Colts hoping battered line holds up against Texans
Charlie Johnson understands the stakes in Sunday's season opener against Houston.
As the Indianapolis Colts' left tackle, he must keep former No. 1 draft pick Mario Williams away from Peyton Manning. As part of the offensive line, he's one of five guys responsible for keeping Manning upright. And as the only veteran with any experience protecting Manning's blind side, well, Johnson needs to play at his best - even if he's hurt.
The Colts don't allow anyone to make excuses.
''No matter who is out there, we expect them to play at a high level,'' Johnson said Thursday. ''That's the way it was before I came here, and that's the way it will be here long after I'm gone.''
This is no typical challenge for Indy.
The offensive line has traditionally ranked among the league's best at preventing sacks, but is coming off a dreadful preseason in which the Colts allowed eight sacks and committed 12 turnovers.
Part of the reason: Injuries.
Johnson sprained his right foot in practice Aug. 6 and didn't make it back onto the field until Wednesday. Four days after Johnson got hurt, Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Saturday, the anchor of Indy's line, didn't return until last week.
The Colts added another complication Wednesday with their most surprising move of the summer - releasing former second-round pick Tony Ugoh. The Colts were so convinced Ugoh would blossom into the left tackle of the future that they traded a 2008 first-round pick to San Francisco so they could take Ugoh with the 42nd overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Things never worked out.
After starting 23 games in his first two seasons, Johnson beat out Ugoh for the starting job last summer. This year, the Colts had hoped Ugoh would win the vacant job at left guard.
Instead, Johnson's early injury forced Ugoh to return to his old spot, and Jamey Richard wound up the big winner when Johnson went down with a foot injury Aug. 26 at Green Bay.
''Tony certainly has had one of those tough stretches during the preseason, up and down,'' coach Jim Caldwell said Thursday. ''Basically we were not quite certain about his health. We weren't quite certain that he'd get back, so we had to make a decision.''
Ugoh's release could come with a steep price.
If Johnson can't play Sunday - and he's making no guarantees - Manning's blind side will likely be protected by 6-foot-4, 311-pound Jeff Linkenbach, an undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati.
''I know there's a chance I'll play,'' Linkenbach said. ''If I do, I've just got to go out there and execute.''
Executing in this offense is never easy for rookies.
Tight end Dallas Clark has repeatedly said it took him three years to learn all the nuances of Manning's no-huddle system and rookie linemen have contended previously that it takes time to figure out Saturday's calls, too.
Just don't expect the Colts to simplify the calls for Linkenbach.
''Link had better get ready,'' Saturday said with a smile. ''We've never done that as long as I've been here. Whoever is out there is the team that we'll field, and we'll run our offense the way we always do.''
The good news for Indy is that it appears Saturday and Manning will be working in tandem at Houston.
Though neither Caldwell nor Saturday have officially said Saturday will start, he did go through all drills for the second straight time Thursday.
Johnson did only limited work for a second straight day as he tests the foot, but things are sounding better and Johnson insists there is nothing for fans to worry about.
''I'd say if we had two or three first or second-year guys in there, I'd be concerned,'' Johnson said. ''With guys like me and Jeff, though, we have a lot of experience.''