INDIANAPOLIS–* *The Colts fell on Sunday at Pittsburgh, 26-24, but it was a game where the starting units battled back from adversity to position itself for a possible victory in a tough venue.
The defense gave up a 57-yard touchdown strike from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown midway through the first quarter, then Ike Taylor pirated an Andrew Luck pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to give Pittsburgh a 14-0 cushion after 12 minutes of action.
In a stadium and against an opponent where Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano has seen games get away from teams, he was proud how his young club responded by leading the contest, 17-14, at intermission.
"We showed great resiliency. We got off to an obviously bad start," said Pagano. "You never want to give up big plays on defense and throw a pick-six on the offensive side of the ball. But, we showed great character and heart that this team has to come back and put two great touchdown drives together. At the end, executed a two-minute drive, got the field goal and took the lead.
"This is a tough place to play, and this is a great football team, great organization. I've seen a lot of teams wilt under those circumstances but to see them come back, put the drives together that they were able to put together and then the two-minute one right before the end of the half and to be able to go out there and kick a field goal and take the lead into halftime really showed their character and resiliency."
Quarterbacks Drew Stanton and Chandler Harnish played in the second half. Stanton threw a four-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Griff Whalen that gave Indianapolis a 24-17 advantage six minutes into the third period. Pittsburgh rattled off three field goals for the game's final points. A 22-yarder that was deflected but went through with 20 seconds left spelled the difference, and the drive was set up by an Indianapolis turnover with just more than five minutes remaining and when the Colts were moving for a potential score of their own.
FIRST-DOWN SUCCESS – One area where the team wants to excel is winning the opening downs of each possession, that being getting positive yardage on first and second downs to make third downs more manageable.
Indianapolis did a solid job of first-down production in the second quarter of Sunday's game at Pittsburgh. On the club's first scoring drive after falling behind, 14-0, Luck hit consecutive passes to Reggie Wayne (twice), Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener to reach deep in Pittsburgh territory, where Donald Brown capped the drive with four rushes.
Luck then ended the first half by hitting eight straight completions on first downs, and he was 10-of-12 for 120 yards on first downs in the half. Luck had 14 of his 16 completions on first downs, amassing 151 of his 175 yards on the early downs. Overall, he was 14-of-19 on first and second downs, leading the club to scores on three-of-seven possessions.
Over the first two games, Indianapolis has scored on six of Luck's 11 possessions (five touchdowns, one field goal), and the team has converted 17-of-30 third downs (56.7 percent).
VINATIERI ON MARK – Veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri commented prior to last year that distance is of no issue to him. Making kicks was only a matter of splitting the uprights.
He backed up his words by hitting 10-of-13 kicks last year beyond 40 yards, including two-of-three from the 50-yard range (52 and 53 yards). Since 2008, he has hit four-of-six from the 50-yard range and is 27-of-35 beyond 40 yards, a 77.1 percent rate that exceeds his career average of 69.1 (114-165, 1996-2011).
Vinatieri hit his only preseason field goal attempt at Pittsburgh, a 53-yarder with room to spare that capped a two-minute drive that covered 31 yards in the last 42 seconds of the half.
A kicker who has decided world championship games with his right foot remains on target for the Colts.
BALLARD, WHALEN PERFORM WELL AT PITTSBURGH – The youth at the Colts' skill positions has been well-documented during training camp.
On Sunday evening, that youth proved to be up to the challenge of dealing with a road environment against one of the league's best defenses.
Running back Vick Ballard, a fifth-round pick (170th overall) in April's NFL Draft, saw extended playing time against the Steelers.
With running backs Delone Carter and Mewelde Moore not playing due to respective rib injuries, Ballard led the rushing attack with 10 carries for 34 yards.
Ballard leads the Colts with 16 carries for 62 yards after two weeks of the preseason and continues to impress his coaches.
"(Ballard) can tote that (the ball)," Pagano said. "He's going to be an outstanding running back for us."
The first action for Ballard on Sunday came on the Colts' third offensive series, and he played a majority of the second quarter with the first-team offense.
"I'm really proud of Vick because he's studying and working his tail off both in the meeting room and on the practice field, and his play is showing up out here on these preseason games," Pagano said.
Another rookie who has flown under the radar during training camp because of depth at his position is wide receiver Griff Whalen.
Last week against the Rams, Whalen did not play due to a leg injury, but returned to practice following the St. Louis game and saw his first NFL action Sunday at Pittsburgh.
Just like Ballard, Whalen filled a much-needed void against the Steelers as injuries took a toll on the Colts' receiving corps.
Whalen, an undrafted free agent out of Stanford, had four catches for 59 yards and scored his first career NFL touchdown in the third quarter.
Late in the first half, Whalen's eight-yard reception from college teammate Andrew Luck put the Colts in field goal range and led to kicker Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard field goal at the halftime gun.
That reception sparked a productive second half for Whalen as he caught three more passes for 51 yards, including a four-yard touchdown snare from Drew Stanton.
"It was tough missing the beginning of camp (with an injury), not being able to be out there with my teammates," Whalen said. "It felt really good to get out there this week."
The receiver position is one of the most competitive areas on the Colts' roster. Numerous young faces having emerged during training camp.
For Whalen, though, having to claw and fight for a spot is nothing new.
"This is kind of similar to what I did in college. I was a walk-on originally," Whalen said. "Everything is an uphill battle, and I just have to prove what I can do every day."
HUGHES AND DEFENSE AGAIN GET TO QUARTERBACK – It took a little more time than last week, but eventually the Colts defense was able to get to Steelers quarterbacks.
Outside linebacker Jerry Hughes carried over his two-sack performance of the preseason opener with another sack on Sunday at Pittsburgh.
Hughes got to quarterback Charlie Batch midway through the third quarter and helped ignite a three-sack performance for the Colts' defense.
Playing with a mix of the first- and second-team defenses, Hughes led the Colts with seven tackles on the evening and a pair of tackles for loss.
"I think that his numbers speak for themselves. He's been productive every time he's gotten out there, so he's getting better each and every day," Pagano said. "He's working extremely hard. I think you (will) see his play continue to improve as he becomes more familiar with this game and continues to do the things that he's able to do."
The outside linebacker position seemed to flourish against the Steelers as Mario Addison had a sack as well.
For much of the offseason, the Colts defense heard the critics' questions whether or not the unit could adjust to the new hybrid 3-4 defense.
The transition has been steady during the first two weeks of the preseason as the defense has allowed just one touchdown in eight quarters.
Hughes is one of a number of players having to make a switch to a new position. His teammates have raved about how this system fits his unique skill set, and his production further proves their statements.
"He's playing faster because he's not thinking," Pagano said of Hughes. "Obviously he's got the athletic ability to make plays out there, so I really am proud of where he's at."