INDIANAPOLIS – They’ve made the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
They’ve adjusted on the fly and plugged in when necessary. Sometimes it’s been week-to-week, occasionally it’s been in the second or third quarter of a game.
That’s been the 16-game journey for the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line.
If there are under-the-radar MVPs to a season that should include a third playoff appearance in four seasons, maybe it’s offensive line coach Kevin Strausser and assistant Kevin Mawae.
Sunday at Jacksonville, with a wild-card berth on the line against the 2-14 Jaguars, the Colts will utilize their preferred starting o-line combination: left tackle Eric Fisher, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith. Fisher returned to practice this week after sustaining knee, toe and pectoral injuries on Christmas Night at Arizona that kept him out of last Sunday’s loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
But that preferred group has only been together on just three prior occasions.
It’s been mix and match the rest of the season as injuries, COVID-19 issues and a family tragedy have kept things in flux. Nine different players have started at least one game, and all 10 on the active roster have been shuffled into a game. Strausser has turned to 10 different combos.
“I just think they work hard,’’ Frank Reich said Friday. “All the accumulated reps, everybody playing multiple positions – coach Strausser doing a great job of getting those guys ready.
“I just think they take a lot of pride in the chemistry they have as a room. Then, when we have to vary the lineup, we take a lot of pride in not lowering the standard.’’
Remember the Christmas Night meeting with the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale?
Strausser leaned on his ninth different starting unit as Kelly missed the game while mourning the passing of his baby daughter and Nelson was out after being placed on the COVID-19 list (replaced by Chris Reed). In the second quarter, Fisher was forced from the game with a knee injury and Reed temporarily exited with a back issue.
During a brief stretch, the starting combo was Julién Davenport at left tackle, rookie Will Fries at left guard, Danny Pinter at center, Matt Pryor at right guard and Smith at right tackle.
The result? The o-line was efficient enough for Carson Wentz to pass for 225 yards and two touchdowns, Jonathan Taylor to rush for 108 yards on 27 carries and the Colts to win 22-16.
On a larger scale, the o-line has responded to the constant shuffling and played a major role as Taylor is on the verge of becoming the first Colt since Edgerrin James in 2000 to lead the league in rushing (a franchise-record 1,734 yards and counting). Also, pass protection has held up. The Colts rank 10th in sacks per pass attempt (26 on 518 drop-backs).
Taylor credits the communication among the linemen, from top to bottom.
“Being able to coach up the guys who are behind those five starters, being able to make sure they are all on one accord, one page and understanding what they’re supposed to do,’’ he said. “Then me being able to get those reps, first understanding and kind of being on one page with those five starters, then being able to continue that open dialogue with the guys behind them.
“With those five guys up front being able to help those guys behind them, pretty much nine times out of 10 they are on the same page as well. So it’s really that open line of communication from those five guys up front trickling down on the depth.’’
Rhodes Out, Buckner Iffy
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (hamstring) has been ruled out of Sunday’s game while defensive tackle DeForest Bucker is questionable with a knee injury. Buckner did not practice this week.
Reich didn’t rule out Rhodes’ injury extending past the Jaguars game and threatening his available for the playoffs.
“We will continue to just monitor it day-by-day and respond accordingly as far as how he’s doing,’’ he said.
It’s possible wideout Parris Campbell makes his first appearance since suffering a broken left foot in week 6 against Houston. The team’s 2019 second-round draft pick returned to practice last week and ramped up activities this week.
“I think Parris had a pretty good week,’’ Reich said. “We’ll see how he responds today. We’ll get together as a staff, talk it through and I’ll get with Chris (Ballard) and we’ll make that decision here in the next 24 hours.’’
Ideally, Campbell would get some game-action against the Jaguars to be better prepared for the playoffs.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.