INDIANAPOLIS — What's the latest in #ColtsCamp from the players' perspective? Hear from tackle Anthony Castonzo, defensive end Justin Houston, linebacker Darius Leonard and wide receiver Zach Pascal in today's edition of "Camp Chatter."
Tackle Anthony Castonzo
» The Colts' offensive linemen really love getting in a groove in the run game: Castonzo and the rest of his offensive line mates take great pride in protecting the quarterback, but they really have fun getting after it in their various run-blocking schemes.
And when this talented offensive line finds its groove in the run game, watch out. That's what happened to open up the "second half" of Monday's scrimmage at Lucas Oil Stadium, as running back Marlon Mack ripped off three straight huge runs, including a 53-yard touchdown, thanks to the big holes being created up front.
Castonzo was quick to credit the running backs for the way they seem to take advantage of any little opening they can get, but it's a true team effort.
"I've said it many times before, but when you have backs who when you create a little hole, they can turn it into a big one, it feels great," Castonzo said.
The Colts as a team finished seventh in the league in rushing a year ago, and with every starting offensive lineman returning, as well as Mack, who is coming off his first-career 1,000-yard rushing season, and guys like Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins — not to mention the newcomers like running back Jonathan Taylor and fullback Roosevelt Nix — that Indy rushing attack could be even more potent in 2020.
"It definitely feels good once you get running the ball and can get the running game going," Castonzo said. "I think you've heard all of our coaches preach about it – once we get the run game going, everything opens up."
» Even as a 10-year veteran, Castonzo appreciated Monday's game-like atmosphere: Castonzo has certainly had his share of NFL gameday experiences, so one might just assume that Monday's training camp scrimmage at Lucas Oil Stadium probably just felt like all the others.
But the way Castonzo sees it, there is added value, this year particularly, in getting a good sense of that gameday routine with the regular season right around the corner. With no preseason games leaguewide this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even veterans like Castonzo want to get a chance to get that game-like adrenaline flowing before the games start counting Sept. 13.
On Monday, the Colts traveled together on the team buses to Lucas Oil Stadium, they got ready in the locker room, they went through a typical pre-game warmup period, they ran onto the field for "introductions," they headed back into the locker room for a "halftime" break and they even wore their official game uniforms, with the offense in white jerseys and pants and the defense/special teamers in the blue jerseys and white pants.
"I think we accomplished a lot today," Castonzo said. "We were all talking to each other in the locker room before the 'game' the way the coaches set up the whole day, how it was just like a gameday. You get that gameday feeling kind of in your gut and you go out there, and the way that we warmed up and took on the day, it was very game-like. And honesty, as a starting group we got way more plays in this than I think I got all of the preseason games last year, so it was good to get those reps."
Defensive end Justin Houston
» Houston has changed up his diet a bit since signing with the Colts, and it's making a difference: Houston came to the Colts last offseason already considered one of the best pass rushers of his era, but even a veteran can pick up a thing or two at their new stop.
With the Colts, Houston said he's worked with Director of Sports Performance Rusty Jones, as well as Kirsten Gregurich, the team's nutritionist, on making tweaks to his diet to help get the most out his body.
"My portion size was the biggest thing I had to switch up," Houston said. "I knew what to eat, but I didn't know how much to eat of each thing. I'd eat too many carbs. I was eating too much protein. Rusty and Kirsten, they helped me. They gave me a number and an actual portion size to stick with and it's done an amazing job for me and my body."
The 31-year-old Houston, who is also entering his 10th year in the league in 2020, says he feels noticeably different now than he did when he got to Indy.
"I'm leaner, I feel quicker, I feel faster, so hopefully it shows on the field this year," he said.
» Houston focuses mainly on his opponents, and not his moves: A sack artist like Houston can develop a number of moves and approaches off the edge over the years, and that's certainly the case here, as the four-time Pro Bowler has his own personal bag of tricks he can reach into throughout any game to get to the quarterback.
And while Houston has his go-tos — he's a particularly powerful pass rusher who can really get into an offensive tackle and push him back into the pocket — he said he focuses more week to week on the opponent and what he needs to do to be successful against them, rather than what moves he has queued up.
"I have a different mindset. I have go-tos, but I mainly focus on my opponent because the move I may like to do may not work against my opponent because it depends on what kind of guy my opponent is," Houston said. I just try to develop my skills in all ways, just become a better – it's no longer a bull rush it's a power rush so become a better power rusher, just get better with my hands, better with my angles, my first steps and my steps, period. So just always constantly trying to perfect me and every aspect of a pass rush."
After collecting 89.5 career sacks, including 11 last season in his first year in Indy, Houston clearly knows what he's doing.
