INDIANAPOLIS – One of the more impactful games of DeForest Buckner’s career very nearly didn’t materialize.
After suffering a significant ankle injury on a “freak’’ play during Thursday’s practice, the veteran defensive tackle kept assuring his Indianapolis Colts’ teammates he would be available for Sunday’s rematch with Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans.
But there was one problem: Friday he could barely stand up.
“Two days ago it felt pretty bad because I couldn’t put any pressure on it,’’ Buckner said in a Zoom conference call Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I just had to keep that positive mindset . . . just continue to be aggressive with the treatment and with what I was doing and trust the process and what the trainers were telling me and what kind of exercises we were doing and attack it head on.
“It was definitely a big turn two days ago.’’
And that was definitely bad news for Watson and the Texans.
Even though Buckner was on a pitch count – primarily pass-rush and red-zone situations – he made the most of them. He produced a career-high 3 sacks and added four tackles, including two for a loss, and another hit on Watson as the Colts held on for a 27-20 victory.
There were several shining individual moments: Darius Leonard forcing a game-sealing fumble at the goal line with less than a minute remaining; Philip Rivers passing for 228 yards and two touchdowns; Zach Pascal catching five passes for 79 yards and the two TD; T.Y. Hilton’s critical 41-yard reception in the fourth quarter that set up Pascal’s second TD; Rodrigo Blankenship knocking down a career-long 53-yard field goal.
But Buckner’s ability to excel while dealing with a serious ankle injury seemed a cut above.
Leonard’s eyes lit up when the post-game topic turned to Buckner.
“That boy’s a created player. He’s different,’’ he said. “There is nobody in this NFL that can block him. One-on-one, double-team him, whatever, DeForest is a complete monster and I thank Chris Ballard almost every time I see him for bringing him in.’’
Ballard pulled off one of his biggest moves as general manager in March by trading the 13th overall pick in the April draft to San Francisco in return for Buckner. He then signed the former first-round pick to a four-year, $84 million extension.
Despite missing one game while on the reserve/COVD-19 list, Bucker shares the team lead with 7.5 sacks. His disruptive skills are rare.
“He is great,’’ Leonard said. “I mean, he is a great player, but he is an even better leader and that’s what makes him so great.
“When he went down with the ankle in practice, his main thing was doing everything he can to play. That shows his toughness there. I give him a lot of credit. Then he comes out and I think he had, what, three sacks?
“That just shows what type of player he is, and he is a dog and I love playing behind him.’’
Buckner didn’t practice Friday as he was getting treatment “24/7.’’
“It was definitely a team effort to getting me back out here to play on Sunday,’’ he said. “The training staff did a phenomenal job with me.’’
The team put him through a 10 o’clock workout Sunday prior to the game, then cleared him.
“He was hurt,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “But credit to him, really, the way he spent the last 48 hours doing everything, literally. I don’t know how much more you can treat it and do everything that you have to do.
“He just wasn’t going to be denied. You could just tell the last 24 hours that he was going to play, but we really took it up to the last minute.’’
Zach Pascal always is involved with the offense, even though often that’s as a blocker. Sunday, the veteran wideout was more of a pass-catching wideout.
“It was just his week,’’ Reich said.
Pascal had five catches for 79 yards – both season highs – and pulled in both of Rivers’ touchdowns. On the second, a 5-yarder, he ran through contact from cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and dove to the left pylon.
Yes, it was Pascal’s week.
Friday, he celebrated his 26th birthday. Saturday, he addressed the team. Sunday, he served as captain.
“Then he comes out and he’s MVP-kind of play for the team,’’ Reich said. “We love Zach. He epitomizes what we’re all about: the toughness, the dependability, great teammate.’’
Punter Rigoberto Sanchez returned to handle punting and kickoff duties less than three weeks after having a cancerous tumor removed. He was introduced prior to the game after the defense came through the tunnel, and the reaction from the 10,000 in the stands was noticeable.
“That was honestly really, really cool,’’ Sanchez said. “I had so many people telling me that was an electric moment. Honestly, it was amazing how much support I felt in the building today, and I am just blessed beyond anything to just be out there and be able to play the sport I love to play.’’
Sanchez averaged 45.5 yards on two punts.
This and that
Leonard led the Colts with 12 tackles, including nine solos. Safety Khari Willis added nine, all solos.
Rookie running back Jonathan Taylor led the Colts with 83 yards on 16 carries. Nyheim Hines added 43 yards on just five carries as the Colts finished with 127 yards on 23 attempts.
Taylor has rushed for at least 80 yards in four straight games and is just the third player this season to do so, joining Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb. He’s the first Colt with at least 80 in four consecutive games since Joe Addai in 2007 and the first NFL rookie since Saquon Barkley in 2018.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.