It's been a while since we've had to preview a Colts team. Fittingly enough, the last time we did it, the Cowboys were also in position to clinch the NFC East.
Here's an idea of what to look for with this Indianapolis Colts team, which – much like the Cowboys – started slow and is now in the thick of the playoff race.
Nemesis: QB Andrew Luck
It wasn't long ago that the question of whether Andrew Luck would ever play again was raised around the NFL. A major shoulder injury left his career very much in doubt and there appeared to be no simple solution to the problem. But here we sit today, Luck is back on the field with a new coach and playoff aspirations.
What's the different between this version of Andrew Luck and the one we've seen from previous seasons? Colts general manager Chris Ballard has done a much better job of protecting his franchise quarterback. Luck is no longer the worst-protected signal-caller in the league, because Ballard has surrounded him with quality offensive linemen like rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith.
Ballard has also added skill players Eric Ebron and Nyheim Hines to go along with T.Y. Hilton and Ryan Grant, who started his career in Washington. Luck has adapted well to Colts coach Frank Reich, who last season was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles. Reich has taken Luck and these new pieces, forming them into a patient offensive attack.
It's systematic the way the Colts now move the ball with Luck. I am not saying that Reich doesn't have Luck taking shots down the field, but this offense does a nice job of taking exactly what the defense gives them. The line has kept Luck upright due in large part to his willingness to play this way. It is extremely frustrating to play the Indianapolis Colts this way, but for Andrew Luck it's the best way.
Weapon: LB Darius Leonard
If you happened to listen to The Draft Show on DallasCowboys.com during the 2018 NFL Draft, Darius Leonard was a name you heard us talk about with some regularity. Leonard was one of my favorite linebackers in the draft this past year. Despite being from tiny South Carolina State, he showed up big-time during the season -- but where he really caught the attention of the nation was his work at the Senior Bowl.
The area of Leonard's game that first struck me was how quickly he was able to read plays. He is one of those guys that when he saw it, he was gone. This is a trait that he has been able to carry it over to his game in the NFL. He can cover some ground when he runs, and if he is left unblocked he can finish. For a tall, rangy-built player, he can really change directions. Like Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, he gets sideline-to-sideline in hurry. The more that Leonard gets to run, the better he plays.
Physically, he looks bigger than he did in college. Watching him play, he doesn't stay blocked long. As a rookie, you would think that he would struggle to play with his hands but that's not an issue at all. When these Cowboys offensive linemen engage, they have to be ready for how good he is with his hands and his pop he has in them.
Leonard has a tremendous shot, along with Vander Esch and Derwin James, for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. I had a good feeling about this player and it's not surprising he is proving me right.
Under the Radar: RB Nyheim Hines
Nyheim Hines was one of the more impressive running backs I studied in the 2018 NFL Draft. He doesn't have ideal height at only 5-9, but he's extremely thick. His compact build makes him difficult to get a clean shot on him.
Frank Reich has not used him as an every down player, but I thought there was a chance that you could. Reich uses him in certain down and distance situations. He is one of those types of players that you will see all over the formation trying to create mismatches for the defense. His best trait is his burst. He is at top speed in a hurry. This is where defenders have to be careful when dealing with him. Just when you feel like you have a good angle on him, he is by you.
He is a slasher with the ball in his hands. Hines has shown the ability to get in and out of the hole in a hurry due to this running style. He has some wiggle to his game in the open field, so these Cowboys defenders had better ready to break down and be ready to get him to the ground. You have to wrap this guy up.
In college he showed vision to change direction quickly. That speed and quickness allow him to finish runs in the open field. His lack of height also helps balance as a runner. He will use the spin move to free himself in space.
This skillset makes Hines a weapon as a pass receiver. There are snaps where they line him up wide and throw him the ball. He can be a tough cover coming out of the backfield for a linebacker, as his speed and ability to receive the ball makes him a problem.