Linebacker Darius Leonard
» Leonard enjoyed the physical nature of Monday's practice: While the Colts' training camp practices to this point have featured plenty of physicality, Monday's scrimmage at Lucas Oil Stadium was turned up a notch. In fact, head coach Frank Reich on Monday even instituted a couple "live" periods with actual tackling — a first in camp so far this year.
With no preseason games this year, every team across the league is trying to find the right balance of properly getting ready for the regular season, but also playing it smart and limiting the exposure to possible injuries.
Leonard thinks the Colts have found a sweet spot in terms of being physical and getting used to that feeling of taking – and giving — a beating, but also being able to stay relatively healthy and fresh each and every day.
"This is definitely the most physical that we've been the whole camp. The intensity was high. That's something we need, especially having no OTAs or anything like that," Leonard said of Monday's practice. "Coming into camp, you don't want the first game to be the first time you go live so it felt great to go against our great offensive line that we have and the great backs that we have. It definitely was amazing to get that feeling back in front of us."
» The Colts won't have any issues staying energized this season: Some stadiums are currently set to have drastically reduced crowd sizes this year, while others won't have fans at all. It'll be a drastically different dynamic on gamedays for the players who are used to tens of thousands of fans cheering them on — or, perhaps, not quite being as encouraging — each week.
While the league is allowing the use of piped-in crowd noise — and the Colts got a preview of that during Monday's scrimmage at Lucas Oil Stadium — it'll be on the players themselves to try to make up for the energy they'd usually get from the fans in the stands.
Leonard, perhaps the Colts' most energized player from day to day, doesn't think that'll be a problem at all with this group.
"The team would never lack that," Leonard said. "That's something that we talk about. We have to bring our own energy. For the past three years that I've been here, the motto being, 'Bring the juice.' No matter where you're at, bring the juice.
"For me, I'm an energetic guy and like today, there were no fans out there. There was nobody watching, but I'm still going to make sure that I lead this defense with the contagious energy that I have. No matter if I make a play or my teammates make a play, we have to be able to celebrate together. That's going to bring juice itself," Leonard continued. "One guy makes a play, as long as your teammates are celebrating, that's how the juice is formed. We have to continue to do that with fans or without fans."
Wide receiver Zach Pascal
» Side throwing sessions before training camp helped Pascal get on the same page with Philip Rivers: We're often reminded of the fact that the Colts, and every other NFL team, didn't get a true offseason workout program this year; the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, led to the utilization of virtual meetings, while players mostly had to figure out the workout and positional drills aspect on their own.
With the Colts signing a new starting quarterback this offseason in Rivers, the team lost out on some crucial early opportunities just to simply get out on the field and toss the ball around to start the process of getting in sync with each other. But once training camp started getting closer, and once Rivers finally was able to make the move to Indy, that all began to change.
Rivers not only headed up a three-day players-only "minicamp" in June away from the Colts' facility, but he also made sure to have other side throwing sessions with the various pass catchers who were already in town, one of whom was Pascal.
Now more than a week into training camp, Pascal said those sessions have paid dividends.
"It's been real good. During the offseason, we had a couple throwing sessions — me and Phil. A lot of guys, we kind of linked up and got some throwing sessions in," Pascal said. "It was kind of the same offense that Phil and Frank (Reich) had back in the day so it just all gelled together. A couple routes in and we got our timing down. It's been pretty cool especially during the offseason when we were able to get that timing good."
» With health, the Colts' wide receiver corps has every weapon you could ever want: Speed, quickness, size, flexibility, smarts, route-running ability — the Colts have it at the wide receiver position. Staying healthy is the key, however.
Last year, the Colts also had plenty of promise at the wide receiver position heading into the season, but several key contributors, including T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell and Devin Funchess, would have to sit out a significant portion of the season as they dealt with various injuries. When they were able to play, especially Hilton and Campbell, they just weren't able to get any sort of consistent momentum going their way.
So while injuries are unpredictable by nature — and simply unavoidable in a contact sport like football — one would hope they wouldn't ravage the same Colts position group again this year. And if that ends up being the case, watch out, Pascal said.
"It's been really fun," Pascal said. "A lot of guys are healthy now so you get to see guys make plays and continue doing what they've been doing like T.Y., and I saw Parris Campbell making a couple plays. It's good to see all the guys back healthy. We all have different skillsets, so we could be very valuable to the offense and have different weapons doing different things. It's been looking real good lately."
Pascal definitely showed he could step up his game last year when Hilton, the team's top receiver, was out of the lineup. After more than 600 yards receiving and five touchdowns in 2019, Pascal remains focused on his consistency as a solid all-around wide receiver.
"Just consistency, being able to go from one play, make a big play and next play make another big play, then making a right block on this play and not getting tired of doing the dirty work," Pascal said when asked what he wants his next step to be. "Just continuing to grow, continuing to learn from T.Y., but also bring on the other guys and just being a better teammate. This year that's kind of just my focus."