The Colts' final playoff push will happen without one of their key players on defense, as the team on Tuesday placed safety Julian Blackmon on injured reserve.
Blackmon sustained a shoulder injury in the Colts' Week 16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and because he's on injured reserve he will miss the final two games of the regular season. The fourth-year safety would be eligible to return from injured reserve for the AFC Championship, if the Colts were to make it that far.
"Definitely tough not to be able to have him out here for the last couple games," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "But we keep doing our part, we'll get him back soon."
Blackmon put together a career year in 2023, setting new highs in tackles (88), tackles for a loss (five), interceptions (four) and passes defensed (eight). Those four interceptions are the most on the Colts.
The Colts this offseason moved Blackmon from playing deep free safety to strong safety, which pushed him closer to the line of scrimmage and into defending the run more. Per Pro Football Focus, Blackmon's 48 tackles on running plays were close to his total over his first three seasons with the Colts (56).
"Getting the takeaways is big," head coach Shane Steichen said. "He's gotten a few takeaways this year. He's been good in run fits, communication on the backend is big. He's been making a lot of plays and playing at a high level. Losing a guy like that, it hurts, but again we have full confidence in the guys that are going to go in and step up for us."
With Blackmon out, the Colts will turn to 2022 third-round draft pick Nick Cross at strong safety. The Colts began working Cross into their defense as a free safety, rotating with Rodney Thomas II, beginning in Week 13, and he recorded his first career interception in Week 15.
Cross, though, hadn't played much strong safety since Week 2 of the 2022 season, when the Colts replaced him in their starting lineup with veteran Rodney McLeod Jr.
"I like his mindset," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. "I don't know if I could've said that last year. I don't know if there was complete trust with him out on the field, but now there is trust and he's going to get his chance to show us. He's going to get a chance to show his teammates. He's a better communicator at the free safety spot. Now he just has to transfer that to the strong safety spot."
Behind the scenes, the Colts have been pleased with how Cross approached the 2023 season – one in which he didn't have a clear path to playing time on defense until he earned his way on the field.
"Nick's been putting that work in," Franklin said. "All year he's put that work in — anything anybody's asked him to do, he's done it to the best of his ability and been a playmaker doing so. Excited to have him out there. I know we've really been looking for ways to get him out there. Excited to have him out there, I know he's going to take full advantage of that opportunity knowing that he's ready."
Wednesday's practice report
Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. reverted to the concussion protocol over the weekend after head coach Shane Steichen said his symptoms relapsed. While Pittman was listed as a limited participant (concussion/shoulder) in Wednesday's walkthrough estimation, Steichen said the 1,000-yard receiver is "progressing well."
Right tackle Braden Smith was listed as a full participant. The veteran hasn't played since sustaining a knee injury in the Colts' Week 13 win over the Tennessee Titans.