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Colts Mailbag: Darius Leonard As A Pass Rusher, Combating The Noise At Arrowhead, Jumping Out To A Lead

In this week’s Colts Mailbag, readers inquire about Darius Leonard taking on a role as a pass-rush specialist, how the team plans to combat the noise at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday, and just how important it is to score first.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Each week, readers can submit their questions to have a chance of them being answered in our Mailbag series.

This week's edition is coming at you from Kansas City, Mo., where the Colts are taking on the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs.

Missed out on the party this week? Not a problem — you can submit your question(s) for next time by clicking here.

Let's jump right into this week's questions:


» Dustin A. (Idaville, Ind.): "What has held WR's Fountain and Ishmael back or what do they need to improve on to get more playing time and plays called for them?"

Walker: First off, Steve Ishmael, while he did spend a couple weeks (Weeks 8 and 10) on the active roster, has been back on the practice squad the last eight weeks, and that's where he'll be again this weekend, when the Colts take on the Chiefs in the Divisional Round. So while the team likes what Ishmael brings to the table, he simply isn't on the active roster. As for Daurice Fountain, I think it's important to look at what the receivers ahead of him currently bring to the table for the Colts. Take Chester Rogers, for example. Not only does Rogers have a career-best 53 receptions for 485 yards and two touchdowns, but he is also the Colts' punt returner. Then there's Zach Pascal. Pascal has contributed 27 receptions for 268 yards and two touchdowns, but is also the Colts' kickoff returner. So with T.Y. Hilton, Dontrelle Inman, Rogers and Pascal, that doesn't leave many snaps for a fifth receiver at this time. The fact Fountain is on the active roster during this playoff run speaks volumes to me about what the organization thinks about him, however.


» Frank S. (Leesburg, Fla.): "Darius Leonard had 7 sacks in limited pass rush opportunities, any chance the colts make him a pass rusher next year and use him like Von Miller is used. Do u think the Colts need a power runner next year to compliment Mack and Wilkins like Blount or Ingram. I think Bell would cost too much."

Walker: Hey Frank, that won't be happening as it pertains to Darius Leonard. Leonard was hand-picked by Chris Ballard to be the stud WILL linebacker in this new 4-3 system, and we've all seen the results of that selection. Seven sacks for an off-ball linebacker is a ton, and what that tells me is A.) Matt Eberflus has been really good at picking and choosing when to send Leonard on blitzes; and B.) Leonard is just a really, really good football player. He's way too valuable as a sideline-to-sideline presence and as a guy who cleans up in the run and the pass game (NFL's leading tackler) to just be limited to one particular area, such as rushing the passer.

As for a power running back, I get this question a lot. To me, I think you look at what the Colts have done with Marlon Mack since Week 7 and you build off that with what you already have, with maybe some tweaks at the position here and there. Since that Week 7 game against the Buffalo Bills, Mack is first in the NFL in rushing first downs, and second in carries (197), rushing yards (933) and rushing touchdowns (10). Nyheim Hines adds more of a versatile piece to the backfield with his pass-catching abilities, while Jordan Wilkins is more of your between-the-tackles, vision runner. Is there room for a power back in this? Well, that's what I thought Robert Turbin would be, but he's no longer on the roster as of Nov. 9.

… Also, Leesburg, Fla.? How many Leesburgs are there? I used to live in Leesburg, Va., and have family near Leesburg, Ind. (Looks like there are 16 Leesburgs across the U.S.? Wow. Learn something new every day.)


» Steven B. (Columbus, Ohio): "Are there any statistics to show how the Colts special teams are playing, compared to last year and where they rank against other teams this year? It seems as if they are much improved this year also. I am very impressed with Rigeberto Sanchez's punting but a little disappointed with Chester Rodgers tendency to fair catch most every punt."

Walker: Really the only entity that tracks special teams ratings as a whole that I utilize is Football Outsiders, which calculates "an estimate of how many points, compared to league average, each team receives from the five elements of special teams: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts, punt returns. The Colts ranked 20th in the NFL in this metric this season; they ranked eighth last season.

But as far as pure stats go:

» Rigoberto Sanchez ranked fifth in the NFL in touchbacks on kickoffs (59); ranked eighth in the NFL in punting average (46.1) and third in the NFL in net punting average (42.7).

» Adam Vinatieri ranked 14th in the NFL and sixth in the AFC in scoring by kickers (113).

» The Colts ranked 13th in the league in punt return average (9.0) but first in the league in punt return average allowed (4.4).

» The Colts ranked 29th in the NFL in kickoff return average (19.8) and ninth in kickoff return average allowed (22.0).

That's a pretty good idea as far as special teams rankings go. So some obvious areas of strength, with some obvious areas that need improvement.


» Alicia D. (French Lick, Ind.): "Hi Andrew! I think the team is working hard & having fun and I enjoy seeing this!! How much of a factor do you think the noise will be at Arrowhead?"

Walker: Hi Alicia! French Lick? (Insert Larry Bird reference here.)

I do think the noise will be quite a factor for the Colts' offense to deal with Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium — which, depending on who you ask, is considered one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL. The Chiefs actually claim to have the "loudest stadium in the world," with a registered decibel reading of 142.2 — which _is_ actually a Guinness World Record. The Seahawks and the Chiefs always go back and forth on which fanbase is louder, so yada yada yada. I'll still take a rocking Lucas Oil Stadium over any other place.

