If the Indianapolis Colts are going to go 2-for-2 against the Tennessee Titans this season, they’ll have to do it short-handed. Particularly on defense.
Colts coach Frank Reich announced Friday that neither DeForest Buckner nor Denico Autry will come off the Reserve/COVID-19 list in time for Sunday’s pivotal AFC South matchup against the Titans.
He also announced that linebacker Bobby Okereke (ankle) won’t be available Sunday.
Listed as questionable on Friday’s official injury report were quarterback Philip Rivers (toe), wide receiver Zach Pascal (knee/foot), safety Khari Willis (ribs/shoulder), linebacker Anthony Walker (ribs), guard Quenton Nelson (back/ankle) and center Ryan Kelly (neck).
Fortunately for the Colts, all but Kelly were either full or limited participants in Friday’s practice, a good sign for their availability Sunday. In more good news, right tackle Braden Smith (thumb), who missed the win over the Packers, will not carry an injury designation into Sunday’s game.
Starting with Rivers, Reich sounded optimistic about his starting quarterback’s availability for Sunday after he missed practice Wednesday and (simulated) Thursday and was limited Friday.
“I thought he looked good,” Reich said during his regular availability Friday afternoon. “He had a good day out there.”
Rivers injured his toe while throwing a block on a reverse during the Packers game. While speaking to the media Wednesday, he acknowledged that he was sore but didn’t think the injury would keep him away from the field.
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Regarding the players on the COVID-19 list, Reich did not dive into details on either, but Buckner not being available for Sunday’s game against Tennessee confirms that the star defensive tackle tested positive for COVID-19 and was not just a high-risk close contract. If he were the latter, he would have been available to play Sunday, only needing to sit out five days.
Instead, he will be unavailable for just the second time in his career.
Now the question is whether he’ll be available next week against the Houston Texans. That will depend on if he is symptomatic or not. If he is, he’ll have to wait 14 days before coming off the Reserve/COVID-19 list, meaning he’d miss the game in Houston. If he is asymptomatic, however, he can come off the list in 10 days and therefore would be ready to play against Houston.
As for Autry, given that he will not be available Sunday, it can be surmised that he was or is symptomatic. If he were not, he would have been eligible to play against the Titans.
For the Colts, no Buckner and no Autry means playing without their two top interior pass-rushers. Autry leads the team in sacks (6.5), while Buckner has 2.5 sacks but paces the Colts with 16 quarterback hits — a number that ranks among the top 10 in the NFL.
Fortunately for the Colts, defensive line is probably their deepest position. They still have burgeoning star and outstanding run-stuffer Grover Stewart. They also have the versatile Tyquan Lewis, who’s played both inside and out this year. The third-year pro has played extremely well (3.5 sacks) in limited snaps this season. The Colts will need him to continue playing to that standard for a bigger chunk of the game.
Along with Lewis, it’s probably safe to assume that fellow run-stuffer Taylor Stallworth and sixth-round rookie Rob Windsor could get more involved this Sunday. Windsor made his debut last week, playing two snaps and recording his first career tackle.
While missing two top interior players the weeks they’re about to face Derrick Henry is far from idea, Reich is confident in his team’s depth.
“It’s a good challenge for us,” Reich said of playing without Buckner and Autry. “There is no doubt that this is the most formidable running attack that you face in the year. We have a lot of confidence in our guys that will step up. It’s 11 on one. We have good schemes, we have good players, we have good depth. So no excuses, we just get ready to play our best football game of the year.”
At linebacker, Okereke is a big loss for the Colts. The second-year linebacker ranks fourth on the team in tackles (52) and has been great in pass coverage with one interception and four passes defensed. Fortunately, the Titans are more of a run-heavy team, and assuming he’s good to go Sunday, Walker (full participant all three days) will be just fine playing a full complement of snaps alongside superstar Darius Leonard.
When the Colts are in their base package, expect Zaire Franklin to be one who fills in for Okereke alongside Leonard and Walker, though Matthew Adams and E.J. Speed could see snaps there as well.
At center, if Kelly can’t go, rookie fifth-rounder Danny Pinter would make his first career start. Kelly has missed time during game this season, including a snap against Green Bay, but has not missed a start since 2018. He’s also already played this season without practicing during the week. It’s not the ideal situation, Reich said, but Kelly is more than capable of doing it.
“Our guys do such a good job of staying locked in mentally and we get good work in walk-thru periods and the meetings are so detailed and such good work in the meetings,” Reich said. “At this time of year, we have a lot of physical, accumulated reps, so when guys have to miss – I don’t like it, neither do they, but you have confidence that they can miss some and still come back in there and play well.”
Follow IndyStar Colts Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter: @jimayello.