INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Week 3 is no different than the previous two weeks for Bobby Okereke.
He always prepares as if he would be a starter. That makes the rookie no different than any other backup. He realizes – they all understand – you’re only a play away from going from idle to 100 miles per hour in the blink of an eye.
Or in this case, a concussion away from possibly making your first NFL start.
That’s the situation for Okereke as the Indianapolis Colts amp up their preparations for Sunday’s home opener against the Atlanta Falcons in Lucas Oil Stadium.
All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard led the team with 10 tackles and added a sack in Sunday’s win at Tennessee, but was placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol after developing concussion symptoms that evening. He did not participate in Wednesday’s up-tempo walk-through and again in Thursday’s full-go practice.
“Darius is questionable,’’ Okereke said. “We don’t know if he’s going to be up or down. Just prepare to be a starter, prepare to get a lot more reps than I’ve been getting.’’
It’s risky to project the status of a player in concussion protocol. Essentially, concussions are like snowflakes, no two are alike. However, a player must successful advance through a five-step process before returning to the playing field:
- Rest and recovery, which requires the player to return to his neurological baseline level that was established during his preseason physical.
- Light aerobic activity.
- Advancing to intensified aerobics and strength training.
- A return to non-contact work in practice.
- Full practice.
At that point, the player still must be cleared by an independent neurologist.
As we mentioned, players respond differently to concussions. Last season, seven Colts were diagnosed with head trauma: Marlon Mack, Clayton Geathers, Anthony Walker, Kenny Moore II, Quincy Wilson, Chris Milton and Eric Ebron.
Wilson would miss three games, Geathers two and Moore and Milton one each. Mack and Ebron played the following week. So did Walker, although he benefitted from the bye week.
It’s possible Leonard advances through the necessary steps Friday and Saturday, but missing Thursday’s practice wasn’t an encouraging sign.
“You prepare either way,’’ Walker said.
Plan B – which means no Darius Leonard – likely results in Walker, the starting MIKE (inside) linebacker, replacing Leonard at WILL and Okereke filling Walker’s void. That was the alignment coordinator Matt Eberflus used in the preseason opener at Buffalo
So, get yourself ready, Bobby Okereke.
“Even in the past weeks my approach has been if there’s an injury, I’ve got to go right in,’’ he said. “It’s the same process. You expect to play a lot and be as prepared as possible.
“I try to be as locked in as possible. It’s tough when you don’t start the game, but I’m on special teams so I keep myself physically ready and mentally locked in on the calls.’’
The Colts selected Okereke in the third round of the April draft – No. 89 overall – on the strength of his four-year production at Stanford: 240 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine passes defended and one interception in 51 games.
The presence of Leonard, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Walker, a 14-game starter a year ago, limited Okereke’s playing time in the first two games. He was on the field for 15 of 63 snaps in the opening loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and that dipped a bit to 11 of 59 snaps at Tennessee.
Okereke has been credited with one tackle, one tackle for loss and one defended pass.
Eberflus has been impressed with Okereke’s progress.
“He’s maturing as we go,’’ he said. “He’s a mature competitor to start (with) and that’s why we brought him in. He’s continued to improve on his day-to-day operation and then he’s making plays in practice.
“If you’re making plays in practice, you’re going to make them in the game and that’s what he’s doing.’’
“We have no doubt with him being in there,’’ Walker said. “He’s been playing great over the last couple of games. It’s just always being in position. He’s going to make plays, we know that.’’
At MIKE, Okereke’s responsibilities probably would include making the defensive calls and making certain everyone is lined up properly.
“I’ve been doing in college and at times out here,’’ Okereke said.
Walker’s confidence in his rookie teammate is unwavering, but he might have to deal with Okerke’s pre-game jitters.
“For the most part you just want to get him calmed down,’’ Walker said with a smile. “It’s going to be rockin’ in Lucas Oil this week, home opener, everything like that.
“Once he gets that first play under his belt, I think he’ll be fine. He’ll be good. I have no worries about that.’’
The team signed quartetback Chad Kelly to its practice squad after he went unclaimed on waivers. It waived him Wednesday after he served a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy while with the Denver Broncos.
And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast: