INDIANAPOLIS —The challenge presented to the Indianapolis Colts' coaches and player personnel staff over the next couple days is a hefty one.
With the potential that seven starters could be out for the team's Week 1 matchup against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 11, the burden now for the Colts' front office is the balancing act that comes with leaving roster spots open for those key injured players, while also considering the several young players who have fought for a final spot on the 53-man roster, which must be decided by 4 p.m. Saturday.
Those injuries have been felt most on the offensive line and at cornerback, where key starters might not be quite ready to go when the Colts and Lions kick off nine days from today.
"There's nothing that we can do about it," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said Thursday night after the team's preseason finale victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. "We have to get healthy, and healthy in a hurry. Because the 11th is going to be here before we know it. It makes it difficult to get to that 53. We got some guys that we are hopeful that we get back."
So while those key players work on getting back as quickly as they can, the leaders on the team will take it upon themselves to ensure the rest of their teammates — whether veterans or youngsters — are as prepared as they can be for the start of the regular season.
Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has heard the cliché "next man up" many, many times throughout his 11-year NFL career, but knows that particular saying, though simple, is about as real as it gets for this Indianapolis team at the moment.
"Coach, he's preached that from Day 1," Jackson said Thursday. "Anything worth working for isn't easy, so we understand what we have to do, whether it's my job as a veteran to lead these guys and get them in a routine and know how to prepare their bodies, prepare their minds mentally week in and week out."
Jackson referenced last season's injury issues, specifically those suffered by quarterback Andrew Luck, as a recent example of how he believes the Colts can overcome the loss of key teammates.
Despite losing Luck — a perennial MVP candidate — and seeing several quarterbacks under center throughout the second half of the season, Indianapolis was still able to rally to an 8-8 record in 2015, narrowly missing out on a playoff appearance.
"We were dealt a tough hand from last year when 12 went down — when Andrew (Luck) went down," Jackson said. "So we're accustomed to it, we're ready for it, and we're ready for the challenge."
Talking defense specifically, Jackson likes what he sees out of those around him, particularly the younger players stepping into new roles, both inside and outside.
The whole process is still a "work in progress," Jackson said, but there are plenty of encouraging signs.
"Collectively, I think we've done a phenomenal job of just communicating well. Guys know where to be," he continued. "I love our young guys — I love where their head (is). They love football; they're passionate about it, and it's a great starting point for us."