INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard today joined Colts.com's Matt Taylor to recap the first half of the 2019 season, discussing a multitude of topics including the rookies' development, last week's trade deadline, defensive improvements and much more.
You can listen to the conversation below, but here it is in its entirety:
What is your assessment of the team as it sits at 5-3 midway through the season?
Ballard: "We're in a good place. We're 5-3, we're in the hunt. We thought we would be in the hunt, we still think that we have a very good football team. Unfortunate on Sunday, but we lost the game. I learned a long time being in this league that a lot of times more games are lost than won, and, you know, when you have untimely penalties, when you turn the football over — especially on the road against a good football team in Pittsburgh — on the road, it is difficult to win when you make mistakes. And our team knows that, and that was uncharacteristic of the way that we play, and it caught up to us.
But in terms of where we're at and where we're going, I mean, look: I mean, we reset every week — and I know it's a broken record, but we do. Win or lose, we reset. We're happy where we're going. Defensively, I think we've made great strides. The defensive staff's done a tremendous job with some injuries, and then one game I looked up and we've got five rookies playing at one time. But we've gotten better each and every week defensively. And I think you're really starting to see some progress on that side of the ball.
And then offensively, with our ability to be able to run the ball and play-action throw — and I thought we really got to a point where we were creating more chunk plays, which we wanted to do, especially in the second quarter of the season, and be able to control the game with our run game — I'm pleased where we're going.
And then on special teams we've made strides, especially in the return game. I think we're seeing Zach's (Pascal) popped a couple, Parris (Campbell) had one this last week I think for 37 — he's gotta hold on to the ball, but he had a nice explosive play. And then we've gotta get more consistent out of our extra point and field goal units — and I say the entire unit, not just one player. I know people sometimes find this hard to believe, but one of the great things about football is it's 11 players on the field, and they all have to execute their jobs for things to go right."
On offense, Jacoby Brissett goes down in the second quarter against the Steelers. How would you evaluate the play of backup quarterback Brian Hoyer the rest of the way?
Ballard: "I feel very fortunate to have Brian here. Sometimes the timing — I remember when we were kind of digging through and trying to figure out where we were going to go with the backup position, Todd Vasvari, one of our pro scouts that's been here a long time, came in and said, 'Look, Brian Hoyer has come available. I've studied him and think he'd really help us.' So we put our eyes on the tape some more and thought he'd be a really good fit for us. So fortunate (for) great work by Todd, but also fortunate to have (Hoyer). And then for him to come in, season's about to begin, really hasn't taken many reps at all with the first team, and to be able to come in and execute like he did versus Pittsburgh is an absolute credit to Brian. I mean, Brian's a pro: he prepares each week, like, mentally like he's going to be the starter and he keeps himself ready to play and it showed up on Sunday."
What do you make of the play at wide receiver with T.Y. Hilton set to miss some time with his calf injury?
Ballard: "We'll work through that. And I'll say this about T.Y., because the more I'm with him, the more I appreciate what a pro T.Y. Hilton is. I mean, he prepares, and every time I think he's gonna be down for a certain amount of time, he pops up about two weeks sooner than you ever thought. So I'll never count him out. And then No. 2 it's everybody else has to step up. You know, I've been really pleased with Zach Pascal and how he's stepped up, and, I mean, I think everybody knows my feeling towards Zach, even from last year. I mean, this is a young man that's been cut twice, we claim him in June of last year, and all he's done is fight, scratch, claw and do whatever it takes to help this football team in whatever role we've asked him to be (and) we've put him in. And he's performed on special teams, he's performed as a blocker, he's performed when we've thrown him the football. Andrew (Luck) had a lot of trust in him, and you can see both Jacoby and Brian have a lot of trust in him. So really proud of him. And then we have to get these other guys to step up. It was fun to watch Parris Campbell get out there, and he's been snakebitten a little bit with this injury stuff, but saying that, you know, you saw the explosive element out of him — and I still don't think he's quite where he will be from a health standpoint. But it was fun to watch him from an explosive element, what he adds to our offense. And then getting (Devin) Funchess back here soon will definitely bolster and help the group."
The trade deadline was last week, and the Colts did not end up making any moves. What made you decide it was the best decision to stand pat with what you have now heading into the second half of the season?
Ballard: "Well, I'll say this: the media makes more of the trade deadline, I think, than teams make of the trade deadline. But I will say this: we definitely had lines in the water. You always do. I mean, we all take calls, we all listen, and then we do what's best, we think, for the team. And at the time we just didn't think we found a fit, both from a compensation standpoint and also who we were going to bring in the building, just the timing and the fit didn't work out."
