NASHVILLE – If you think the Tennessee Titans are happy that Indianapolis Colts won’t have defensive lineman DeForest Buckner on Sunday, think again.
Buckner and fellow defensive lineman Denico Autry officially were ruled out Friday because they are on the COVID-19 reserve list. Also ruled out was linebacker Bobby Okereke, who has an ankle injury. All three are important pieces on a defense that currently ranks as one of the NFL’s best, not to mention one that consistently has been a problem for Tennessee’s offense.
“Honestly, you know, we were pissed,” left guard Rodger Saffold said Friday. “We wanted to be able to play against the full force of that defense. Of course, there’s things out of our control. We do hope that (Buckner) gets better, gets back out there.”
Buckner (pictured) and Autry are the only Indianapolis players currently unavailable due to the coronavirus, but their collective absence creates a hole along the defensive front. Autry already has missed one game because of the virus. Buckner landed on the COVID-19 reserve list Wednesday.
Buckner is a defensive tackle who disrupts things on the interior. He has a team-high 16 quarterback hits (the rest of the team has 32) and is one of two Colts with at least one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Only one NFL defensive tackle has made more tackles this season.
Autry is a defensive end who spends an inordinate amount of time in the opposing team’s backfield. He leads the defense with six sacks and seven tackles for loss. Four of his sacks came in his last three games before he was sidelined by the illness.
Plus, you take away Okereke, who is third on the team in tackles, and the disruption for that unit only grows. All three played in the Colts’ 34-17 victory at Nissan Stadium on Nov. 12.
“I would imagine they're going to call the game the same way that they have,” Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said. “(Buckner) is a talented player, but they've got active guys that are waiting to step in there and play. A lot of moving parts on that defensive line, they’ve got guys that can play outside and play inside, got length.
“It'll still be a challenge.”
Tyquan Lewis is the most likely candidate to replace Buckner, who the Colts acquired in an offseason trade with the idea that he would be an anchor on that defensive front. So far, he has been exactly that.
Lewis has been a role player throughout his two-plus seasons in the NFL and already has played more games this season (10) than he did in either of his first two. He did start eight games as a rookie in 2018 and two more this season but in this case, he will have some big shoes to fill.
“I think the best way that we can take advantage of it is just doing what we do, continuing the same process,” Saffold said. “You know, as soon as you start thinking a defense is weaker because somebody’s gone is when you start messing up. And that’s something we definitely want to avoid.
“So, we’ll attack with the same game plan.”