The two youngest teams in the NFL faced off against one another on Sunday afternoon. Officially, the Dallas Cowboys are the youngest team. The Colts are one Adam Vinatieri away from taking away that honor. We like Adam, so we’ll keep him around and let the Cowboys take something with them on their way back to Dallas.
One thing they didn’t take with them was points. The Colts were able to shut out a Cowboys team that entered the game on a five game winning streak. They used a ton of youth to get the job done, on both sides of the ball. Despite the outcome in this one, look for both of these franchises to find quite a bit of success moving forward. They are well advanced beyond their respective experience levels.
Let’s take a look at Indy’s freshman and sophomore contributors and how they impacted a huge home win, keeping the Colts in the hunt for a wild card playoff spot.
In what might be the most impressive single game performance for the offensive line, rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith took every offensive snap. They joined Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly, and Joe Haeg to generate 178 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns and gave up no sacks. The Cowboys were one of the stingiest run defenses in the NFL and hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher. You wouldn’t have known it on Sunday.
Rookie running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins both had a role to play in the victory. Hines continues to play a prominent role due to his hybrid skill set. He was on the field for 40% of the offensive plays and generated 19 rushing yards on 6 carries and 45 receiving yards on 4 receptions. Wilkins played a small relief role early in the game but looked good on his one catch, generating 6 yards.
Second-year back Marlon Mack continues to serve as the bell cow for the Colts when he is healthy. He tore up the Cowboys by taking the field on 61% of the offensive snaps, carrying the ball 27 times for 139 yards, including 2 touchdowns, and he added a reception for 10 yards. This was a career high rushing game for Mack and was an example of his ability to run both inside and out to gain extra yards.
Sophomore pass catchers Zach Pascal and Mo Alie-Cox also made offensive contributions. Pascal led the team in snaps at receiver, seeing the field on 68% of the opportunities. He caught one pass for 12 yards. Alie-Cox was utilized heavily, taking the field for 56% of the snaps and while he didn’t catch a single pass, he played an important role in blocking for Indy’s dominant running game.
There is no way to avoid that rookie linebacker Darius Leonard is going to play an important role in the success or failure of the defense. In this shutout performance, Leonard saw the field for every defensive snap, gathered 11 tackles, including one for a loss, and knocked down two passes.
On the season, Leonard has 146 tackles (22 more than the next player in 1 less game), 7 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, 8 quarterback hits, 1 interception, 6 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and a partridge in a pear tree.
This is Defensive Player of the Year caliber production and should make him the clear front runner for Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. Don’t get your hopes up. The moronic Pro Bowl process didn’t include him on the AFC team. He is an “alternate.” The NFL is stupid.
Undrafted rookie safety George Odum has continued to work his way into the defensive rotation. On Sunday, he participated on 57% of the defensive snaps, gathered 5 tackles and collected the first interception of his career. The interception secured the shutout.
Rookie defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis has been a key contributor since getting activated off of the injured reserve. He has stolen all of fellow rookie Kemoko Turay’s reps and more. He saw the field for 71% of the defensive plays and tallied 4 tackles and the first 2 sacks of his career. If Lewis started the season healthy and had already produced at his current level, he would have be garnering more attention around the league.
In 6 games, Lewis has 11 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 7 quarterback hits and a pass defensed. By comparison, Turay has 15 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 tackle for a loss, 12 quarterback hits, and a forced fumble in 13 games. Both of the young defenders should be able to play a role in Indy’s future but Lewis has certainly come out of the gates producing.
Another rookie who has taken significant steps toward a larger defensive role is linebacker Matthew Adams. The Colts will more often use a nickel package and have only two linebackers on the field. They typically pair Leonard with Anthony Walker. On occasion, though, Matt Eberflus will bring a third linebacker to help hold the edge against the run or to help collapse the pocket. Adams has been filling that role frequently and saw the field on 22% of the defensive snaps. He gathered his 19th tackle of the season.
Second-year linebacker Anthony Walker has taken major steps forward in his sophomore season. He has 102 combined tackles, a sack, 10 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits, an interception, 4 passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. He has been a strong run defender and improved considerably in coverage. Against the Cowboys, Walker took the field on 87% of the defensive snaps and recorded 5 tackles.
The roller coaster ride for Quincy Wilson is still not over. He has clearly been making a bigger impression in practice as his opportunities to play have gone up considerably. He was called for defensive holding on perhaps his best defensive play of the day — because officials are stupid and not because he committed a foul. He helped keep the Cowboys in check on Sunday, giving Dak Prescott few outlets. He saw the field on 77% of the defensive snaps and tallied 4 tackles.
Sophomore nose tackle Grover Stewart has been a consistent part of the defensive line rotation. His production has been somewhat inconsistent and he has been flagged for penalties on far too many of his opportunities. Given the injury to Al Woods, Stewart will be asked to grow up fast, and his conditioning will be tested. On Sunday, he saw 30% of the defensive snaps and made 1 tackle.
Second-year safety Malik Hooker is another odd study in 2018. He entered the league with the potential to be a disruptive center fielder and drew comparisons to Ed Reed — unfair for any young player. The defensive scheme change and his continued recovery from last season’s ACL and MCL tears have altered the trajectory for his production, particularly in creating turnovers. This hasn’t stopped him from being heavily relied upon to hold things together on the back end as he was on the field for every defensive snap and tallied one tackle.
Chris Ballard joined the Colts espousing a philosophy of building his team from within, with home grown players. He made it clear that while free agency plays an important role in the team’s future, spending considerably on “marquee” free agents is rarely successful when that player is brought in as the “one missing piece.” The team has to play the game together and it will take a full locker room to get the job done for a full NFL season, and to realize the hopes for playoff success.
The moves Ballard has made, as shrewd and underappreciated as they have been, have gone a long way in uncovering home grown talent and to helping form the identity for the team’s future. His free agency strategy has earned him few friends, particularly from a fan base who has little patience given past experiences with Peyton Manning and an underwhelming start to Andrew Luck’s career, but it has been working.
Two drafts and two off-seasons have yielded names like Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Mo Alie-Cox, Eric Ebron, Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, Margus Hunt, Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Kenny Moore, Quincy Wilson, Pierre Desir, Malik Hooker and Rigoberto Sanchez. These names are primary contributors or examples of young talent with the needle still pointing up. The free agents are either getting their first chances to start or escaping a team or city they hated, and they have been enjoying the most productive seasons of their careers in Indianapolis.
Colts fan confidence in 2018 is entirely validated. It is exciting to think about what Ballard can do after this season is over. He will be armed with the largest bank account in the NFL. No matter what happens here, the team will end the season as one of hottest in the game — making it an attractive spot for free agents. He is currently armed with 9 projected draft picks.
If Ballard and the scouting staff can bring in a haul that is half as good as the 2018 group has been to this point, the Colts will be dangerous in 2019.