INDIANAPOLIS — The clock is ticking for the Indianapolis Colts and two of their key players — one on each side of the ball — for their availability for Sunday's 2019 home opener.
Running back Marlon Mack and linebacker Darius Leonard on Thursday both missed their second straight day of practice as their teammates continue putting in work for their Week 3 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
» Mack first appeared on the injury report Wednesday with a calf issue. The league's third-leading rusher entering Week 3 action, Mack could be spelled by a mixture of second-year backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. It was Wilkins who spelled Mack at times last Sunday in Indy's road victory over the Tennessee Titans, as the Ole Miss product collected a team-best 82 yards on five carries for an impressive 16.2 yards-per-carry average. Another option at running back Sunday could be fourth-year Arkansas product Jonathan Williams, who has missed the first two games of the season with a rib injury.
» Leonard started feeling concussion-like symptoms after last Sunday's game against the Titans, and has since been placed in the league's concussion protocol. The fewer days Leonard is able to practice leading up to a game, the less of a chance he'll be available to play, as the concussion protocol requires a player to clear a few key steps — one of which being full football activity — before gaining final clearance from an independent league neurologist. Two rookies — Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed — could take Leonard's reps if he's unable to play on Sunday, though the team could very well mix and match at its three linebacker spots. While Speed is listed as Leonard's backup at the WILL linebacker spot on the team's unofficial depth chart, Okereke can also play there, or defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus could choose to move Anthony Walker from MIKE linebacker to the WILL, and put a guy like Okereke at MIKE.
Head coach Frank Reich is expected to announce who is being ruled out of Sunday's game against the Falcons Friday around 1:40 p.m.
Slowing Ryan, Jones
Whether or not the Colts have Leonard, their All-Pro linebacker, on Sunday, the defense will have to be ready to go to take on the Falcons and their high-powered offense.
Atlanta (1-1) has some of the best overall offensive weapons in the league; they have a former league MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan and a powerhouse running back in Devonta Freeman, but their downright scary at wide receiver, where they have arguably the best player at his position in Julio Jones, as well as Calvin Ridley, who had 10 touchdowns as a rookie last season, and the versatile Mohamed Sanu.
Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II said this is one of those weeks where studying film — and then giving it a second, third and fourth look — is extra critical.
"You just try to look for tendencies — down and distance, what they're trying to go, what the QB is seeing, how to play certain guys in certain kinds of looks," Moore II said. "Those are the things that we're taking note of."
While Ryan is coming off a performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in which he threw three interceptions, he also threw for 320 yards and three touchdowns; Jones was on the receiving end of two of those scores.
"He's just so strong and physical," Moore II said of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones. "He believes in himself and his craft. He's very crafty; he's a vet receiver. He knows what he's getting out of the defense, he knows what to expect, and he loves football and he's a competitor. So he's much respected from a player-to-player standpoint, but we've got a ballgame to play."
While guys like Ryan, Jones, Ridley and the crew are certainly dangerous in their own right, Colts cornerback Quincy Wilson said the preparation process for them this week has been "fun."
"Because you know you get to turn on the tape and you get to break down these guys that have been very explosive and they know what they're doing on offense," Wilson said. "So, you know, we've been in the film room a lot to figure out why they're so explosive, so we're just focusing on taking away what they really want and their go-to plays. We've just gotta dial in on the game plan and go to practice and hone our skills so that we can be ready for this top passing attack."
Denico Autry logged two sacks last Sunday against the Titans, again proving what those within the AFC South already knew — he's one of the best interior pass rushers in the league.
But Autry, who was a Pro Bowl alternate last year for the first time in his career, still doesn't seem to get respect or attention he should outside the division, and his teammates are taking notice.
"I think he's one of the most underrated pass rushers in the game right now," defensive end Justin Houston said of Autry, who has 2.5 sacks on the year, and had nine sacks in 12 games last year. "He's a great pass rusher, and you never really hear too much about him. But he's very effective at the three-technique and at nose, so I think he's very underrated."
So what exactly makes Autry so good? It's not like at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, that he's the biggest of players attacking from the interior.
"He's very gifted with his hands and his second effort," said Houston, who has 79.5 career sacks, including one this season. "So, to me, like I told him, I think he's got some of the best hands in the game. He knows how to keep the guy's hands off of him, and he knows have to maneuver the pocket well."
So how's Autry doing it? Typically a man of few words, Autry told Colts.com's Jeffrey Gorman on Wednesday that "I'm really buying into my craft."
"I'm really getting better at rushing the passer," he said. "It's the film room, but it's (a) majority taking care of my body during the week — you know, cold tub, massages, staying loose and staying hydrated."
Here's the full injury report from Thursday's practice:
» DNP: LB Darius Leonard (concussion); RB Marlon Mack (calf)
» Limited: CB Pierre Desir (knee); WR T.Y. Hilton (quad); DE Jabaal Sheard (knee)
» Full: QB Jacoby Brissett (knee); DE Al-Quadin Muhammad (shoulder); DE Kemoko Turay (neck); RB Jonathan Williams (rib)
— It's a second straight day of limited work for Desir, Hilton and Sheard.
— Muhammad, Turay and Williams each moved from limited on Wednesday to full participants on Thursday.