INDIANAPOLIS – At long last and at a most opportune time, the Indianapolis Colts are looking like themselves.
More to the point, the starting offense should be intact for the first time this season for Sunday’s pivotal rematch with the Tennessee Titans that carries significant ramifications for the Colts.
Braden Smith and T.Y. Hilton are expected to return, which injects two cornerstone talents into a unit that has scored at least 30 points in its last two victories.
Smith has missed the last six games with a strained foot while Hilton missed last Sunday night’s win at San Francisco with a quadriceps injury after being sidelined for the first five following neck surgery.
The only player ruled out for Sunday’s game is backup cornerback BoPete Keyes. Along with Hilton and Smith, cornerback Xavier Rhodes is listed as questionable.
“We feel good,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “It’s the ebb and flow of the season. Sometimes you’re healthier than others. I always feel like we’ve got our starters out there.
“Do I feel a little bit of excitement that some of these guys are back? Yeah, for them and for us as a team. I just think we keep getting better.’’
When the Titans handed the Colts a 25-16 loss in Nashville in week 3, Hilton still was on the injured reserve list and Smith was not only was dealing with a strained foot, but a left thumb injury that required surgery.
Also, quarterback Carson Wentz was playing despite suffering sprains to both ankles in the previous week’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“Starting to see a lot of people come back and it’s great,’’ said Smith. “Ideally have our whole team out there.’’
The only front-line players out are safety Julian Blackmon (torn Achilles) and wideout Parris Campbell (foot).
With Smith’s expected return – “Just taking it one day at a time,’’ he said – the Colts finally should have their much-hyped offensive line back together again.
Left tackle Eric Fisher missed the opener while completing his rehab from a torn Achilles, and left guard Quenton Nelson missed three games with a sprained right ankle. Reed started at left guard while Nelson was out.
“Our o-line right now, man, I feel good about,’’ Reich said.
If Smith returns to the starting lineup, he won’t be on a so-called pitch count.
“If Braden plays, he’s back,’’ Reich said.
The only variable is at right guard. Mark Glowinski has started 40 consecutive games, but began sharing the position with Chris Reed last Sunday against the Niners when Nelson returned.
Smith’s return would end what has been a longer-than-expected rehab process. The team opted not to place him on the injured reserve list after he sustained the injuries against Seattle, which would have meant him missing three games.
“It’s gotta be torture,’’ Reich said. “For guys at this level, it’s all about playing the game. You’re not out there with your teammates. You’re not going to war every week. This thing is dragging on longer than it’s supposed to.
“In football terms, when you’re a competitor and a warrior like Braden is, you can’t wait to get back out there.’’
Smith practiced for the first time on a limited basis last Friday and encountered no setbacks this week.
“I feel like I really haven’t lost too much of a step; fresh legs,’’ Smith said. “I’ve got a lot of pep in my step. I’m excited to be back out there practicing.’’
Smith had been one of the offensive line’s most durable players before the foot/thumb injuries.
The 2018 second-round pick moved in as the starting right tackle in week 5 of his rookie year and would remain a fixture until this year’s season opener. Smith started 43 of 45 regular-season games. The only exceptions occurred in 2020: week 11 against Tennessee with a thumb injury and week 16 at Pittsburgh following a positive COVID-19 test.
Smith began experiencing issues with his foot during training camp, but it never reached the level where it threatened his availability for the opener.
Then, things escalated against Seattle.
Smith injured his thumb on the first drive of the first quarter and damaged his foot on the first drive of the third quarter. He was on the field for all 76 offensive snaps but clearly not in top form.
The foot, he noted, “was (bad) enough where I couldn’t walk after the game without crutches.’’
Reich has been optimistic about Hilton’s availability all week, and that didn’t change Friday.
“He was out there practicing today,’’ he said. “We’ll have to see how he responded.
“I thought he looked good.’’
Thursday, Hilton said he “felt good,’’ but added, “these next two days will be big for me.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.