You have 11 rookies playing for you this season. Which of those guys would you say are really progressing well at this point?
Ballard: "Well, look: Khari Willis, from the first time he stepped on the field he wasn't a rookie. He's mature, he's performed at a high level, from the first time that he stepped on the field. And i think we saw that right from the get-go. Been really pleased with Marvell Tell here over the last two weeks. He had an unfortunate P.I. (pass interference) penalty in the Pittsburgh game, but saying that, he's competed, had a big forced fumble, he's been good in coverage and, you know, he's really making strides. And that's hard; when you've been inactive for a few weeks, you've gotta stay engaged and keep working, and when your time comes and when your opportunity comes you've gotta be ready. And he was ready to perform. You know, Rock's (Ya-Sin) had some up and down moments. You know, last week was a tough moment and this week he needs to do a little bit better job technically staying on top, but he's had some really, really good moments. You know, one guy I want to make sure I don't miss is Ashton Dulin, who came up from our practice squad. And we did have some young players at wideout and we had drafted Parris, so getting him here, convincing him to come to Indianapolis — 'cause he was coveted — after the draft, and then being on the practice squad, and then when we moved him up, making sure he understood his role. And he has just grabbed it and excelled at it on special teams, and you can see his talent level when he's playing on teams — he's playing fast and he's playing physical."
How do you find a guy like Ashton Dulin? Or maybe the better question is how does a guy like that not land at a major college program?
Ballard: "Look: our scouts liked him. Chad Henry brought him up in the fall and really liked Ashton. And we actually worked him out in the spring. At one point we definitely had talked about drafting him. We thought for sure, with somebody with his height, weight and speed, he would get drafted. But then when he fell through the draft we made an aggressive push to sign him."
Defensively, Justin Houston has a sack in four straight games and leads the team with six sacks. Is this what you envisioned when you signed him this offseason?
Ballard: "I guess 'cause I was with him for four years in Kansas City and I kind of knew the impact he had on our football team there, and then to bring him in, not only the player, but the person and the leader and everything he brings, the other stuff that people don't see day-to-day — what he brings to not only the defense but the entire team — (I) couldn't be more pleased with Justin. And I think Justin, he's still an elite player, and I think he's still got a lot left in the tank."
On the offensive side of the ball, what do you think of the depth of the offensive line to this point of the season? That was put to the test for the first time this past Sunday against the Steelers when center Ryan Kelly went down with a burner and had to be replaced by Josh Andrews.
Ballard: "Well, we've been fortunate, because we've had the same starting five all the way through, and then when Kelly went down, Josh came in and did a good job. And, look, a lot of times guys, they've gotta keep themselves ready. There's weeks that you might not play at all, and you're practicing and you're doing scout team stuff and you're doing backup work, but you've gotta keep yourself ready to play and ready to go in a moment's notice, because all it takes is one play and you're the next guy in. I mean, we tell our guys all the time — and I know I talk about it to our coaches and our players, but — if you're on the 53-man roster, you're a starter. You have to consider yourself a starter, because there at some point during the season you're gonna be asked to play, and you're gonna be asked to play in a crucial moment of the game, when the game's on the line. And I give our players and I give our staff a lot of credit for keeping guys engaged and ready to go."
What are some things that you're seeing that's gone in to the defensive improvements over the last few weeks?
Ballard: "Look: I mean, there was one point I looked up and we had five rookies playing. And no matter what you say, you want them all to hit their ceiling right away, but they're gonna make mistakes. And, you know, when we had the injuries to Darius (Leonard), and we had some guys nicked up — when (Malik) Hooker and (Clayton) Geathers all missed time — I mean, that's very difficult, but also, on the flip side of that, it gets you a chance for other guys to play and get experience. And that's how, all of a sudden when those guys get healthy, that's when you've got depth. So I think we've built tremendous depth defensively where you're seeing a lot of guys play, you're seeing a lot of people rotate in and out, and, look: that's a credit to the coaching staff for their coaching, it's a credit to the players for being unselfish and knowing that, 'You know what, there might be a game that I might play 20, 25 snaps, and in the past I'd have played 40,' but over the course of a season, it's better for the team and it's better for them because their bodies hold up."
Is that a blessing for you, knowing in the offseason you have a better idea of what you've got personnel-wise?
Ballard: "Well at the time it's not always a blessing, 'cause of the unknown. But once they go in and perform they build trust. I mean, look: consistency builds trust, and when guys play and they play consistent, they build trust and they play more."