Colts take next-man-up approach to the extreme in handling Cardinals

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s prominent on the walls at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

No excuses. No explanations.

And it’s an axiom every team carts out and relies on as September gives way to October, November and December.

Next man up.

In the NFL, it’s about dealing with a war of attrition, whether due to injury or in today’s uncertain environment, COVID-19 issues.

In the days leading up to another playoff-type meeting, this one with the Arizona Cardinals on Christmas Night, the Indianapolis Colts placed All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson, starting right guard Mark Glowinski, cornerback Rock-Ya Sin and defensive end Kemoko Turay on the COVID-19 list. And Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly would miss a second straight game while dealing with the death of his infant daughter.

Then on game day, All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, safety Khari Willis and wide receiver Zach Pascal were added to the COVID-19 list.

“No one flinched this morning when we got more bad news about the COVID stuff,’’ Frank Reich said in his post-game press conference. “There was no panic.”

“It was like, ‘OK, next man up.’ So we were ready to go. I can’t emphasize enough the quality of players that we have.’’

That’s why Reich handed a game ball to general manager Chris Ballard following the Colts’ blue-collar 22-16 win over the Cardinals.

This, after all, was the roster fashioned by Ballard and his personnel staff.

“When you get a day like this,’’ Reich said, “you need everybody on the roster. You thank the man who put it together.’’

In previous seasons, Ballard pointed an accusing finger at himself when injuries ravaged the depth chart at receiver and the offensive line.

Saturday night, he was clutching a game ball from one of the franchise’s more gratifying victories.

Last weekend, the Colts handled the Patriots, the hottest team in the AFC. They followed it up by wearing down an Arizona outfit despite missing nine front-line players and losing tight end Jack Doyle (ankle) on their second offensive play and left tackle Eric Fisher in the second quarter (knee). Left guard Chris Reed also exited the game in the second quarter, but returned in the second half.

Reich has been involved in the NFL for three decades as a player and coach. Christmas Night was something special.

“Yeah, I think this is one of the best team wins I’ve ever been a part of considering all of the circumstances,’’ he said. “I’m sure there’s some good ones in there, but this is up there.”

“It really took all three phases.’’

The usual suspects provided the necessary plays when warranted.

After enduring the least productive game of his career last week against New England – 5-of-12, 57 yards, one touchdown, one interception – Carson Wentz passed for 225 yards and two touchdowns, including the critical 14-yarder to Dez Patmon with 6:27 to play that gave the Colts a two-possession cushion.

Jonathan Taylor started with a 43-yard burst and finished with his ninth 100-yard game of the season (108 on 27 attempts), Michael Pittman Jr. had 82 yards on eight catches and T.Y. Hilton 51 yards and one TD on four receptions.

But the Colts won for the third straight game – and the eighth time in the last 10 – and strengthened their grip on the AFC’s No. 5 playoff seed because of so many others.

“A lot of guys had to step up and take care of business, and they did,’’ Reich said. “That’s a real credit to our players and the roster that we have.’’

Consider:

  • At one point in the second quarter, the Colts’ offensive line consisted of: left tackle Julién Davenport, left guard Will Fries, center Danny Pinter, right guard Matt Pryor and right tackle Braden Smith. Fisher didn’t return after injuring a knee midway through the second quarter.

Fries, a 7th-round draft pick, had taken 10 offensive snaps in one game prior to Saturday night. Davenport hadn’t taken any since week 4 against Miami.

“Braden was the last man standing of the starting five,’’ Wentz said, “and guys just kept stepping up and making plays down the stretch.’’

  • Patmon, a 2020 sixth-round pick, had been on the field for 55 snaps in six games with one reception for 7 yards. He might have been inactive if Pascal hadn’t been placed on the COVID-19 list.

“Dez. I’m pumped for him making a big play like that late in the game,’’ Wentz said.

As it turns out, the 14-yard TD was a result of a late adjustment following a suggestion from Wentz.

“All week long we practiced it with (Patmon) doing something else,’’ Reich said. “At the last minute, Carson said, ‘Hey, how about we do this with him?’’’

  • With Leonard out, E.J. Speed made his first NFL start and responded with a team-high and career-best nine tackles. With safeties Willis and Andrew Sendejo (concussion) out, George Odum had eight tackles and one pass defensed and Jahleel Addae, who was elevated from the practice squad prior to the game, made his first start with the Colts and added six tackles.
  • Michael Badgley left a 53-yard field goal attempt short, but converted 41- and 37-yarders.

It was that type of Christmas Night.

A lot from some, something from just about everybody.

It had owner Jim Irsay thinking of what the immediate future might hold for a team that stands 9-6 after opening the season 1-4.

“This makes you think you can beat anyone,’’ he told the media outside the Colts’ locker room at State Farm Stadium. “I really feel like this year, look, the magic could be there. In ’95, that was a magical ride and that was done with Jim Harbaugh and a really tough defense. We didn’t have a player like Jonathan Taylor, though.

“Look, it’s exciting because we really know we can beat anyone.’’

While Ballard’s roster-building merited a game ball from Reich, so did Wentz’s late-game heroics.

“He’s our guy,’’ Reich said. “He’s already proven time and time again and I’ve seen it before.’’

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Reich huddled with his offensive assistants. Wentz had endured a scattergun third quarter: 4-of-11, 55 yards. Often he was high with his throws, sometimes just plain off target.

Reich remained confident.

“I said to the offensive staff, ‘Carson will make plays to win this game in the fourth quarter,’’’ he said.

Despite the COVID-19 cases and the in-game injuries, the Colts not only were hanging around, they were leading 15-13 heading into the fourth quarter. The defense did a good job of dealing with the electric Kyler Murray (27-of-43, 245 yards, one TD; four rushes for 74 yards) and Indy benefitted as kicker Matt Prater missed 51- and 41-yard field goal attempts along with a PAT.

 But the situation required a defining drive.

“We just knew we had to score,’’ Wentz said. “We had to go score. It’s a good offense over there and our defense played lights out to hold them to only 16 points.”

“But we knew we had to go score.’’

Done.

The 7-play, 69-yard drive was one big play after another: a 20-yard completion to Pittman, a 39-yarder to Hilton and the TD strike to Patmon on third-and-9 at the Arizona 14.

“Just the way we did it,’’ Wentz said. “The way we hung together; nobody flinched. There were so many other guys that had to step up. So many guys, key backups in the depth, really came through tonight.”

“It’s huge. It’s huge. Especially with the world we live in right now and with COVID and everything going on, depth is huge. Credit to Chris Ballard for putting this roster together that has the depth that it has that we can still go out against a really good team and find a way to get it done.’’

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

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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