Colts boosted by return of DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry


Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) runs onto the field for starting lineups during an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – A bit of normalcy returned to the Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center practice fields Friday.

Linebacker Darius Leonard was bouncing around, chirping at no one in particular and everyone within earshot. DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry were creating havoc along the defensive line. And rookie Jonathan Taylor was back taking handoffs from Philip Rivers.

“There was definitely a lot of juice on the field today,’’ coach Frank Reich said in a Zoom conference call.

That was to be expected with Sunday’s meeting with the Texans in Houston looming. The Colts take a 7-4 record and No. 7 seed in the AFC playoff picture with them and need an immediate bounce-back effort following last Sunday’s 45-26 drilling at the hands of Tennessee.

The return of Buckner and Autry should represent a major boost. Each missed the Titans game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and it showed. The defense allowed touchdowns on five of Tennessee’s six first-half possessions – the Colts fell into a 35-14 hole they never crawled out of – and gave up season high in points, total yards (449), yards per play (6.6), rushing yards (229), yards per attempt (5.1) and first downs (28).

The team activated Buckner off the COVID-19 list Friday, one day after Autry returned to the active roster after a two-game absence. Taylor was activated Wednesday after a five-day stint on the COVID-19 list as a high-risk individual.

Often, the defense provides the impetus for practice with its chatter and energy. That seemed to be the case Friday.

“You could definitely feel DeForest’s presence out there,’’ Reich said. “Darius was in his usual form. Having DeForest and Denico out there together back . . . you could just feel (it).

“Man, had a couple of times I looked across the ball and DeForest is just flying, flying across the ball. You just feel him out on the field. His presence was felt today.’’

It needs to be felt Sunday in Houston’s NRG Stadium.

With Buckner not holding down the middle of the defensive line against the Titans, Derrick Henry went off. He rushed for 178 yards, including 140 in the first half.

The Titans’ 229 rushing yards were the most allowed by the Colts since they gave up 246 in a 2014 loss to New England.

Even though Buckner and Taylor have missed one game and Autry two, it’s unlikely each player will be on a noticeable “rep count.’’

“We’re feeling pretty good about where they are all at and have a plan for each one of them . . . feel like they’ll each be able to fulfill the roles that they normally play,’’ Reich said.

Castonzo ruled out

As expected, Anthony Castonzo (knee) was one of four players ruled out of the Texans game. The veteran left tackle is joined by punter Rigoberto Sanchez (illness), linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle) and safety Khari Willis (back/quad).

Castonzo sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the second quarter of the Titans game. The team remains his recovery time is quick. It hasn’t considered placing him on the injured reserve list, which would require Castonzo missing three games.

“No thought to that to this point,’’ Reich said. “He’s making good progress.’’

Center Ryan Kelly, who missed the Titans game with a neck injury, was a full participant for a second straight day Friday and will return to the starting lineup.

Rivers update

Philip Rivers was a full participant in Friday’s practice after being limited Thursday and not practicing Wednesday. He’s dealing with an injury to his right big toe suffered against Green Bay.

“I thought he looked good today,’’ Reich said. “He’s looked good every day, but I thought physically he looked better today than he has in practice dealing with this toe, foot, whatever.’’

Earlier this week, Rivers said the plan moving forward includes limiting practice time to ease the soreness that comes with the injury. Reich was asked if Rivers might have to deal with the injury for the rest of the season.

“It’s kind of a touch-and-go deal,’’ he said. “It can get aggravated and take a take back, but what we’re anticipating and hopeful for is that each week it gets one step better. I feel like we’re there this week.

“Philip would tell you he’s a day ahead of where he was last week. If we have no setbacks in the next week or two, he might be two more weeks maybe where (there’s) no pain again.’’

Wilson for Willis

With Willis out, the Colts are expected to turn to veteran Tavon Wilson.

“He’ll have to step up and play winning football and we’re confident he’ll do that,’’ Reich said.

Willis has been on the field for 96.7% of the defensive snaps (675). Wilson, meanwhile, has taken just 55 defensive snaps while being active on special teams (143 snaps, 46.7%).

However, Wilson brings experience to the defense. The 6-0, 208 pounder has appeared in 120 games with 43 starts during a nine-year career that included time with New England and Detroit. He started 13 games with the Lions last season.

Allen for Sanchez

While Sanchez recovers from Tuesday surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, Ryan Allen will not only handle the punting, but also the holding duties. He’s handled holding for placements during his eight-year career, but still had to get up to speed quickly with long-snapper Luke Rhodes and rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.

“Just feeling a chance to watch him up closely today get a number of holds, he looked really good,’’ Reich said. “He’s held a bunch.

“There’s still that little bit at the beginning of the week when he first gets here to get with Rod, get the particulars with how Rod likes the ball placed, get a feel for Rod’s pre-snap routine so the timing and rhythm feels (right).

“I think we’re all systems go.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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