Injuries wrecking continuity, but o-line hitting stride; Braden Smith dealing with elbow injury

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – It hasn’t been that long ago continuity ruled the Indianapolis Colts offensive line.

It wasn’t a given by any means – not simply accepted that the same combination would trudge out there week after week – but it was comforting for the coaching staff and a badge of honor worn proudly by that group.

“I guess we’re a just a bunch of tough asses,’’ center Ryan Kelly said during the late stages of 2019.

Kelly was the anchor of an o-line that would start all 16 games that season, the first time that occurred for the Colts since 2000. The streak would reach 22 – it actually began in the ’18 playoffs – before a rib injury knocked left tackle Anthony Castonzo out of a week 5 trip to Cleveland.

“It’s rare that it happens,’’ Kelly said of the long stretch of durability, “just because injuries are 100% in the NFL.’’

He was 100% correct then, and it still holds true.

Since forging that 22-game streak, injuries and Castonzo’s retirement have wreaked havoc with the o-line. It has endured 11 different combinations over the past 22 games, including six in nine games this season.

Taking it a step further, that number might reach seven if an injury to Braden Smith’s right elbow – it initially was thought he injured his triceps in Thursday night’s win over the New York Jets – keeps him out of Sunday’s meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“We’ve got to continue to evaluate him this week,’’ coach Frank Reich said Monday.

It’s been that type of season for Smith and most members of the o-line. A quick recap:

  • Since signing a four-year, $72 million extension that included $42 million in guarantees in late July, Smith has seen things unravel. He injured his left thumb on the first drive against Seattle in the season opener – it would require surgery – then strained his left foot on the first drive of the third quarter. He would miss the next six games. In his second game back against the Jets, Smith was on the sideline with a heavy wrap on his right arm. The elbow was an issue. If he’s unable to play against the Jaguars, Matt Pryor, acquired in a late-August trade with Philadelphia, would start a fourth game.
  • All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson revealed he underwent a pair of procedures in the offseason – he wouldn’t elaborate – then required Aug. 3 surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot. That was a precursor. Nelson was placed on the COVID-19 list Aug. 26 as an unvaccinated close-contact case, started the first three games despite dealing with a back issue that flared up in practice, missed the next three games with a high sprain to his right ankle, returned but was limited in practice prior to the Jets game with a toe issue.
  • Left tackle Eric Fisher missed the opener while completing his rehab from a torn Achilles. He appears to be rounding into shape after an inconsistent first month.
  • Kelly has started all nine games after hyperextending his left elbow during the first week of training camp.
  • Backup tackle Sam Tevi suffered a season-ending knee injury in the final preseason game at Detroit.

The only position not impacted by injury has been right guard, but it’s dealing with change nonetheless. After starting 43 consecutive games, including the playoffs, and being on the field for 100% of the snaps in 42 of them, Mark Glowinski was replaced in the starting lineup by Chris Reed in the week 8 rematch with Tennessee.

Despite the weekly issues, the o-line is getting its act together under the director of position coach Kevin Strausser and assistant Kevin Mawae.

“We’re headed in the right direction,’’ Reich said.

The running game has gradually shimmied up the league rankings and sits at 5th in yards per game (137.3) and 2nd in yards per attempt (5.1). It’s coming off a 260-yard bludgeoning of the Jets, the most in the league this season and the 6th-best output in the Indy era.

Jonathan Taylor stands 2nd in rushing with 821 yards – 116 behind injured Derrick Henry – and is averaging 5.9 yards per attempt. He went off for 172 yards on 19 carries against the Jets, his fourth 100-yard outing in six games, and that included a 78-yard TD, the longest rushing TD in the league this season.

Credit the o-line, he insisted.

“You saw the hole,’’ Taylor said after the game. “When you get a hole like that, you’ve got to take it the distance.

“The o-line has been working their tails off all year.’’

“We’re a big zone run team,’’ Reich said, “so always working on our combination blocks. The timing and syncing up of those blocks is a big deal.’’

If there’s a marked improvement by the o-line, though, it’s probably in pass protection.

Early, it was hit and miss, and quarterback Carson Wentz was the one getting it. In the first four games, he was sacked 10 times and hit on another 29 times, according to game stat sheets.

Wentz has been sacked once in each of the last three games and hit 10 other times. The one sack against the Jets went for zero lost yardage while the Colts were working the clock late in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve gotten better in both the run and the pass,’’ Reich said. “I think guys have been banged up. Getting the starters in there, getting more synced up, just the continuity of being together a little bit and just continuing to work hard.”

“I think our pass protection has been very good. We’ve gone up against a lot of fronts the last few weeks and our o-line has done a very good job.’’

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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