WESTFIELD, Ind. – The Colts, ideally, want to roll with eight defensive linemen in every game. That rotation is critical, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said, to keep guys as fresh as possible to get after opposing quarterbacks when it matters the most: The fourth quarter.
You probably know who some of the bigger names in that rotation will be – DeForest Buckner, Yannick Ngakoue, Kwity Paye, Grover Stewart, Dayo Odeyingbo – but don't forget about Tyquan Lewis.
Because the Colts haven't.
Lewis felt a tweak in his knee sometime in the second quarter of the Colts' Week 8 game against the Tennessee Titans last year. He sensed something was off, but not to the point that he needed to come out of the game. On the next play, after Stewart forced quarterback Ryan Tannehill off his spot with a menacingly quick pass rush, Lewis disengaged with right tackle David Quessenberry and thumped Tannehill to the ground for a sack.
The next play was a third and 11. The Colts were up, 14-0, and had Tannehill and the Titans on the ropes. Lewis lined up over the left guard, with linebackers Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke mugged up to his left; to his right, safety George Odum was just off the line of scrimmage outside of defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad. Leonard, Okereke, Odum and the rest of the D-line all rushed the quarterback while Lewis dropped into coverage over the middle of the field.
Leonard used one of his long arms to tip Tannehill's pass. It landed in the arms of the 6-foot-3, 277 pound Lewis for an interception – a well-executed blitz that led to a turnover.
Lewis started running with the ball and immediately felt like he was running slower than usual. This is a guy who said he recently clocked in running 20 miles per hour during practice.
"And then I just felt something go away from me," Lewis said.
In the process of suffering what was a season-ending injury, Lewis fumbled the football. The Titans recovered; Tannehill found A.J. Brown for a 57-yard touchdown on the next play.
"I probably thought about that play 100 times this offseason," head coach Frank Reich said. "It was just one of those freak things."
Director of sports medicine Erin Barill knelt next to Lewis on the field and quickly told him: "It's your patella, buddy."
"I looked at him and I was like well, here we are," Lewis said. "And I cracked a smile, looked up at the sky and I was just thankful.
"I cherish every moment — good, bad, ugly. It doesn't matter what it is in my life. I cherish every moment because it's made me who I am — overcoming obstacles, whatever it is in life that you need to get through, just cherish because that grind will never go away."
Lewis' focus turned rehabbing his knee, and not the potential uncertainty that lay ahead. The 2018 second-round pick was set to hit free agency in 2022; a season-ending knee injury could've thrown his NFL future into doubt. But he didn't think about his next contract – and the Colts, four and a half months later, rewarded Lewis with an extension.
"Chris (Ballard) and everyone around still was like, okay, we're going to give him a chance," Lewis said. "They believed in me and I'm very appreciative of it. Chris, he believed in me when I didn't sometimes, so seeing what he sees in me, I respect him, the organization, coaches, I'm always thankful, I'm always grateful.
"... It boosts your morale knowing that someone has your back through thick and thin. It wasn't easy, it was gruesome, but for me, it was like, alright, let's go back to work. For (Ballard) to have my back just means a lot, especially moving forward."
Buoyed by his mental strength and the confidence of those around him, Lewis worked his way back from his injury and is on the field here at Grand Park, participating in training camp and assimilating into Bradley and defensive line coach Nate Ollie's attack-minded approach. The versatility Lewis – a self-described defensive lineman, not a tackle or end – brings to that group is important, and allows the Colts to deploy him in different spots in different situations.
The Colts felt Lewis was coming on strong before his injury last year – he had two and a half sacks, three tackles for a loss and six QB hits in eight games – and envision an important role for him in 2022. And Lewis earned that role through not just his play, but the way he attacked his rehab process in the months that followed his injury.
"I'm still versatile, I still run fast," Lewis said. "... It's just fortunate, those guys up there backing me — the trainers, every day, I probably had I don't know how many days off. This is probably the least amount of I've ever spent away from my home in North Carolina, but it's all worth it."