Gloves clapped as the Indianapolis Colts broke huddle with 9:13 left in the first half of Sunday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ahead of them resided the football at the New England Patriots’ 29-yard line. And down 7-3, the offense was plotting a move well beyond it.
“Ravens 20, Ravens 20, Ravens 20,” quarterback Andrew Luck cadenced as he stepped in under center and assessed the Patriots’ front seven across from him.
Running back Trent Richardson stepped in seven yards behind him.
The 2012 first overall pick handled the snap and turned back to the 2012 third overall pick for the toss. Crack blocks formed out left, followed by pull blocks, and Richardson headed on his way towards them.
But the 29th overall pick in last May’s NFL draft was, too.
Dominique Easley surged out of his stance as New England’s stand-up defensive end. He long-armed 6-foot-6, 267-pound Colts tight end Jack Doyle upright, setting the edge and disrupting the arc of the trailing blocker – rookie center Jonotthan Harrison – in the process.
Easley carried his opponent four yards into the backfield before finalizing Richardson’s toss play himself.
In the books as a three-yard loss, it was the only tackle the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Patriots rookie made in Week 11. Yet it wasn’t the only play he made on Sunday night.
It wasn’t the first one, either.
Easley logged 29 snaps versus the Colts, first entering with under five minutes remaining in the opening quarter. But as the second quarter opened up, so did the former Florida Gators pass-rusher.
It was 3rd-and-12 at the 14:56 mark. The Colts had assembled in “11” personnel with Luck in shotgun and halfback Ahmad Bradshaw to his right. And to their right stood Easley, digging in at the seven-technique across from offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus.
The wide three-man Patriots line, sugared with four linebackers, was ready to send six rushers. Easley was ready to be among them. Only he wasn’t tasked with going against Cherilus; he was tasked with taking on 6-foot-3, 336-pound right guard Hugh Thornton.
Easley made his move towards the B-gap and punched his hands under the pads of Thornton, bull-rushing the second-year guard onto his heels.
It forced Luck onto his as he sailed a pass out of bounds down the right sideline. Easley would visit him again, though.
And when he did, it was from a different position: zero-technique nose tackle.
It was 3rd-and-6 with 3:03 left in the first half. Indianapolis bunched its receivers tight as Luck manned the shotgun. New England manned what appeared to be a basic 3-3 nickel in correspondence. But there was a stunt involved; Easley was prepped to cross the face of the center and right guard, while Ninkovich was prepped to cross through the A-gap in his place.
The play got underway and the stunt followed. Easley’s lateral quickness accentuated Ninkovich’s straight-line sprint, but it also worked the other way. One served as detractor for the Colts’ blocking assignments, other a creator.
Put together, those two factors paved a runway to the QB.
Luck’s pass to the flats gained four when the Colts needed six. The stunt played a part in that consequence. And it was returned to the next time Easley was on the field, perhaps because of it.
Just 1:16 separated the Colts from intermission. Its offense was back for another series, looking to avert the 14-3 score before it.
Easley was back to defensive end, looking to do otherwise. He was looking to veer into right A-gap – one of two gaps in Vince Wilfork’s jurisdiction.
As Luck fielded the snap, the Patriots’ front line began its itinerary. Wilfork swayed left; Easley swayed right, and it all culminated in Colts left guard Jack Mewhort vacating the middle to help on defensive end Akeem Ayers.
Easley split the difference.
He brought Luck to the turf and the pass suffered a similar fate. It would be the last time Easley would hit the Colts quarterback on Sunday, but it would not be the last time he would get close.
When it comes to rushing the passer, sometimes close is enough. Sometimes close is enough to alter the execution of a play.
That was seen in the red zone last Sunday, as the Colts encountered a 3rd-and-8 with one minute to go in the third quarter. Facing a 28-13 uphill climb, Luck and the offense met the situation with trips left and “11” personnel from shotgun.
Easley responded by kicking over to the nose once again. No stunt would transpire on this go-around, however; it would be Easley and Harrison, one on one.
Luck dropped back and the offensive line before him followed. At the very nucleus of it was Harrison, who mirrored his counterpart’s movement.
His counterpart’s movement kept him backpedaling to the point of unbalance. And with one step to his right and another step forward, Easley was gone.
The pocket had been sliced in half. Luck had been flushed from it.
Luck used his legs to extend the play as Easley chased, but the sudden defensive lineman was unable keep the Stanford product in his sights. New England’s contain had been broken, and Luck had scrambled for seven.
Even so, the process of outweighed the outcome.
There is something to be said for the pressure No. 74 packed with him on New England’s flight to Indianapolis. There is something to be said for what he did, not only in terms of the pressure he brought, but where he brought it from.
Easley hovered in a two-point stance and dropped down into a three-point stance. He faced off against the center, the guards, the offensive tackles and the tight ends, playing seven different techniques in his ninth NFL game. He set the edge, he bull-rushed, and he swung around on stunts.
Along the way, he had his best game as an NFL player.
And while his name only registered once in the box score of New England’s 42-20 win, it resonated elsewhere.