Entering Week 7, the Colts are one of four teams to have their offensive line rank in the top 10 in both Pro Football Focus' pass blocking and run blocking grades. Only two others teams' offensive lines have been tagged with allowing fewer sacks than the Colts' four; Colts running backs are averaging 1.5 yards before contact, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL.
All those numbers are to say: The Colts' offensive line, under first-year position coach Tony Sparano Jr., is performing well to begin the 2023 season. But it's taken more than the team's starting five group of left tackle Bernhard Raimann, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Will Fries and right tackle Braden Smith.
The Colts have needed two players to step in and start multiple games so far: Center Wesley French (Weeks 3 and 4), and tackle Blake Freeland (Weeks 4-6).
"Those guys are fighting out there to play good ball," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. "Not always 100 percent but gosh, they're giving all their effort. They're fighting, scratching and clawing and in some instances really holding their own versus some really good players. We're encouraged with both of those guys. Like I said, we're encouraged with the direction the thing is going up front, the level those guys are playing – it's heading in a good direction."
Both French and Freeland made their NFL debuts this season and drew challenging assignments. French saw his first pro action against the blitz-happy Baltimore Ravens in Week 3; in Week 4, the Los Angeles Rams frequently lined all-universe defensive tackle Aaron Donald up over Freeland at left tackle. In both cases, opposing defenses tried to test French and Freeland to see if they were a weak link that'd break an otherwise-strong chain of Colts offensive linemen; in both cases, the Colts were pleased with the play of those reserves.
"Sometimes defenses do try to align in certain ways to get a one-on-one with that guy to see what he's got," Cooter said. "That could be in pass protection, that could be in the run game. Wesley and Blake have gotten their share of that. That's the NFL fun for an offensive lineman – you're going to get matched up with a pretty good players sometimes, they're going to try you out. All in all, I think those guys have done a heck of a job hanging in there fighting, scratching and clawing."
Head coach Shane Steichen echoed Cooter's sentiment, saying French and Freeland "fought like crazy" and that the Colts have plenty of faith not only in those two players, but in the coaching Sparano has dispensed to the entire offensive line. It's not just about the starting five – the tone set by Sparano is empowering to the guys on the offensive line who, like French and Freeland, may need to be counted on at a moment's notice.
"I think he sees a high potential for every single one of us, and we should see that in ourselves," Freeland said. "And he wants us to reach that, just be the best."
Added Fries on Sparano: "He makes it well known that everyone's super important in the room. It starts with his preparation and getting guys ready throughout the week. Everyone's locked in during meetings. He makes it known not just the starting guys, everyone's gotta be ready to go."
Freeland is a particularly important representation of that "gotta be ready to go" mindset. Following the Colts' Thursday practice before their Week 4 game against the Rams, Raimann entered the NFL concussion protocol, giving Freeland just one day of practice before taking his first NFL snaps on offense against Donald and the Los Angeles front. Raimann returned for Week 6, but Smith was ruled out, shifting Freeland – who has experience on both sides of the line – to right tackle for Week 7.
And through those moves and last-minute shifts, the Colts were pleased with how Freeland held up.
"That's what's expected out of anyone in our room," Nelson said. "You gotta be ready to go at all times and you're a play away, sometimes two, from getting your shot. They understood that and coach Sparano made that known. He really cares about all the guys and makes sure everyone's getting coached up and everyone's ready at a moment's notice."
So as the Colts forge ahead during the 2023 season, they'll do so with a strong belief not only in their five projected starters up front, but in the next men up inside Sparano's offensive line unit.
"Obviously when one of the starters goes down, you lose some experience," Nelson said. "You lose a guy who have all the chemistry with. But you have confidence in the guys that in the second row in the room that they can bump up and they're going to know what to do and they're going to be prepared and ready to go."
Thursday's practice report: