Indianapolis finds ways to keep grinding out wins
Andrew Luck embraces the challenge of grinding out victories.
He's done it with his arm, he's done it with his feet, and now the second-year quarterback would like to figure out how to make things easier on everyone around the Colts' complex.
Things weren't supposed to be this difficult in 2013 for Luck & Co., after a big offseason spending spree and a change in offensive philosophy. One week into the season, though, little has changed. Indianapolis is still relying on Luck's strong right arm and his uncanny knack to rally the team.
''Guys don't freak out, if you will. (They) keep playing football, realize maybe you give a little extra focus,'' Luck said, explaining the secret to the Colts' late-game success. ''Guys just sort of seem to bear down and play ball.''
That's why eight of Luck's 12 career wins have come with fourth-quarter comebacks.
Why isn't the same focus around earlier? That's the million dollar question in Indy (1-0).
During Luck's rookie season, the Colts were outscored 144-96 in the second quarter and were known to have third-quarter lulls, too. It happened again Sunday when the Colts blew a 14-0 lead by allowing Oakland to score 17 straight points.
Yet somehow, Luck always seems to bail out the Colts. Against the Raiders, it came with a 19-yard scramble that put Indy ahead for good 21-17 with 5:20 left in the game, which was no surprise to anyone in Indy's locker room.
''From a confidence standpoint, you obviously never feel like you're out of a ballgame,'' coach Chuck Pagano said. ''Would we like to be ahead 21, a couple of scores? Sure, we'd love to be on that end of it, but it's the National Football League and it's really, really hard to win at this level.''
Nothing has been easy about Luck's transition to the NFL.
He was the No. 1 overall choice in a 2012 draft class loaded with quarterbacks and as the hand-picked successor to four-time MVP Peyton Manning. Then Luck lost his head coach for 12 weeks as Pagano battled leukemia.
Somehow, Luck managed to take on the heavy burden and still put up record-breaking rookie numbers. When playoff numbers are included, Luck wound up throwing 681 passes, was sacked 44 times and hit more than 100 other times.
Team owner Jim Irsay didn't want a repeat, so he spent millions of dollars to improve the offensive line. Pagano also hired Luck's old college offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, to call plays when interim coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians took Arizona's head coaching job.
The concept was simple: By protecting Luck and running the ball more effectively, the Colts wouldn't need the late-game heroics as much.
It didn't quite work out Sunday.
Indy averaged 4.9 yards per carry, significant improvement for a team that has produced less than 4 yards five times since the 2006 championship season. Luck, meanwhile, was sacked four times, escaped at least one other sack and took several other big shots - including one on a 20-yard TD pass to Dwayne Allen - and, of course, Luck had to pull it out with the long scramble.
Irsay expects the script to change this week against Miami (1-0).
''We gotta protect (hash)12 better..and that includes more than just OL...it's backs,TE's,coaches on blitz pick ups..I DEMAND better,'' Irsay wrote Wednesday on Twitter.
It's not the first time the owner has used social media to express angst about his team. This time, though, the stakes are higher.
Pagano acknowledged Wednesday that the goal each week is to make Luck untouchable on Sunday afternoons.
''As long as 12 is upright and on his feet, we've got a much better chance of winning than losing,'' Pagano said. ''We're fully aware of that and we will do everything, exhaust everything, to make sure we take care of him and keep him clean.''
Part of the solution is a stronger ground game.
Sunday marked only the fourth time in Luck's career there were more runs (26) than pass attempts (23). Not surprisingly, Indy has won all four.
Vick Ballard and the offensive linemen would like to keep the ground game working - especially if it secures wins. But if that doesn't work and things get tough, the Colts know their old standby can still grind one out.
''No, no panic,'' Luck said, referring to the Raiders game. ''That's sort of the DNA of the team.
Notes: Linebacker Pat Angerer (concussion) returned to practice Wednesday. Tight end Dwayne Allen (hip), linebacker Kavell Conner (ankle) and receiver David Reed (quad) all sat out. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman, Indy's leading tackler in 2012, did limited work because of a quad injury.
Online: AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org