Ballard’s long-term plan paying early dividends for Colts

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              Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett (7) runs out of the tackle of Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Jack Crawford (95) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When Andrew Luck made his surprise retirement announcement last month, some expected the Indianapolis Colts to revise their expectations.

General manager Chris Ballard refused. After spending three offseasons masterfully putting together a deep roster, he thought it was good enough to weather the loss of anyone — even a franchise quarterback.

Now, Ballard’s work is paying big dividends. One month after Luck left the game, the Colts have beaten two playoff hopefuls, won their first home opener in six years, and are again sitting atop the AFC South along with Houston.

“That’s part of the job that Chris and his staff do getting these guys here,” coach Frank Reich said Monday when asked about finding players who balance personal success with team success. “We want unselfish players. You want somebody who wants the ball, but we want somebody who can want the ball and at the same time can be unselfish. It seems like those two things don’t go together, but they do go together in really good players. I’m sure deep down they all want to be the star every week, but it’s really fun to see these guys root for each other.”

If the Colts (2-1) keep playing this way, they could have a lot of fun this season.

Jacoby Brissett has been better than advertised since replacing Luck. His rating is No. 11 and he’s thrown as many touchdown passes as Tom Brady and fewer interceptions than Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz or Matt Ryan.

Marlon Mack ranks third in the league in rushing, averaging 99.7 yards per game.

And after taking a 20-3 lead Sunday, the Colts held on for a 27-24 victory — finishing the game without Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton, All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, and with safety Malik Hooker playing through a torn meniscus in his knee.

How have they managed to say the course?

“We’re just going to let them have it the best way we know how, without whoever,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “I mean that’s kind of how it was last year — we were kind of beaten up. When those things happen, we just rely on each other, we just pull together. We’re a team, man, the best team I’ve ever been around.”

That always was Ballard’s vision.

He invested wisely in free agency, acquired extra draft picks and rewarded worthy players inside the organization with lucrative contracts. He brought in players with a football-first approach and guys who revel more in team success than their own.

And while it’s early, the Colts feel like this is a team built to last.

“I wasn’t shocked, everybody else was shocked,” receiver Zach Pascal said when asked about Brissett completing his first 16 passes Sunday. “I think guys on this team are not shocked. That’s why Jacoby is here. He’s a tremendous player and a tremendous leader.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Red-zone offense. The Colts now have eight TDs in 11 red-zone trips this season, with two of those coming against the Falcons. Indy got a 21-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri on the first and ran out the final 69 seconds on the second.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Turnovers. The Colts spent training camp stressing the need to create more turnovers but they only have two through three games.

STOCK UP

Brissett. He produced his second-highest single-game yardage total (310) and threw three more touchdown passes to give him seven this season, tied for fourth in the league.

STOCK DOWN

Pass rush. After getting four sacks each of the first two weeks, the Colts had none Sunday.

INJURED

Hooker’s injury is expected to keep him out four to six weeks. In addition, Hilton aggravated his previously injured quad on a touchdown catch late in the first half. Defensive tackle Tyquan Lewis suffered an ankle injury that kept him on the bench for the second half.

KEY NUMBER

5 — After missing five of his first eight kicks this season, Adam Vinatieri made all five attempts in Week 3, including with a 49-yard field goal he banked in off the left upright.

NEXT STEPS

Atlanta stacked the line to keep Indy’s budding ground game in check. Brissett adapted by throwing to nine receivers. Mack still ran 16 times for 74 yards and one TD, but it’s a tactic the Colts may face more frequently in future games.