Fortunately for the Colts, they have a terrific communicator at the quarterback position, who will be ready to go with silent counts and various hand signals should the noise get too loud — and, trust me, it will get too loud at some point on Saturday. Consider this: the Chiefs are playing for their first home playoff victory since Jan. 8, 1994. Their quarterback at the time? Joe Montana — you know, Colts running backs coach Tom Rathman's former teammate with the San Francisco 49ers?

So the plan for the Colts is to try to forge a similar result as their last two games, both on the road: get out to large leads in the first half and take the crowd out of it. But that's going to be easier said than done against a Chiefs offense that moved and scored the ball better than anybody in the NFL in 2018.


» Mason B. (Monroeville, Penn.): "How hard/easy is it to maintain the 'We not Me' mentality as a team? Other teams have been struggling with that recently, but with the Colts, especially this year, it seems like you guys would take a bullet for each other. When every player thinks with the same agenda: winning, does coexistence become easier and easier every day?"

Walker: Great question/observation, Mason. As simple as this sounds, I think the Colts have been successful in this area due to four main reasons: first, general manager Chris Ballard and his personnel staff have specifically targeted players who not only are good football players, but whose "football character" is off the charts. Secondly, head coach Frank Reich and his staff never quit hammering home that "1-0" mindset, even when the team was 1-5 and tied for the worst record in the NFL. Third, the Colts have tremendous team leaders — guys like Andrew Luck, Adam Vinatieri, Jabaal Sheard and others — that the coaching staff can depend upon to ensure the locker room stays strong and everybody stays on track. And finally, credit goes to the entire roster, not just the leaders, for sticking to the grind each and every day, whether it's taking care of their bodies, putting in extra work in the film room, practicing the way they need to practice, etc. The teams that have just one, two or even three of these aspects might find themselves on the outside looking in right now, but the combination of all four of them has been invaluable for the Colts throughout the season, and, now, into the postseason.


» Mike B. (Fountaintown, Ind.): "What is the Colts winning percentage when they are the first team to score?"

Walker: According to the Stats Department (me), the Colts in the regular season were 7-1 (.875) when scoring first, and 1-0 so far in the postseason (1.000). So added together, that's an .889 winning percentage. Also, let's have some fun here: the Colts are 4-3 in games in which they won the opening coin toss (which means they deferred to the second half and kicked off to the opposition to begin the game), but are 7-3 in games in which they lost the opening coin toss. The Colts currently have a six-game winning streak in games in which they've lost the opening coin toss, interestingly enough.


» Austyn S. (Pasco, Wash.): "Mack has proven he can be a "Cow Bell" running back (as Caroline once said lol), so running back is not a position of need this off season. Nor is the offensive line anymore. Do you think Chris Ballard will target the defensive line and wide receiver group in free agency?"

Walker: I ran your "Cow Bell" comment by Caroline, and she's not too thrilled. OK — she laughed. Anyway, I'd agree that running back is not an immediate position of need, although I wouldn't be too surprised if you saw the Colts add a couple pieces to the offseason roster, whether that's through free agency or the draft, just to mix things up a bit. But I definitely think you're on to something when you mention the defensive line and wide receiver position groups this offseason — but, to me, I think free agency might not be the way the team goes for the most part. I think Chris Ballard will continue building from within via the draft (the team will have at least nine draft picks to start with), and, even though the fan base will continue to plead for big-name free agents and see a huge "cap number" available for the Colts, I just believe the team will continue to utilize free agency to mostly fill in holes, like it has the last couple seasons. What will be interesting, however, is to see the effect of the Colts' successful 2018 season on the free agent market. More and more players from the outside are hearing what the Colts are building here in Indy, and will want to be a part of that.


» Jeffrey C. (New Albany, Ind.): "What is the longest winning streak in Colts history"

Walker: The most consecutive regular season wins in Colts history is 23, from Nov. 2, 2008, vs. the New England Patriots, to Dec. 17, 2009, vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars.


» Jeff W. (Columbus, Ind.): "Have the Colt's ever won all of their road games during a play off run, to make it to the Superbowl ?"

Walker: So, interestingly enough. I did some research this week on consecutive road games for the Colts, because if the NFL can help it, outside of the postseason, the league tries not to have a team ever play three straight on the road — although it has happened from time to time for the Colts. Saturday's game will represent the 17th time in franchise history — and the seventh since moving to Indy — that the Colts will have played three consecutive road games. Interestingly, the 1963 season featured two three-game road swings. Not trying to get ahead of myself here, but for facts' sakes, if Indy was to advance to next week's AFC Championship Game, it would be just the second time in franchise history it would have played FOUR straight games on the road, matching the 1971 season, when Weeks 3, 4, 5 and 6 were of the away variety. But, to answer your question, Jeff, none of these long road swings occurred during a Super Bowl season.


» David M. (Green Cove Springs, Fla.): "Ooooooooooooo"

Walker: … say can you see?


» Darvell L. (Joilet, Ill.): "So hoping we make it far, are there any people on IR that are almost healthy?? Hint hint (Farley, Woods)"

Walker: So, Darvell, I've explained this a few times already in recent Mailbags, but I'm happy to go over it again. Each NFL team every season has two "return-from-IR" spots it can utilize on players who have sat out at least eight weeks with injury, but are deemed healthy enough to be brought back to practice that same year; then that begins a 21-day window in which a team can decide whether to put that player back on the active roster, or revert them to IR for the remainder of the season. The Colts this season have already used their two return-from-IR spots on defensive tackle/end Tyquan Lewis and tackle/guard Joe Haeg, so even if some guys who are currently still on IR were good to go, the team can't bring them back the rest of the season/postseason.

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