The 2018 Indianapolis Colts live and die by the play of first- and second-year players. When the young pros are at the top of their game, Indy has a great deal of success. While the defense continues to rely more on youth, and has been having a great deal of success, rookie contributions on the offensive line have been extremely important.
Let’s take a look at both sides of the ball and see how these players mad an impact in an important division win in Houston.
First and second round players have found a great deal of success for Chris Ballard. Look no further than offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, who have refused to relinquish their starting spots and continue to play every snap. The offensive line gave up 2 sacks and 5 quarterbacks hits in Houston but comeback player of the year candidate J.J. Watt was held to one sack and Jadeveon Clowney not only finished the game without a sack, he was drawn off-sides to seal the Colts victory.
Braden Smith had an impressive performance against Watt, particularly when you consider that he handled the assignment one-on-one for much of the game. Smith will face few challenges at right tackle that are more demanding that Watt.
The running game has slowed considerably in recent weeks and the Texans game was no exception. Rookie Nyheim Hines was on the field for 42% of the offensive snaps but gained only 1 yard on 3 carries. He also caught 3 passes on 5 targets for 16 yards. Sophomore rusher Marlon Mack took 60% of the snaps to rush for 33 yards on 14 carries. He was targeted only once through the air but did not record a catch.
Rookie receiver Daurice Fountain was called up to the active roster leading up to the Texans game but only saw the field on 4% of the offensive snaps. He did not record a catch. Second-year receiver Zach Pascal finished as the second most productive receiver on the roster. He caught 5 passes on 6 targets and generated 68 yards and a touchdown.
It was just another week for rookie Darius Leonard. Not only did he stay on the field for every defensive snap, he gathered 12 tackles, 1 sack, and defended a pass that was intended for all-world receiver Deandre Hopkins in the red zone. It was an eerily similar play to the one that torched the Colts in Week 4 in overtime, and led to a game winning field goal. Not this time.
For those keeping track, Leonard’s stat line this season is as follows:
135 tackles (17 more than second place in one less game), 7 sacks, 5 passes defensed, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.
Bob Sanders won DPOY in 2007 with the following stat line:
96 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 6 passes defensed, 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery.
Rookie defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis continues to get a heavy snap count, taking 46% of the defensive snaps. He generated only 1 tackle but was active in the backfield and played a role in bottling up Deshaun Watson.
Matt Eberflus had a solid game plan that included a heavy dose of rookie strong side linebacker Matthew Adams. He played on 42% of the defensive snaps and had his only tackle called off due to penalty. He also played a key role in keeping Watson in the pocket, allowing others to get hits and sacks.
Undrafted rookie safety George Odum has been getting more defensive opportunities lately. He saw the field for 21% of the snaps and tallied 2 tackles. Second round defensive end Kemoko Turay continues to see his snap count drop, especially against opponents who like to run and during game where the score is close. He is not as strong as a run defender as his teammates Lewis and Al-Quadin Muhammad, so he only saw 18% of the defensive snaps and tallied only 1 tackle.
Second-year corner Kenny Moore played every defensive snap and recorded 7 tackles and a sack. Safety Malik Hooker also played every snap and tallied 1 tackle. Linebacker Anthony Walker was on the field for 85% of the defensive snaps and generated 11 tackles and a pass defensed. He continues to look like a major win for Chris Ballard and like an excellent pairing with Leonard.
Chris Ballard stole Muhammad from the New Orleans Saints and has given him the opportunity to be a key contributor in the defensive line rotation. On Sunday, Muhammad was on the field for 79% of the snaps and gathered 1 tackle, a tackle for a loss, and a QB hit. He has been a nice surprise and is in his second NFL season.
Three other sophomores took snaps but did not record a defensive stat. Quincy Wilson 58%, Grover Stewart 31% and Nate Hairston 1%.
It is not hard to understand why Colts fans have consistently expressed confidence in the team’s direction in 2018. Regardless of the record, when it was bad or when it is better than expected, fans acknowledge that young football players are heavily influencing the outcome. Each of these players still has an arrow pointing up on development and should be considered likely to get better when they return in 2019.
If that isn’t enough, Ballard’s stubborn frugality in free agency leaves the team in excellent financial position to go after any marquee free agent it wants and to retain any in-house free agent for the long-term. There are reasons to believe that the team should only get better from here.