Kelly have brought the group down to a earth a bit but when veteran Matt Slauson went down, Mark Gowinski somehow upgraded the right guard position. When the floundering attempts at right tackle failed and Joe Haeg suffered an injury, rookie Braden Smith turned into what appears to be a long-term answer at the position. The future looks very bright for the Colts offensive line and just one year ago this unit had huge question marks.
An even greater accomplishment has to be the work Ballard has done in just two years at linebacker. No position was a bigger weakness heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. The pledge to bring in a handful of new players at the position signaled a complete “rebuild” at the second level of an entirely new defense.
Darius Leonard, who was an “over-drafted” small school prospect early in the second round, and Anthony Walker, a mid-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft who did very little as a rookie, look very much like the team’s future at the position. Leonard is a front runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year (and is currently underappreciated in discussions for Defensive Player of the Year outright). Leonard leads the NFL in tackles by 17 and he missed a game this season. Walker is 15th in the NFL with 97 tackles and has come on strong in recent weeks.
Rookies Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin, and Skai Moore are all still with the team. Adams has stepped into a prominent role as the starting strong side or SAM linebacker. He has shown speed, range, and strength that seventh round picks aren’t supposed to show. He played a big role in containing Dashaun Watson in the pocket.
Even the defensive line has been a breath of fresh air. Free agent acquisition Denico Autry was only kind of exciting for Colts fans. He wasn’t a marquee name in free agency and Ballard didn’t throw away the team’s future trying to pay him. He currently leads the Colts in sacks with 8 on the season, has tallied 5 sacks in the last two weeks, and has been dominant at 3-tech defensive tackle. Margus Hunt has battled through injuries for the most productive season of his career. Jabaal Sheard has been a dominant edge defender, particularly against the run, and has 5.5 sacks of his own. Rookies Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis have flashed potential as pass rushers.
Indianapolis has acquired what many believe is the top group of tight ends in the NFL. Starters Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron have Pro Bowl level talent. Mo Alie-Cox and Erik Swoope have been red zone threats who can easily get lost as defenses focus attention elsewhere. Perhaps the most impressive part of the story here is that the Colts have Ross Travis on injured reserve who many thought would push his way onto the roster this season.
Ultimately, these surprises, these wins at numerous positions in a very short period of time have resulted in the Colts going on an impressive 6-1 run after a slow 1-5 start. Let’s take a look back at the keys to the game and how the Colts came out on top against the Houston Texans.
KEEP DESHAUN WATSON UNCOMFORTABLE
Check. The Colts defense generated 5 sacks and 7 quarterback hits. They contained Watson in the pocket and held him to 35 yards on 5 carries on the ground. They also knocked down four of his passes.
Check. Hopkins caught 4 passes on 10 targets for 36 yards and a touchdown. No Texans player was targeted more than Hopkins on the day and he simply couldn’t get anything going. For big stretches of the game, he wasn’t a factor.
MUST MAINTAIN BALANCE
Meh. The Colts were able to stay more balanced than they were against the Jacksonville Jaguars a week ago but the running game was entirely ineffective. Andrew Luck led the way, averaging over 6 yards per carry — not counting his kneel downs at the end of the game. Marlon Mack averaged only 2.4 yards per carry and Nyheim Hines averaged .3 yards.
The officials nearly stole this one. Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers sniffed out a goal line pass that Geathers was able to pick off. A ridiculous personal foul on Hooker gave the Texans another chance that ended with a touchdown, instead of a goal line turnover.
Either way, Indianapolis was unable to win the turnover battle and it kept the game closer than it otherwise would have been.
OFFENSIVE LINE MUST GEL
Check. While Andrew Luck was sacked twice, he held onto the ball too long on at least one of those plays. The other sack was J.J. Watt doing what he does. Ultimately, Luck was able to pick the Texans defense apart — using a heavy dose of T.Y. Hilton and often had a clean pocket to work from. Jadaveon Clowney was shutout and Braden Smith handled Watt one-on-one for much of the afternoon.
There is still work to be done, particularly in the run game, but this was a better effort.