Hand injury couldn’t keep DeForest Buckner from stellar first season with Colts

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) warms up on the field before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – DeForest Buckner is coming off one of the best seasons by a Colts defensive tackle in franchise history, Indy or otherwise.

He had 9.5 sacks, a club record for a defensive tackle. He was just the third Colt d-tackle selected first-team All-Pro, and the first since Gene “Big Daddy’’ Lipscomb in 1959.

Imagine if he had had full use of both hands.

“Had an unbelievable year . . . and was playing without one hand, basically,’’ coach Frank Reich said this week.

The left hand was fine.

The right one was a mess.

During the first week of his first training camp with the Colts, Buckner dislocated the fourth MCP joint on his right hand. The joint was out of alignment all year. Buckner wore a soft cast for protection during games, but lacked his normal strength in the hand. He couldn’t grip with his right hand, which made it more difficult to shed blockers.

“I wasn’t really able to grab or throw or any of that the entire year,’’ he said, “so I had to adjust little things on how I’m defending off blocks, shedding blocks and little things like that.

“As a d-lineman, you need your hands. Those are your weapons.’’

Offseason surgery addressed the injury, and Buckner has regained his strength and mobility with his hand.

Position coach Brian Baker appreciated Buckner’s uniqueness as a player from the day the Colts acquired him in a March trade with the San Francisco 49ers. That increased exponentially after watching Buckner play at such a high level despite the hand injury.

“He’s a guy that uses his length and grabs and plays the game with his hands and his feet,’’ he said Thursday. “The respect I have for that guy is immense and I wouldn’t care if he were the last guy on the roster. Just to figure out how to play the game the way he played the game with that (injury).

“It’s much worse for a d-lineman than a nagging ankle or a nagging knee . . . anything in the upper extremities – shoulder, wrist, finger. It changes the way you play, no question.’’

Along with his team-high 9.5 sacks last season, Buckner piled up 58 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and a team-best 26 quarterback hits. Justin Houston was next in line with 12 quarterback hits.

The success of the Colts’ defense is predicated on stellar play by the line, and Buckner is the unquestioned catalyst for that group.

“He’s the tip of the spear,’’ Baker said. “He’s gifted, and it’s more than just his physical traits. It’s the whole of him that makes him special.’’

This week, teammates voted Buckner and Leonard the defensive captains.

Speaking of Buckner and Leonard, they’ll share more than a “C” on their jersey this season.

Each has the same individual goal: Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think about it all the time,’’ Buckner admitted. “It’s one of my personal goals. I definitely think I have the potential to obtain that goal.’’

So does Baker.

“Yeah, why not?’’ he asked.

For Buckner – or Leonard – to join Bob Sanders as the only Colts selected Defensive Player of the Year, there would need to be a blend of collective and individual success.

“Obviously a high level of production,’’ Baker said, “but I think, too, it would take the unit playing well. I’ve never seen a Player of the Year come out of a bad defensive unit or a bad team.

“But (also) production from his standpoint. He’s got to be the guy that people put a star on when they talk about our defense and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to have an answer for this guy.’ And even then it’s going to take something.’’

Like Buckner, Leonard is driven to excel at the highest level. He’s motivated by the thoughts of a Super Bowl championship for the Colts and All-Pro, Pro Bowl and Defensive Player of the Year for himself.

What would it take for Leonard to achieve DPOY?

“For me, I think if I reach my goals – 200 tackles, 10 sacks, 10 interceptions, stuff like that,’’ he said. “Just got to make sure I go out and be the best one on the field. That’s the main goal each week.

“If that’s not your goal as a defensive player every time you step on the field, then you’re not doing the right thing. You want to be the No. 1 defensive guy on eh field each time. If that’s not your goal, then you’re not for this team. You want to be the best.’’

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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