What is your assessment of the Colts at the quarter-mark of the season, at 2-2 overall?
Ballard: “Look: you are what your record is, and we’re 2-2, we’re a .500 football team. It’s been an interesting tale of the season — you know, we start out in L.A. and get beat in overtime; and then go into a tough game and win a really tough game against a division (rival), a really good football team in Tennessee and win that one nip and tuck at the end; and play Atlanta at home and come out with a victory; then the disappointing loss this last week. But, look, we’re through one quarter of the season, we’re 2-2 and there’s a lot of football left and a lot of chance for us to get better and keep improving.”
Speaking of, what areas of this team do you want to see improvement heading into the second quarter of the season?
Ballard: “At the end of the day it’s about winning football games. And we’ve gotta do whatever it takes to win football games, and the one old adage (is) that more games are lost than won in this league. So continuing to play good, clean football. I think offensively we’ve done a really good job in the running game, and some really good things, especially with our play-action game. Having T.Y. (Hilton) down this last week wasn’t an easy task for us to overcome, but, you know, our young receivers have got to continue to step up and keep developing. And then defensively, you know, we have spurts where we play really good football. But it’s the little things that are getting us right now — the little details of the defense in staying in your gap, playing your assignment, those little things that we need to get better at and improve on.”
How impressed have you been with the play of quarterback Jacoby Brissett so far this season? He’s certainly been through a lot emotionally to start the year, but how important has his leadership been?
Ballard: “Look: Jacoby, he’s the same guy he was since the first day we traded for him. Somebody asked me a question today in my office about Jacoby and his leadership, and I said, ‘Look, what makes him really special is he’s authentic, he’s real and he’s the same guy every day — and he’s been that way since the day he walked in this building.’ He prepares — he’s always prepared like the starter. And I remember saying this during Andrew’s (Luck’s) press conference when he retired that, look, Jacoby won’t flinch. And he hasn’t flinched. He’s played really good football — he’s played winning football for us each and every week.”
The Colts had four rookies start this last week against the Oakland Raiders. What’s your overall assessment of the rookie class this year so far?
Ballard: “Well, much like our young players last year, they’re getting a little trial by fire ‘cause of some circumstances. But all of them have had their ups and downs moments. Parris (Campbell) has shown some real flashes of explosiveness, but (he’s) still learning — most of the time in college he played inside — and he’s learning and having to play outside more, but we’ve seen some really good things with him. Khari Willis has been outstanding; getting thrown into the mix at safety, playing from the get-go, I think he’s just going to get better the more he plays and the more confident he gets within the defense. And the same thing with Bobby (Okereke) — when Darius (Leonard) went down, he was already playing some in a little bit of a rotation to get him reps early in the season, but then getting thrown into the action, having to start at MIKE — we moved (Anthony) Walker to WILL — it’s valuable experience he’s getting. And, look: you get better by playing. Players get better by playing games, and real games and live bullets. And that’s what those young players have been able to do.”
What are your impressions of the running game on offense, and do you think it can be a top-five unit?
Ballard: “Well, I don’t know where we’ll finish — I know what our goal is. But let me say this: we’ve run the ball very well, other than maybe this last week, where maybe the game changed a little bit where we didn’t get the run game going as much as we would like. But early in the season our offensive line and our running backs have done an outstanding job — and our tight ends, and our wide receivers. I mean, look: to run the ball, it takes everybody. It takes all 11 guys on offense, including the quarterback with his play fake. And we’ve done an outstanding job doing it.”
On the other side of the ball, what’s been your overall assessment of the defense? The Colts have struggled at times against some good quarterbacks and against the run.
Ballard: “Well, it’s the little things right now that are getting us. And we’ve got some new players on defense, and they’re learning to play the way we need to play. And the little things — the gap control, the discipline that you have to have in coverage — all those things are little things that we think can improve on, and will improve on. And week-to-week we think we’ll continue to get better as we go forward.”
What is the process like for you during the week when it comes to working out players? How do you determine who you want to work out, and what are you looking for during those workouts?
