Colts have high expectations despite rash of injuries

Quarterback Andrew Luck has been limited in training camp, but he appears to have turned a corner recently.
AP/Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck‘s most recent snap with the starting offense came in January. Adam Vinatieri, the NFL’s career scoring leader, missed Indy’s first two preseason games with an injured knee. All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson missed all of last week with a sore ankle. Starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard hasn’t practiced since early August because of a problematic knee.

So far, the Colts have managed to adapt. But with the Sept. 8 season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers quickly approaching, coach Frank Reich needs answers.

“By the end of the third preseason game, I think you just have to know something. You’ve got to be able to make a call, a move, and move on from there,” Reich said last week. “Whether we’re full speed with Andrew after that third preseason game or, at that point, are we going to go with Jacoby (Brissett)?”

It appears the Colts may finally have turned the corner on Luck’s lower left leg injury.

General manager Chris Ballard said Luck’s rehab routine changed last week when doctors determined the lingering pain came from the front, not the back between the calf and ankle.

On Saturday, he was on the field for pregame warmups — his first open “workout” since July 28.

If Luck keeps progressing, then the questions will turn into: How soon can he play?

“We won’t as an organization put any player out there that can’t perform at a high level,” Ballard said. “I’m not going to put players at risk. So if we feel comfortable, Frank and I and our staff feel comfortable that he can play, then he’ll play.”

Reich has said repeatedly he will use Luck’s input to determine when he can go.

Even if Luck doesn’t start the opener, the Colts insist this season won’t be a repeat of 2017 when they won four games and missed the playoffs for the third straight year. They believe in Brissett, who started 15 games that season, and they have a stronger supporting cast.

But, of course, with Luck, the Colts would be a legitimate title contender.

“I don’t know if he is going to be ready or not (for Week 1),” Reich said. “We’ll see.”

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

There’s a direct correlation between Luck’s health and Indy’s success. In the four seasons he’s been healthy, the Colts made the playoffs. In the three seasons he fought off injuries, the Colts missed the postseason.

And if the reigning Comeback Player of the Year stays healthy in 2019, the Colts will be favored to win the AFC South. But the Colts understand they have to play better — with or without their franchise quarterback.

“I know we all want him to have the full-go reps, but we as an entire group have to really focus on getting better ourselves each and every day,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “As they get better, Andrew will play better. I think we’re still growing. I think we can be where we want to be Game 1 — even without Andrew practicing right now.”

LINING UP

Two rookies, Nelson at left guard and Braden Smith at right tackle, coupled with the return of center Ryan Kelly and the emergence of right guard Mark Glowinski, helped one of the league’s worst offensive lines in 2017 become a top-five line last season. With all five starters back, the group has a new goal: producing a top-five rushing offense.

So far, with Nelson and Kelly (shoulder) battling injuries and left tackle Anthony Castonzo taking extra days off, the line hasn’t looked the same.

“We need to be better,” Castonzo said after losing a preseason game at Buffalo. “I think it’s just going to come down to the fundamentals, getting back to doing the things you’ve been doing since you were 10 years old: hands inside, moving your feet and just playing better football.”

LEONARD’S ENCORE

What does linebacker Darius Leonard do for an encore after leading the league in tackles and being chosen an All-Pro as a rookie?

Achieve higher goals.

“I wasn’t named MVP, I wasn’t a Super Bowl champion and I wasn’t a Pro Bowler,” Leonard said. “So there are still goals I didn’t reach last year.”

Leonard believes better fundamentals will help him reduce the number of missed tackles and he hopes to create more turnovers.

DEPTH CHART

Despite Sheard’s injury, the Colts have beefed up their pass rush by singing 2014 NFL sacks champion Justin Houston.

The most notable change defensively might be a deep secondary, loaded with talent.

Recently re-signed cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore II and second-round draft Rock Ya-Sin, an emerging playmaker, could help the Colts become a top 10 defense.