Mail track

Rookies help keep Colts season on track with big plays behind

INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Ryan relied on familiar backups to start Sunday’s winning run.

He finished it with new names: wide receiver Alec Pierce and tight end Jelani Woods.

Ryan targeted the two unheralded rookies in the final three games of decisive practice, connecting with Pierce for a 14-yard completion to reach the red zone and Woods for the 12-yard TD pass that gave Indianapolis a victory of 20-17 over Kansas. Town.

The script seemed like a surprise to just about everyone except Ryan.

“I believe in these guys a lot, I really think they will be good players in this league,” he said. “They’ve shown it on the training ground, maybe not as much in games to start this year, but I really think there’s going to be a lot of improvement from them. And the one thing you don’t don’t know until you’re in those situations, that’s if the guys didn’t flinch.

They certainly didn’t melt when the stakes were highest.

With Indy’s season faltering and the Colts down four against a team vying to put together a fifth straight game for the AFC title, it’s Pierce and Woods, not Michael Pittman Jr. or Jonathan Tylor, who made the games.

Coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard expected nothing less after selecting them in the draft last spring.

Still, in the first two games, Pierce — a second-rounder — was best known for dropping a TD pass in Houston’s Week 1 tie and being out of Week 2 (concussion protocol). Woods, a third-round pick considered a gifted college tackle, didn’t even receive a pass his way in the first two weeks.

On Sunday, when Ryan needed late playmakers, the rookies delivered.

Pierce used his body control and technical skills to catch three passes for 61 yards and Woods used his 6-foot-7, 253-pound body to fend off defenders for his first two career catches — a 1-yard TD reception to give Indy (1-1-1) its first lead of the season and the 12-yarder for the Colts’ first win.

“He’s the player we’ve come to expect from Jelani (Woods), to make the big play. He’s a big man and he’s fast,” Reich said before talking about Pierce. why he’s here, and then he made the play there on that last drive. It was a big throw and catch.

This week, Pierce and Woods provided the energy jolt Indy desperately needed to bounce back from an embarrassing shutout in Jacksonville. But the long-term implications of their ability to make plays could open things up for Pittman and Taylor — and put the Colts’ offense on the right track.

Run defense. Even during lackluster games in Houston and Jacksonville, the Colts were solid against the run. They were even better against the Chiefs, who produced 58 yards on 23 carries for an average of 2.5 yards. For three weeks, Indy allowed 77.0 rushing yards per game.

Offensive line. Despite giving Ryan enough time to produce his 43rd career comeback, the five-man line continues to struggle. Ryan was sacked five more timeslost two fumbles and again came under heavy strain.

Kylen Granson. Although both rookies shone late, the second-year tight end also played well. He recovered a missed punt at the Chiefs 4, then barely kept his balance to pin Kansas City inside 1 on Indy’s next punt. It also had two outlets and could carve out its own niche.

WR Parris Campbell. Indy needs the former Ohio State star to become a true point guard this season. Although he showed some glimpses, he has yet to emerge as a major part of the game plan.

Starting safety Julian Blackmon missed the second half with a sprained left ankle and it’s unclear if he’ll play next weekend against Tennessee. … Indy also continues to await the season debut of three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard (back surgery).

7 – Yes, Ryan has been sacked 12 times and thrown four interceptions. But perhaps the most surprising stat is his seven fumbles. With 14 games to play, Ryan has already posted the fifth-highest single-season total in his 15-year career.

Winning in the home opener was essential to stay in contention for the AFC South title. Now the Colts face an old foe in two-time defending division champion Tennessee. The Titans also struggled the first two weeks before winning on Sunday. But until Indy’s offensive line starts blocking passes and blocking runs more consistently, the Colts will continue to struggle.

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL