The Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive front put on a clinic back in Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts, seemingly getting to quarterback Matt Ryan at will throughout the ballgame to the tune of five sacks, 11 quarterback hits and one forced fumble, while contributing to three Colts interceptions.
Unable to get anything going, Indianapolis was shut out that day in Jacksonville, 24-0.
Less than one month later, the two teams were back at it, this time at Lucas Oil Stadium. And the Colts' offense — particularly its protection up front — was ready to show it wasn't going to be pushed around by its AFC South Division rivals anymore.
Thanks to the contributions of newcomer Dennis Kelly, who was inserted into the game at left tackle after Indy's second offensive series, the Colts on Sunday allowed zero sacks and just six quarterback hits this time around, providing enough time for Ryan to operate within a pass-heavy approach that led to Indy's 34-27 victory.
"The last time we played them we studied everything we did wrong — from the run game, to the pass game to the protection. We came out, we said, 'To hell with this,'" said Colts center Ryan Kelly. "We just played five as one. … Coming down to the wire, whatever our team needs, we did it. I thought we ran the ball pretty good against a tough loaded box. It was just awesome to go out there and have fun going fast. It was a good time."
The Colts' offensive line had been struggling to find consistency throughout the first portion of the season, heading into their Week 5 matchup against the Denver Broncos having allowed among the most sacks in the NFL. That led to head coach Frank Reich's decision to tinker with the lineup for that Broncos game, making changes at left tackle, right guard and right tackle — and on a short week, no less. The Broncos' defense took advantage of the lack of practice time for the Colts' offensive line, sacking Ryan six times and and hitting him 10 times in all — though Indy was able to fly home with a 12-9 overtime victory thanks to strong defensive and kicking performances.
But the Thursday Night Football contest against the Broncos provided a mini bye week of sorts for the Colts, who were able to take some extra time to work through some of the issues up front.
On Sunday the team elected to move Matt Pryor, who started the year at left tackle and played right tackle against the Broncos, to right guard, and moved Braden Smith, who played right guard in Denver, back to his usual position at right tackle. Rookie Bernhard Raimann, the third-round pick out of Central Michigan, started his second straight game at left tackle on Sunday, but he would be replaced late in the first quarter by Dennis Kelly, the 11-year veteran out of Purdue.
Something certainly seemed to click once the lineup of Dennis Kelly (left tackle), Quenton Nelson (left guard), Ryan Kelly (center), Matt Pryor (right guard) and Braden Smith (right tackle) took the field for Indy's third offensive series, which ended in a Chase McLaughlin 28-yard field goal to cut the Jaguars' early lead to 7-3.
The barrage of pass-rush moves and stunts that seemed to work at will for the Jaguars back in Week 2 were met with great resistance on Sunday. And even when Jacksonville's defensive front did get into Ryan's face from time to time, the veteran quarterback was able to safety get the ball where it needed to go, finishing with a career-best 42 completions for 389 yards and three touchdowns.
Ryan's third touchdown was the biggest of his Colts' career so far, as he found rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce in the end zone on a beautiful fade pass with 17 seconds to go in the fourth quarter to seal yet another come-from-behind victory.
"I think we talk about all the time about working five as one. I think we really took a step forward with that, working on their game and their pressures, working together and being there and helping each other," Dennis Kelly said. "There's a couple plays that I'd like to have back, but Q (Quenton Nelson) had my back, and vice versa. That's when the offensive line is really clicking, is when you do have that five-as-one mentality."
Sunday's game certainly was a satisfying all-around result for Dennis Kelly, who was signed by the Colts' this offseason but underwent a knee procedure early in training camp and hadn't yet been given the opportunity to showcase what he could contribute up front. On Sunday, he allowed just two pressures on 54 total pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
"It felt great," he said. "Whenever you get a chance, you want to be helpful and you want to make an impact, you want to make sure that the offense doesn't kind of sputter because they have to change the gameplan, or something like that. And that's just the approach I've taken my whole career, is that if I get an opportunity, I've got to do what I can to help the team win."
"You don't play 11 years in the league without being a pro, and he certainly is," Ryan Kelly said of Dennis Kelly. "He's been around the league a long time, played a lot of big games. He's done a great job of helping young guys develop, helping the room develop and just having that 11-year mentality to have in the O-line room is great when you got a lot of young guys."
The Colts hope to take another step forward in their redemption tour next Sunday, when they travel to take on the Tennessee Titans, who had three sacks, five quarterback hits, picked off one Ryan pass and forced three fumbles in their 24-17 road victory over the Colts back in Week 4.
"Our offensive line, I give those guys a lot of credit," Ryan said. "It's not easy to drop back and pass the ball that many times and hold up like they did. And every lineman I've ever played with wants to run the ball, wants to run the ball, you just hear it all the time, and those guys today, they just gutted up and went out there and fought, and I thought they did a great job.
"Dennis Kelly coming in for us — he did a great job," Ryan continued. "A veteran guy who's prepared and ready to go, I've got to give him a shoutout. He played his a** off."