Chappell: Colts must overcome injuries to top-end talent

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 21: Jonathan Williams #33 of the Indianapolis Colts rushes for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on November 21, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No T.Y. Hilton. No Marlon Mack. No Eric Ebron.

No problem?

We won’t go that far.

Recent history insists there’s a problem. The Indianapolis Colts are 1-7 without Hilton, 1-6 without Mack (including six straight losses) and 0-1 when both are out.

But there’s a part of Frank Reich that’s looking forward to Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts take an injury-depleted offense into a pivotal meeting with the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

They’ll be without their Pro Bowl wideout (Hilton), who suffered a setback with an injured calf in Wednesday’s practice; Pro Bowl tight end (Ebron), who surprisingly was placed on IR Monday with ankle issues; and feature back (Mack), out for a second game with a fractured hand.

There’s also the likelihood the Colts will be without rookie wideout Parris Campbell, who’s still on the mend after fracturing his right hand at Pittsburgh.

Next man up is the only acceptable approach in an NFL that always taxes a team’s depth, but the spate of injuries has the potential of crippling a Colts’ offense that has lacked pop much of the season. It has been limited to 328 total yards or fewer in four of its last five games and, shockingly, failed to generate at least 200 net passing yards in five consecutive games.

“There is a weird way where I’m really excited,’’ Reich said Friday. “I’m excited about how the guys are going to play that have to step up.

“I think most players and coaches in this league have that mentality. I think that’s why you’re here. Let’s just say I’m excited for the challenge for those guys. I’m very confident how they’re going to respond.’’

The absence of top-end talent means opportunities and extended reps for others: running back Jonathan Williams and a wideout corps of Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson and Ashton Dulin.

Consider the bottom-line comparison.

Hilton, Ebron and Campbell have combined for 123 targets, 81 receptions, 868 yards and 9 TDs.

Pascal, Rogers, Johnson, Dulin and tight ends Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox have combined for 127 targets, 79 receptions, 943 yards and 10 TDs. And the vast majority of that bottom line can be traced to Doyle and Pascal (a combined 83 targets, 53 catches, 668 yards, 7 TDs).

Williams? Do it again

Jonathan Williams knows what’s expected after becoming the fourth Colt since 2004 to rush for at least 100 yards in consecutive games: do it again.

“Right now I’ve got to do it again this week,’’ Williams said. “I can’t really be too excited about it because if I don’t do it again this week, they’re just going to be, ‘Oh, he only did it (twice).’’

It would be understandable if Williams dwelled on the past two weeks.

In the Colts’ 33-13 dismantling of Jacksonville, he and Marlon Mack took turns bludgeoning the Jaguars. Mack finished with 109 yards on 14 carries and Williams added 116 yards on 13 attempts. They became just the fourth set of Colts backs to crack the 100-yard mark in the same game.

When the fractured hand kept Mack out of the 30-27 loss at Houston, Williams made the first start of his five-year career and responded with 104 yards on 26 carries.

The coaching staff has long endorsed Williams’ potential since he was signed to the practice squad Oct. 2, 2018. They’ve witnessed his power running and relentlessness on a daily basis.

“I think we have seen that he is able to carry the load, have 20 carries and be able to protect the football,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “He is a big guy that is tough to tackle and also he has enough shiftiness to make guys miss as well.

“We are very pleased with what he has shown us and been able to carry the football and carry the workload in that run game.’’

Jacoby Brissett isn’t the least bit surprised by Williams’ emergence. Again, he’s seen him in practice every day.

“Not to take away from what he’s done in the game because it’s been tremendous, but he’s a guy that comes to work every day,’’ Brissett said. “He runs hard in practice – sometimes a little too hard in practice – but a tough guy. When he’s gotten his opportunities in other times – in preseason and things like that – he has always run the ball like that.

“So the last couple of weeks have just been a fruition of those weeks of work put in.’’

Williams should anticipate another heavy workload Sunday against the Titans. The offense will be without Mack, Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton (out with a calf injury) and Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron (on IR with an ankle issue).

Within his reach? Becoming the first Colt since Edgerrin James in 2004 to rush for yards in three straight games. James did that with regularity – five times, including a team-record four straight in ’04.

“I think that’s more of an after-the-season (issue) when you have time to sit back and really look back at it,’’ Williams said. “Each week you have to put the last week behind you and start fresh.’’

Another week for Campbell?

Reich all but ruled Campbell out for Sunday.

“I’m not so sure he’s going to make it this week,’’ he said, “but we’re going to wait another day to make that decision.’’

The team still isn’t convinced Campbell’s hand is ready for full action. He’s been wearing some type of white glove on his hand for protection during practice. Ball security might be an issue.

“Making sure that he’s ready to go, physically ready to go and with what he has to wear on his hand and how he feels and like, ‘I can go play a physical football game,’’’ Reich said.

On another matter, safety Khari Williams remained in the NFL’s concussion protocol Friday, but Reich was optimistic he would be cleared to play for Sunday.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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