E.J. Speed stepped in for Darius Leonard and quickly put his rangy, instinctive skillset on display.
In training camp.
Leonard missed the first couple weeks of training camp after undergoing offseason ankle surgery, which opened the door for Speed to practice as the Colts' No. 1 WILL linebacker at Grand Park in July and August. And, seemingly every day, Speed was out there making plays – an interception here, a sideline-to-sideline dash there.
"To me, this camp has been the biggest growth he's had since he's been here," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said in August.
All those snaps – and all those plays – Speed had this summer in Westfield were important for what Speed did on Christmas in Glendale.
"He just continually got better," Leonard said. "Just taking the coaching and learning from all his experiences, he never was a guy to make the same mistake twice and that's what you have to do as a professional athlete, you never make that same mistake twice. I think that him talking to coach, getting a lot of reps, especially when I was out with the ankle injury, just building that confidence and just coming out here and just learning. I think that's the biggest thing is he's eager to learn and eager to want to be better and that's one thing that he's done this whole time he's been here."
It wasn't just Speed that stepped up and had an impressive training camp – and then impressive Week 16 – though. Wide receiver Dezmon Patmon made a handful of plays during training camp and in preseason games, highlighted by a 60-yard deep ball snag thrown by Sam Ehlinger.
"When he had that long reception, I started calling him 'Big Play Dez,'" running back Jonathan Taylor said. "It just shows that mentality of next man up, but stay ready so you don't have to get ready."
With left guard Quenton Nelson (foot) out for a good chunk of camp, too, Chris Reed stepped in and got plenty of work – as did Julién Davenport, who played quite a bit of left tackle as Eric Fisher worked his way back. And Danny Pinter saw first-team snaps at center after Ryan Kelly suffered an elbow injury a few days into training camp.
That all mattered for Taylor, who nearly five months later found it easier to unearth solutions for the Colts' run game against Arizona because he had experience running behind and communicating with guys like Reed, Pinter and Davenport.
"I kind of recalled and fell back on some of those reps, some of those conversations as well," Taylor said. "Talking to them, 'Hey, do you want me to let you know that I'm here if I have a chip,' or 'Hey, when you see this guy in this nine, what are you thinking? Are you still trying to reach? Are you just going to try and wash him out? What are you thinking?'
"So, falling back on those conversations and those reps helped a ton. It's crazy because I actually went back and looked at a few reps with some of the guys, especially with inside zone. Seeing how they played and how they blocked inside zone and understanding how patient I would have to be so that did actually help out a lot."
And, of course, Ehlinger got plenty of reps with the Colts' first-team offense – meaning he threw plenty of passes to guys like Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal, T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Nyheim Hines and Taylor. If the Colts need Ehlinger to start on against the Las Vegas Raiders this weekend (Carson Wentz could be activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Sunday), he won't go into his first NFL start with only a week of experience working with the rest of his teammates – or operating the Colts' offense.
"In training camp, I was kind of just trying to stay afloat – figure out the plays, figure out what the heck I'm supposed to be doing on each play," Ehlinger said. "Now that I'm comfortable in the offense, I've been around, I see how a practice schedule flows, I'm really able to understand the offense but also be what a quarterback is supposed to be. Have command of the huddle, have command at the line of scrimmage, make sure everybody's in the right call. All the things that Carson has done so well all year."
Thursday's practice report