Colts at the halfway point: Luck, Leonard, Vinatieri the MVPs

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 23: Wide receiver Ryan Grant #11 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates aftering making a touchdown-catch off a 5-yard pass from quarterback Andrew Luck #12 against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on September 23, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’re about to embark on an interesting final two months of the NFL season.

Are the Indianapolis Colts capable of using an upcoming three-game home stand to put themselves in position to remain relevant in December? Or will their inability to capitalize on several early-season opportunities – Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Houston – cost them dearly?

Take care of business at home against Jacksonville, Miami and Tennessee, and suddenly the Colts are 6-5, riding a five-game winning streak and in position to do something down the stretch. Falter, and the final month of the season likely will be about jockeying for position in next April’s draft. Here’s where we remind you the last time the Colts missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons was 1988-94.

Before looking ahead to next Sunday’s meeting with Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium, here’s a quick look back at the first half of the season.

OFFENSE

Overall Grade: A.

MVP: Duh, Andrew Luck. The franchise’s catalyst and cornerstone is back. Anyone still questioning that has a serious anti-Luck agenda. He’s on pace for a career-best 46 touchdowns – that would be tied for the fifth-most in NFL history – along with what would be a career-high 65.8 completion percentage. Imagine what that latter stat would be if his receivers hadn’t dropped a zillion passes.

We really like the way Luck has kept everyone involved. He’s completed at a pass to 15 different players – including center Ryan Kelly – and set a franchise record by throwing a TD to 11 different players.

Biggest surprise: Marlon Mack. He flashed a little of this, a little of that as a rookie. There were moments of brilliance (six rushes of at least 20 yards), but too  many times he was smothered for a loss. Over the first half of Year 2 and after getting past an ankle injury, Mack has given every indication he’s capable of being the focal point of the ground game. He’s the first Colt since Joe Addai in 2007 to pile up consecutive 100-yard games, but we’ve been more impressed with how he’s done it. Mack’s forte still is that sudden burst to the outside, but he’s also running through tackles and getting the tough yardage between that tackles.

Biggest disappointment: The four-game stretch where Luck’s receivers couldn’t catch the football with a net. Depending on your harshness as a grader, they dropped as many as 18. Eighteen! There were Chester Rogers’ drop on a deep out at New England, and in the end zone at Philadelphia. How about Marcus Johnson’s drop on a critical third-and-2 at the Texans’ 25-yard line in overtime? Zach Pascal mishandled a Luck pass that ricocheted into the air and into the hands of Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones. Mack flubbed a screen from Luck that resulted in a pick-6 for the Jets’ Morris Claiborne.

Best play: Former Virginia Commonwealth hoops standout Mo Alie-Cox skying for a one-handed grab at Oakland. Think of a power forward snatching an offensive rebound with his right paw. “He swallowed the ball with his hand,’’ Luck said. “It was truly like a gravitational pull. Locked it in there.’’

Worst play(s): We’ll remind you of two. 1) Jack Doyle’s fumble at the Cincy 15-yard line following a 15-yard gain on third-and-15 with less than a minute remaining and the Colts trailing 27-23. Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem returned the fumble 83 yards for a sealing touchdown in the opener. 2) Left tackle Le’Raven Clark getting whipped by Eagles’ end Derek Barnett with Luck facing a fourth-and-3 at the Philly 4. Only 1 minute, 19 seconds remained and the Colts trailed 20-16.

Trending: Offensive line. Zero sacks allowed in three straight games for the first time since 2009 and Luck with a personal-best streak of 156 passes without a sack. The running game stretching its legs with 442 yards in the last two games, 569 in the last three. Ten different starters, five different starting combos. Take a bow, Dave DeGuglielmo and Bobby Johnson. Rookie Quenton Nelson was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Month for October. DeGuglielmo insisted Ryan Kelly is the league’s best center. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo has returned to stabilize the entire line. The most surprising aspect in the uptick of the O-line’s performance has been rookie Braden Smith settling in at right tackle and Mark Glowinski doing likewise at right guard. But here’s where we remind everyone the O-line is only as good as its next game. And the next game is against Jacksonville. The last time the Jaguars were in town they sacked Jacoby Brissett 10 times.

DEFENSE

Overall Grade: C.

MVP: Darius Leonard. So, does anyone still believe Chris Ballard reached on the South Carolina State standout with the 36th overall pick in the April draft? Leonard entered the weekend with a league-high 88 tackles and added a batch of difference-making plays: 4 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 passed defensed. He twice has been named AFC Defensive Player of the Week and was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.

Biggest surprise: The Colts have had a knack for generating big plays without a proven big-play talent (we’re not counting Leonard). They’re among the league leaders with 21 sacks, 43 tackles for loss and 16 takeaways. Margus Hunt is one of five players 30 or older, but has found a second wind. He’s tied with Leonard for the team lead with 4 sacks – he had 2.5 in 60 games entering ’18 – and has a team-high 10 tackles for loss.

Biggest disappointment: This is reserved for someone who’s no longer on the roster. The team waived 2017 third-round draft pick Tarell Basham Oct. 4. Maybe his career takes off with the New York Jets, who claimed him off waivers. Basham’s resume with the Colts: 16 games, 0 starts, 14 tackles, 2 sacks. In four games this season, he appeared in one game, was inactive twice and was active but did not play in another.

Best play: Maybe it’s because it’s the most recent, but how do you not go with Leonard’s forced fumble late in the fourth quarter at Oakland? The Colts had taken a 35-28 lead on Luck’s 10-yard TD to Doyle, and the Raiders were looking for an answer. Instead, their ensuing possession lasted one play. Derek Carr handed off to Doug Martin, who was met by an blocked Leonard. Leonard tomahawk-chopped the football out of Martin’s hands and Corey Moore recovered. The offense sealed the comeback victory with Mack’s 1-yard run on the subsequent drive, but Luck knew where to funnel the credit.

Leonard’s forced fumble, he insisted, “changed the trajectory of the game.’’

“Man, that was sweet,’’ added Frank Reich.

Worst play: There have been a slew as the Colts have given up 23 pass plays of at least 20 yards and 25 runs that have gained at least 10. But there’s one play we can’t get out of our head. After Luck’s 13-yard TD pass to Erik Swoope narrowed New England’s lead to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady answered with a 34-yard TD to Josh Gordon. Hey, Brady has thrown a ton of TDs. That one was the 500th of his career. But the Colts never should have allowed it. First, the pass rush gave Brady way too much time. Second, Gordon split cornerback Chris Milton and safety Matthias Farley to make the catch in the end zone.

Trending: This is one that’s got to stop. Despite their penchant for producing big plays, the defense too often can’t get off the field. It ranks among the most overworked groups in the NFL (on the field an average of 31:18) because opponents are converting 42.1 percent of their third-down situations and QBs are completing 72.4 percent of their passes. In eight games, the defense has given up 15 drives that have consisted of at least 10 plays and 15 that have chewed up at least 70 yards.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Overall Grade: B+.

MVP: Another, Duh. In the first two months of the season, Adam Vinatieri has set all-time NFL records for points (2,550) and made field goals (573). Each was previously held by Morten Andersen. He’s moved into the No. 4 slot in career appearances with 345. Barring injury, he’ll pass Jeff Feagles (352) and tie Gary Anderson (353) by season’s end. Off in the distance is Andersen (382).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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