INDIANAPOLIS – There was never any real doubt in Bobby Okereke’s mind he would play last week.
Not when doctors were examining his broken thumb after the Indianapolis Colts’ win at Chicago. Not when he went in for surgery on the thumb Monday afternoon. And not even when he missed Wednesday’s practice while a cast was made for his hand.
“I talked to the doctors after the game, got X-rays after the game two weeks ago when I hurt my thumb, and I was really asking them, like, ‘Do you think I’m gonna be out? I feel good,’” Okereke said during a video call Thursday. “Obviously, I played throughout the second half of that game with my injured thumb, so in my mind there really wasn’t any question. Then going through the week, it was good.”
On Sunday, it was even better.
With all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard sidelined by a groin injury during a 32-23 loss against the Cleveland Browns, Okereke responded with a career-high 10 tackles and his first official interception (the other came on a 2-point conversion and does not count toward his career total) while playing every defensive snap for the first time.
It was the latest evolutionary jump for the 24-year-old defender in what is rapidly becoming a breakout season.
Okereke has started four of Indianapolis’ first five games, and he’s played at least 81% of the defensive snaps in each of the past four weeks. Before Leonard’s injury, that playing time largely came at the expense of veteran Anthony Walker Jr. – the team’s leading tackler who is scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason.
But there’s little friction among the deep linebacker corps.
Okereke and Leonard have carried on a running debate since the preseason over which of them is faster. Okereke recorded the fastest time through GPS tracking during a game, and Leonard won a match race earlier this year — though Okereke strongly hints he believes there was some impropriety at the start.
One thing they both agree on? An enduring respect for Walker, who often functions as a coach on the field.
Okereke attributes much of his growth this season to improved on-field vision. That leap was made possible in part because of Walker’s tutelage.
“I’ve grown more, just working on my eyes,” Okereke said. “(Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus) always tells me my eyes are gonna get me to the spot. A great example, a guy like Anthony Walker, the way he sees and processes the game, it’s been beneficial for me to learn from him.”
The former Stanford star has put in extra time in the film room, studying offensive misdirection such as jet motions and sweeps.
He takes the results of that homework onto the practice field and diagnoses the various ways the scout team is trying to deceive him.
“Coach Flus has this saying: ‘You don’t want to be a dog to a meat truck when you’re a linebacker,’” Okereke said. “You want to have eyes. You want to check to see (the) area, you want to see pullers, you want to have cross keys. It’s really just having your eyes in the right spot to put you in the best position to make plays.”
His ability to read what his eyes are telling him and react has been unmistakable.
Okereke has 18 tackles over the past two weeks, and even Leonard has been forced to tip his cap to the youngster.
“When the ball snaps, his first read is getting so unbelievable,” Leonard said. “You seem him in the past on pass plays, the two catches that was made on him last week, those are great catches. Me, personally, I feel like if he didn’t have that cast on, they don’t make neither one of them catches.
“He’s just taking everything in. He’s learning from Walker, just asking questions in the meetings. So, then, once we get to the game, everything’s easier for him. I just see him taking all the right steps in the right direction.”
Okereke takes the praise in stride.
He set a goal this season of making more explosive plays. His interception in Week 5 was his first of the season, and he has just one tackle for loss.
Finding a way to make game-changing plays is more important to him than racking up stats. So, while he’s off to a good start, he’s not taking any victory laps.
“Obviously, I have a lot of room to grow and a lot more work to do,” Okereke said. “So I’m just gonna attack it every day in practice.”
Rookie safety Julian Blackmon (groin) and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (rib) returned to full participation in Thursday’s practice.
Defensive end Justin Houston (hip) was limited after sitting out Wednesday.
Tight end Mo Alie-Cox (knee), defensive end Denico Autry (knee/ankle) and Leonard remained out, putting their status for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals (1 p.m., FOX) in doubt.
Offensive tackle Chaz Green (back) and running back Jordan Wilkins (calf) also did not practice Thursday.