INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts are playing free and loose.
After a disappointing month-plus stretch in which they lost their previous four games and six of the last seven, the Colts blasted the visiting Carolina Panthers Sunday in their final home game of the season at Lucas Oil Stadium by a score of 38-6.
For the first time in weeks, the Colts had a complete team effort in which all three phases of the team clicked. As a result, they landed three players — Pierre Desir, Braden Smith and Anthony Walker, and an unofficial fourth in Nyheim Hines — on Pro Football Focus' "NFL Week 16 Team of the Week."
Including those four players, the Colts had numerous players rank near the top of their respective position groups in PFF's weekly grades. In order of highest grade first, here is who ranked among the top 10 of their position group.
Linebacker No. 1 (93.2), 50 snaps (71 percent)
This was a star performance by the Colts' MIKE linebacker, who racked up 10 tackles, 1.0 sack, one interception, one pass breakup and one quarterback hit. His six "stops," which PFF considers to be a forced "failure" for the offense, was tied for the second most among all defensive players in Week 16. He allowed an average of just 6.0 yards on five allowed receptions en route to the highest PFF grade of his career. Per PFF:
"Walker earned a career-high 93.2 overall grade in Week 16 for a performance that included six defensive stops and an interception. The pick was an excellent play, as Walker carried the deep post across the field and made the play on Will Grier's scramble drill."
Kicker returner No. 1 (91.8), 8 snaps (31 percent)
As of the time of this article's publication, PFF had yet to place any special teams players on their Week 16 Team of the Week, but Hines far and away has the best kick return grade of the week. He returned three punt returns for 195 yards (65.0 avg.) and two touchdowns (84 and 71 yards). His first return went for 40 yards, but he was caught from behind while continuing to make players miss down the field. He would not be caught on his last two returns, however, setting new single-game franchise records for punt return touchdowns and yards and compiling the fourth-most punt return yards in a game in NFL history.
Offensively, Hines added one carry for four yards and one reception (one target) for two yards.
Cornerback No. 3 (90.2), 70 snaps (100 percent)
Desir had two interceptions and five pass breakups on Sunday, becoming just the 25th player in NFL history to accomplish that in a single game, while also adding five tackles. He allowed just 3-of-10 passes in his direction for 18 yards (6.0 avg.) and just eight yards per catch. Per PFF:
"Desir spoiled Grier's debut with two interceptions and three pass breakups on his 10 targets. He allowed just three catches and 18 yards into his coverage, and he looked like a free safety on both picks as he tracked down Grier's errant downfield throws... Desir had himself a monster game — he saw 10 targets, allowed three catches, broke up three passes and logged two interceptions. That stat line says it all. Desir shut down every receiver he went up against and was in command all game long."
Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack
Running back No. 1 (88.0 [22 snaps, 34 percent]) and No. 8 (71.5 [31 snaps, 48 percent]), respectively.
The Colts compiled their third 200-yard rushing game of the season on Sunday, primarily on the backs of Wilkins and Mack, who combined for 179 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries (7.2 avg.). Wilkins' 84 yards was a single-game career high as he fired down the field on a 38-yard carry that should've been for a touchdown if not for a late horsecollar tackle. Mack had his own big carry on a 30-yard run in the fourth quarter, which put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season for the first time in his career. Mack also added two catches (two targets) for six yards (3.0 avg.).
Wilkins leads all NFL running backs in rushing yards per carry (6.0) for those with at least 50 carries on the season.
Offensive tackle No. 3 (87.6), 63 snaps (98 percent)
Smith was knocked out of the game briefly for two snaps, but recovered enough to earn a spot on PFF's "Team of the Week" as the right tackle and the third-best grade overall for all offensive tackles. He recorded no penalties and allowed no pressures in the pass game, being just one of nine tackles in Week 16 to be able to make that claim. Per PFF:
"Smith didn't allow a single pressure on his 32 attempts while posting a strong 87.2 grade in the run game. He had the lowest percentage of negatively graded run blocks in the league this week, and he had the key block out in front on a 10-yard fourth-quarter gain."
Edge defender No. 8 (82.7), 35 snaps (50 percent)
Houston got to Panthers rookie quarterback Will Grier on a 4th-and-Goal situation for his 10th sack of the season on Sunday, becoming the first double digit-sack Colts player since Erik Walden had 11.0 in 2016. Houston also hit Grier as he uncorked the pass that Desir intercepted for his second pick of the day. Officially, Houston had two tackles (one for loss), 1.0 sack and two quarterback hits. PFF credited him with six total quarterback pressures and two "stops." Per PFF:
"Long-time standout edge defender Justin Houston racked up multiple pressures and recorded his 10th sack of the season, which means he's now produced double-digit sacks in three consecutive years. Houston's career has been remarkable, and he continues to prove he has a lot left in the tank."
(Pro Football Focus utilizes "sacks created" — in which half-sacks and full sacks count the same — instead of the more traditional straight-up sacks statistic used for years by the NFL, which is why PFF says Houston has produced double-digit sacks in three straight years.)
Guard No. 6 (81.6), 35 snaps (55 percent)
The Colts' longtime "next man up" on the offensive line, we saw the Colts pull Haeg into the fray as an actual member of the five-man line as Quenton Nelson left the game with a concussion and Haeg took over at left guard for the second half. Haeg also saw action at right tackle when Smith briefly left the game. He allowed just one quarterback hurry and had zero penalties, but he particularly shined as a run blocker, earning a grade of 84.0 (tied for the third-best grade for guards). This was Haeg's highest-graded game since Week 16 of 2016, and his second-best grade in his four-year career.
Tight end No. 10 (75.5), 61 snaps (95 percent)
Doyle only had two catches for 17 yards (8.5 avg.), but he primarily made his mark as a blocker and pulling attention from defenders. On two of quarterback Jacoby Brissett's long scrambles, Doyle pulled a defender far away, opening up large lanes for Brissett to get downfield. Doyle earned a run-blocking grade of 81.6 on the week, which was second among all tight ends to only teammate Mo Alie-Cox (87.3). Alie-Cox's overall 91.9 grade was the second-best of his career. Per PFF:
"The offensive line and tight ends paved the way for the Colts running backs, as the team as a whole averaged 3.3 yards before contact per rush attempt. While the offensive line was excellent, the work by Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox secured the edge; they both had great games blocking."
Center No. 5 (75.0), 64 snaps (100 percent)
With Kelly pulling the strings for the Colts' offensive line, they had a dominant game on the ground. Discounting backup quarterback Brian Hoyer's knee-drops, the Colts ran the ball 29 times for 220 yards (7.6 avg.) and three touchdowns. While the Colts did give up three sacks on the day, their six primary offensive linemen averaged a pass-protection grade of 69.3, which grades out as slightly above average for the week. Kelly himself allowed just one quarterback hurry and had no penalties. Only 16 of the league's starting centers had one or less pressures allowed and no penalties.