INDIANAPOLIS –Sunday in Pittsburgh brought a different challenge for the Indianapolis starting offense than it faced last week at home against St. Louis.
The Colts were going up against the NFL's top-ranked defense from a year ago, and they were doing it on the road in a hostile environment. Gifted Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was certain to make matters as tough as possible for Indianapolis and after 15 minutes, the Colts were facing a 14-0 deficit.
It was at that time the Colts began landing some offensive punches. Led by quarterback Andrew Luck, Indianapolis twice marched 80 yards for touchdowns before executing a two-minute offensive opportunity that yielded a 53-yard half-ending field goal. Indianapolis reversed the deficit to take a 17-14 halftime lead in an entertaining game where Pittsburgh eventually emerged as 26-24 victors.
The second quarter was an eye-opening performance, one that played out on a nationally-televised stage.
"Like I told them at halftime, (I was) really proud of them," said Head Coach Chuck Pagano. "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."
Down 7-0 after a 57-yard Pittsburgh touchdown pass, Luck (16-of-25, 175 yards, two interceptions) was intercepted by Ike Taylor on the Colts' third possession. Taylor zipped 49 yards for a touchdown, and Indianapolis was staring at a double-digit deficit with three minutes left in the first quarter.
Luck was sacked on the ensuing play, but hit consecutive passes to Reggie Wayne (nine yards), Dwayne Allen (13), Wayne (14) and Coby Fleener (24) to get the Colts to the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. Donald Brown rushed four times to conclude the drive, with the last carry being a one-yard run to cut the deficit to seven points.
T.Y. Hilton bobbled a Luck pass at the Pittsburgh 21 on the next possession, resulting in an interception. An undeterred Luck guided the Colts again 80 yards to tie the contest. He hit Wayne for three, 27 and 18 yards on the drive he capped himself with a one-yard run on fourth down.
Luck's impressive rebound was extended when Indianapolis stiffened on defense and gave the ball back to the offense with 42 seconds left in the half. From his 34-yard line, Luck hit two passes before spiking the ball with one second left on the clock. Adam Vinatieri then hit the field goal at the gun to give Indianapolis a 17-14 lead and a national audience a glimpse of an offense that is gelling and growing.
The Colts have scored on six of 11 possessions directed by Luck over the first two games. The six scores include five touchdowns.
"Coming back, especially after what happened on the pick-six it just shows his maturity, where he's at as a quarterback," said Pagano. "He's done that for a long, long time. He's done that in college, and I'm really proud of Andrew and the rest of the offense, the offensive line and the guys around him that made plays for him to be able to put those drives together.
"He's his own worst critic. One of the (interceptions) was obviously a tipped ball that should have been caught. T.Y. (Hilton) would be the first one to tell you that. (Luck) would love to have the first one back, but again, it showed character and maturity of Andrew to come back, make plays, move the ball down the field and have two nice drives."
After his first interception, Luck was 14-of-17 for 159 yards. After the second miscue, he hit eight-of-nine attempts for 96 yards. A team that wants to thrive on first down yardage under Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians did so in the opening half. Luck hit his last eight first-down attempts and was 10-of-12 in the half for 120 yards on first downs.
Offensive guard Joe Reitz was one of Luck's protectors, and he likes the attitude of the unit.
"That shows what we're about and what we want to be about as an offense," said Reitz. "We're going to keep coming, keep coming, keep coming. We're going to keep fighting, scratching and clawing. No matter what happens out there, you put it behind you and focus on the next series and the next play. We did a good job of that tonight.
"We were playing against a different front, a 3-4 look. Obviously, it was a great defense and has been for a long time. That's only going to help us down the road, going against a defense with the type of quality players Pittsburgh has."
Luck directed the Colts to 13 first-half first downs, while converting three-of-eight third-down attempts. The rushing game produced 59 of its 85 yards in the first two quarters, and Indianapolis had 229 of its 369 net yards during that span.
"You can't beat yourself, through interceptions or blocked punts or whatever it is, and expect to win a football game," said Luck. "As a quarterback you never want to throw a pick six or any interceptions, even if they are tipped or bobbled or whatever. We've got to cut down on those, but I think we showed we can bounce back from those mistakes and sort of climbed out of the hole, which is a good sign.
"You never want to make mistakes but I'm glad it's a preseason game and not regular season where it really counts as a loss in that column. You just try and learn from it."
The Colts return to action next Saturday in Washington.