The Indianapolis Colts can take control of the AFC South on Thursday as they continue to repel doubts over their ability to compete without Andrew Luck.
A blossoming franchise was dealt both a crushing and untimely setback in August when star quarterback Luck retired at the age of just 29 in light of a gruelling track record of injuries.
In Luck the Colts lost a franchise star who had registered 2,000 completions for 23,671 yards and 171 touchdowns at a completion percentage of 60.8 per cent after his arrival in the league in 2012. Those figures would have been significantly higher had he not missed six games in 2015 and been forced to sit out the entire 2017 campaign following shoulder surgery.
Such was his immediate impact in the league that Luck was second in NFL history behind Dan Marino for most passing touchdowns through his first six seasons in the league with 171, not to mention third in most passing yards.
A stunning 2018 campaign saw him march the Colts to the playoffs with 430 passes for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, subsequently earning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.
No 1 draft pick, four-time Pro Bowler. The Colts lost a generational talent whose gifts had driven warnings of a dominant playoff team forming in Indy.
Step up Jacoby Brissett
Panic? What panic?
Despite Luck’s departure the Colts have rallied to a winning record of 6-4 this season with the opportunity to strengthen their grip on top spot in the AFC South on Thursday when they face the Houston Texans, who are also 6-4.
That isn’t to say momentum in Indianapolis should arrive as much of a surprise under the guidance of an unflinching head coach/general manager duo in Frank Reich and Chris Ballard.
All eyes have inevitably been on back-up turned starter Jacoby Brissett and his influence under center.
The 26-year-old bears an intriguing storyline of his own having honed his craft behind both Tom Brady and San Francisco 49ers play-caller Jimmy Garoppolo during his time with the New England Patriots.
November 22, 2019, 12:30am
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Brissett delivered a preview of his potential as Luck’s successor upon signing in 2017, throwing for 3,098 yards and 13 touchdowns as well as rushing for 260 yards and four more scores. Little did Brissett or the Colts know the job of replacing Luck would arrive as soon as two years later.
Reflective of a reduced Colts passing game, Brissett has recorded 168 completions from 260 pass attempts for 1,797 yards and 15 touchdowns so far in 2019. Behind modest passing stats is a leader, a winner and a popular team-mate.
Brissett deflected early concerns over his starting credentials in Week 2 when he led the Colts to a 19-17 win over the Tennessee Titans, making 17 passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns. He built on this a week later with 28 completions for 310 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, before making 26 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns in Week 7 to help the Colts beat the Texans 30-23 in October.
His value became easier to appreciate when an injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this month saw him replaced by Brian Hoyer for the remainder of the 26-24 defeat and the 16-12 loss to the Miami Dolphins the following week. Hoyer managed 17 completions for 168 yards, three touchdowns and one interception versus the Steelers, only to throw 18 passes for 204 yards, one score and three interceptions against Miami.
Brissett’s presence had undoubtedly been missed. That was evident in one play upon his return to action in Sunday’s 33-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars as he scrambled to escape pressure before producing a short touchdown pass to Marcus Johnson in the corner of the end zone. Not only is he making the right passes, but he is also proving useful with his legs.
“I have all the time in the world to talk about Jacoby,” wide receiver Zach Pascal told the Indianapolis Star.
He added: “That guy knows how to play winning football. He just knows.”
Marlon Mack has picked up where he left off in 2018 as a vital and emerging weapon within the Colts’ offense, particularly in the absence of Luck.
The running back is currently ranked fourth in rushing stats with 192 carriers for 862 yards and four touchdowns this year. His workload has notably picked up since 2018, during which he ran the ball 195 times for 908 yards across 12 games.
In turning more of a focus towards their ground game, the Colts’ rushing attack is ranked fourth in the league with 310 carries for 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns. This follows on from their rank of 20th in 2018 after attempting 408 runs for 1,718 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Besides drawing on Mack’s progression, this has also been down to a string of injuries to the team’s receiver corps. Luck’s former No.1 target T.Y. Hilton has missed the last three games, leaving him 80th in the league with just 32 receptions for 360 yards and five touchdowns on the back of his 76 catches for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Devin Funchess is yet to play this campaign after being placed on injured reserved in September while second round pick Parris Campbell has also been struggling with a hand issue of late.
A tight end unit that flourished in Reich’s scheme last year has also seen limited targets and catches, with leading scorer from last year Eric Ebron having reeled in just 27 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns.