Colts’ DE Denico Autry, special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone out versus Packers with COVID-19 issues

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Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Denico Autry (96) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Indianapolis. Indianapolis won 33-13. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS – The COVID-19 scare that visited the Indianapolis Colts complex Thursday did damage, but it could have been worse.

Defensive end Denico Autry and special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone will miss Sunday’s game with the Green Bay Packers due to COVID-19 issues, but three other defensive linemen who were held out of Thursday’s practice as possible “high-risk’’ individuals – Grover Stewart, Tyquan Lewis and Al Quadin-Muhammad – are good to go, coach Frank Reich said following Friday’s practice.

Autry has been placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list after a positive test while Ventrone also is out “for COVID-19-related reasons,’’ according to Reich.

In what has been a season replete with adjustments – for the Colts and across the NFL landscape – special teams assistant Frank Ross will fill Ventrone’s void and David Thornton will serve as his aide. Thornton is the team’s director of player engagement but was a long-time standout Colts’ linebacker.

Ross temporarily oversees one of the NFL’s top special teams units.

“Franky, he’s incredible,’’ Reich said. “He’s very detail-oriented, very demonstrative. He has just as much juice as Bubba has.

“David Thornton has been helping out as well. DT stepped in almost as an assistant role this week. DT’s done it and knows it.’’

The loss of Autry coincides with the return of Kemoko Turay. The third-year defensive end has been on the league’s reserve/physically unable to perform list while completing his rehab from surgery in October 2019 to address a severely dislocated right ankle. Turay was added to the active roster this week.

No one should casually dismiss Autry. He leads the NFL’s top-ranked defense with 6 sacks and seven tackles for loss, and also has contributed seven quarterback hits and 22 tackles.

However, the team undoubtedly was relieved when Stewart, Lewis and Muhammad were cleared for the Packers game.

Stewart, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick, has emerged as one of the league’s top tackles with 34 tackles, including four for a loss. The Colts’ run defense ranks 3rd in both yards per game (91.8) and yards per attempt (3.5).

As soon as the team received word of Autry’s positive test earlier this week, it reacted. It initiated its own close-contact analysis, which led to Stewart, Lewis and Muhammad being removed from the facility as potential “high-risk’’ players.

Once they were retested and those came back negative, the team talked with league officials and “it was determined everything was good,’’ according to Reich. “Those guys were good to go.’’

Autry will be the second player to miss a game for COVID-19 reasons. Linebacker Matthew Adams was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Nov. 11 as a “high-risk’’ individual and missed the Tennessee Titans game.

Also, this isn’t the first instance of players being held out of practice for COVID-19 concerns.

On Nov. 5, the team announced a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, four players were held out of practice as possible close-contact concerns: guard Quenton Nelson, wideout Michael Pittman Jr. and defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Lewis.

All four were cleared and played Nov. 8 against the Baltimore Ravens.

Relatively-speaking, the Colts have handled the on-going pandemic with only occasional hiccups.

Reich smiled when asked about that.

“I’m a little leery to say. It could hit us hard at any time,’’ he said. “We’re working really hard at it. (General manager) Chris (Ballard) is on it every day. We’re looking at the close contact, we’re looking at the Connections information all the time to try to learn where the hotspots are, so to speak, or what we need to do. That’s why we’ve adjusted things as we’ve gone.

“But really at the end of the day, what it comes down to is players being pros. And are guys have been doing that. I’m not going to promise it’s going to be this clean every time something comes up, but so far we’ve been very fortunate that our players have done a good job and as soon as a case pops up, we do the close contacts.’’

The NFL has ramped up its precautions and all teams will operate under the intensive protocol for the remainder of the season. That includes players wearing a shield on their facemask during practice.

“They’re getting used to that,’’ Reich said.

Intensive protocol also requires players to either leave their helmet on while on the practice field or wear a mask or socially distance if the helmet comes off.

“That takes a second to gets used to,’’ Reich said, “so we’re doing a good job of reminding our guys.’’

While many teams might have to hold meetings remotely, the Colts’ Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center provides the type of space for in-person meetings. Ballard has worked in concert with Jeff Brown, the team’s director of operations, and Dave Hammer, the head trainer and overseer of the pandemic process.

“We continue to adjust our building to be COVID-friendly as far as spacing and to meet the requirements, and obviously the players are all doing a good job with keeping masks on at all times,’’ Reich said.

Intensive protocol, he added, is “really not going to affect the meeting time. At this point we’re still going to be able to do our  meetings in person because we use our indoor (facility) as a meeting room and then we have that big pavilion and we have other big meeting rooms that we can have smaller groups in.

“We’re in pretty good shape.’’

More medical matters

Autry is the only Colt ruled out of the Packers game.

There are five players listed questionable: tight end Jack Doyle (concussion), right tackle Braden Smith (thumb), tight end Noah Togiai (knee), kick returner/cornerback Isaiah Rodgers (knee) and Turay.

Doyle still must make his way through the NFL’s concussion protocol, which includes being cleared by an independent neurologist.

Cornerback Kenny Moore II, who suffered a rib injury against the Titans, was a full participant Friday and wasn’t given a status, which means he’s good to go. Same with safety Khari Willis (ribs).

Reich said Smith’s thumb injury won’t keep him out of the Green Bay game.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

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