INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chuck Pagano walked into the media room Wednesday and made one thing clear: Indianapolis can and must play much better during the season’s final stretch.
The two-time AFC South champions are tied with Houston for the division lead. With four games left and three against division foes, Pagano knows everything the Colts were chasing at the start of the season is still on the table if they can fix some of their problems.
“You can pick out the offense, defense, special teams, myself, we’ve all been inconsistent and not been up to par and it starts with myself,” said Pagano, who is in the final year of his contract. “If we want to get where we want to go, we’ve got to play consistent.”
Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck is expected to miss his sixth start of the season Sunday at Jacksonville (4-8), his fourth in a row since suffering a lacerated kidney and partially torn abdominal muscle.
While neither Luck nor Pagano have updated the original two-to-six week timetable for a return, Luck’s rehab work has steadily increased. Last week, he started throwing passes. On Wednesday, Pagano said Luck was running “gassers” again, and Luck said he was throwing more passes with more intensity this week.
“I’m getting better, feeling better,” he said. “But you’ve got to get in shape if you’re going to play in a football game. So that (running) is a good sign.”
Luck’s injury is only one of the complications the Colts are facing.
Indy (6-6) has been missing starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo for the past two weeks because of an injured right knee, starting right guard Hugh Thornton (elbow) sat out Sunday and receiver Phillip Dorsett, their first-round draft pick, has been out the last five games because of a broken leg.
The ground game hasn’t helped much lately, either. Indy has only 275 yards combined rushing over the past four weeks.
Matt Hasselbeck, Luck’s replacement, won his first four starts. But he looked more like a 40-year-old backup quarterback in Sunday night’s embarrassing 35-point loss at Pittsburgh. He threw two interceptions, was sacked twice and took two awkward hits that left him with a stiff neck and a mild rib separation.
Hasselbeck was a full participant at Wednesday’s practice and even though he’s sore, he expects more of himself against the Jaguars.
“I didn’t play real well (at Pittsburgh),” Hasselbeck said. “I’ve got to play better for our team to have a chance to win.”
Defensively, things aren’t any better.
With an almost non-existent pass rush last weekend, Ben Roethlisberger torched the Colts’ secondary for 364 yards and four touchdowns. Now there are more concerns, with starting linebackers Jerrell Freeman (hamstring and ribs), D’Qwell Jackson (quad) and Erik Walden (foot) all missing Wednesday’s practice. Starting cornerback Greg Toler (knee) was limited.
Indy is ranked 24th against the run, 30th against the pass and 30th in total defense. Only four teams have fewer sacks than Indy’s 19 and only five teams have a worse turnover differential than Indy’s minus-six.
“We’ve just got to make plays,” cornerback Darius Butler said. “Whether it’s one big play or two big plays, we’ve got to get it going.”
Despite all the struggles, Indy still has won three of its last four and doesn’t face another opponent with a winning record. Since 2012, the Colts are 19-2 against the AFC South with an NFL-record 16 straight division wins.
And Luck’s return could come just in time to help Indianapolis build the momentum they’ve been seeking to make a playoff run.
“We’ve got a lot of evidence on film that everyone can play winning football and at a high level,” Pagano said. “We’ve got to do that.”