Ballard: “Yeah, well, every week we’re bringing guys in, whether it’s two or three, or I think this week we had seven or eight kids in. Our scouts, our pro scouts, do an outstanding job of studying the preseason tape, and guys that have been released and are on the street, we bring them in for a workout. And if we saw something we liked on tape and they had a developmental trait that we thought fit us, we’re gonna bring them in. And we’re looking at their movement and the type of shape they’re in, and then do they fit us culturally into what we wanna do? And if we like ‘em, we’re gonna add ‘em to our practice squad, and possibly to the 53(-man roster) depending on what our needs are at the time. And we spend a lot (of time) — I mean, our guys do an outstanding job. I mean, we’re always looking to improve. You have to be constantly looking to improve the roster during the season, and if we think we find a player that’s better, then we’re going to do that.”
And you’re always kicking the tires of guys, right? If you think you’re deep at safety, for example, that doesn’t mean you won’t work out a safety that week if you like a guy on the street.
Ballard: “Look: you’ve always got to have a list. I mean, you don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday and during the week on who’s going to get hurt and when you’re going to have to go to that list. So we wanna always make sure we’re working guys out, getting them in, kicking the tires and making sure that we know who the best players on the street are.”
Do you worry about running back Marlon Mack‘s health and durability considering he’s logged more than 60 carries through four games of the season?
Ballard: “No. No. This is really the first offseason that I’ve thought — you know, after his rookie year when he had the shoulder surgery, when he missed most of OTAs and he had a hamstring (injury) during training camp a year ago — he had a really good offseason of training and being able to stay healthy during training camp prepared him for what we’re putting on his shoulders right now.”
How much deeper is this team compared to the ones you’ve had in the past since you joined the Colts in 2017?
Ballard: “Well, it’s getting tested — there’s no doubt right now (laughter). And, look: that’s not always a negative thing. Like I said earlier, players gotta play to get better, and when injuries happen, any guy that’s on the roster, you’ve got to consider him a starter because at some point when somebody goes down, he’s going to have to go in the game and make winning plays for you to be able to win the game. So I do think we’re heading in the right direction. Without question we’re a much better team than we were in ’17 in terms of depth and overall talent, but we’ve still gotta keep working and these young players — these depth players — still gotta work to continue to get better.”
Ballard: “Well, look: Anthony is a good football player. And he’s highly intelligent, not only academically and off the field in terms of his intelligence and how he lives his life, but also on the football field. And I think with him and Darius together working, they played a lot of games together last year, knowing how to play off of each other and communicate with each other is a valuable thing, and we’re fortunate to have him.”
Everybody’s 2-2 in the AFC South through four games. How tough is it going to be to continue winning games in your division this year?
Ballard: “Look, and I think I said this during the offseason: Jacksonville, Tennessee and Houston are all very well-coached football teams with good players, and strengths and weaknesses like everybody has. But we think it’s gonna be a slugfest all the way down to the finish. I mean, I think you saw our game in Tennessee that came down to the last possession, it was back and forth on a real hot day. I think you saw it with Jacksonville going to Houston, with Tennessee going down to Jacksonville. And they’re vitally important in the division standings that these division games that you take ‘em seriously and you win ‘em, and we keep our eye on that. But it is a highly competitive division with some very good coaches and football teams.”
Where is defensive end Jabaal Sheard right now in terms of his health, and how did he look in his first game back last Sunday vs. the Raiders?
Ballard: “Well, it was unfortunately the first day of training camp he has the knee injury and misses up until the Oakland game, but, you know, he played 34 snaps vs. Oakland, had a good game. I think now it’s almost like in training camp mode as we continue to work him in; we think it’ll take a couple games for him to get back, but, look: Jabaal’s a good football player and knows how to play the game, and I think that came out on Sunday. I mean, just in terms of conditioning and getting his pad work, all those things each and every day — the practices that he gets in and the more games he gets in — I think you’re gonna see Jabaal continue to improve each and every week.”
This upcoming road game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football, it’s obviously a familiar place for you, and you know how difficult of an environment that can be.
Ballard: “Well, look: they got after us pretty good in the playoffs last year. And I’m very familiar with the organization after being fortunate enough to work there for four years, and a lot of good friends on the other side, Arrowhead (Stadium) is one of the special places in the league to go play. It’ll be an electric night. Their fans will be excited, I’m sure, after a full day of tailgating. And it’s a great challenge, you know, for our football team.
And, look: I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about our fans the last two weeks. They were incredible. The noise they created, the excitement, the energy they brought in the building, our players feed off that, and I thank them for what they gave us these last two ballgames here at home.”