INDIANAPOLIS –A truth in the NFL is that a team plays once a week and it is asked questions the other remaining days.
Last Sunday in Chicago, a young Colts offense faced an aggressive defense that crowded the line, exerted pocket pressure and sacked quarterback Andrew Luck on three occasions.
The nature of the game kept Indianapolis from rushing to some degree as it played catch-up, and now the team faces a similar challenge this week in the sold out home opener Sunday against Minnesota.
Indianapolis entered last week with a young line gelling in combat. Center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn, right tackle Winston Justice and left guard Seth Olsen were new starters. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was the grizzled veteran with 12 previous starts with the club.
During the game, Justice left with a concussion and Jeff Linkenbach played in his absence. This week, Indianapolis signed two new players, eighth-year pro Trai Essex and rookie Bradley Sowell.
Pagano was asked about his line Wednesday and says the unit played well at times last week. He acknowledges a better level of play is needed.
"In spurts, they played well," said Pagano. "There are a bunch of new guys in there. They're learning a new system. We make no excuses. They'd be the first to tell you that they're going to play better. They want to play better.
"There was solid blocking in the run game. We had some long runs, obviously Donnie (Brown) did. Protection-wise, there were only a few times where…if you have a bunch of free runners, just guys getting beat clean (it's a problem). One time, they (Chicago) ran a pirate stunt, scraped (Lance) Briggs around the side (and) we didn't get the pass off. That's one thing. If we can stiffen up in certain situations and firm up the protection for Andrew. Obviously, if he can step up in the pocket, he's going to find guys down the field and make plays."
Pagano says Justice is feeling good after last week's concussion and that he will go through the appropriate medical protocol for monitoring recovery. He said wide receiver Austin Collie is cleared to go, and his inclusion in the offense could open up more chances in the passing game.
Essex is a valuable addition because of his ability to play different positions, plus his knowledge of the system the team is implementing with Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians. Essex, Arians and Offensive Line Coach Harold Goodwin spent years together in Pittsburgh.
"If need be (Essex can play)," said Pagano. "Obviously, there's history there. Him walking in, the learning curve is not going to be like it will be maybe for a Bradley (Sowell). He (Essex) has a history with Bruce (Arians), with Harold (Goodwin). He knows the offense. He knows the calls. He's a plug-in guy. He also gives you great versatility. He's played all five spots in the past."
Pagano thought Justice was playing at a high level at the time of last week's injury. His absence cost the team a chance to mature under pressure, but Pagano says the unit is still together.
"We've got basically everybody intact," said Pagano. "I feel really good about Winston's (Justice) progress to this point, coming off the concussion. The way he felt yesterday and the way he feels now (is encouraging). If he's able to go, obviously that's a plus for us. If you look at the tape, he was playing really well until he went out of the game. Mike (McGlynn) played well. Samson (Satele) is still there. The left guard situation, Seth (Olsen) is still there and Anthony (Castonzo) is still there. … I feel good where we're at."
Essex, 6-5, 324, started 28 of 76 career games with Pittsburgh from 2005-11. He opened one of six playoff games and played in two Super Bowls before being waived on August 31. In 2011, he started three of 16 games since being a third-round pick in 2005. From Fort Wayne and Paul Harding High School, Essex is ready to go if needed.
"My career has been playing every position. I just want to play, honestly," said Essex. "I came in as a tackle from Northwestern. I got used to playing some guard my first six years in the NFL. I've played every position ever since. Whatever position I can play a lot of, that's what I want to play."
Essex viewed some of last week's game on television and saw a young unit in action.
"They did not have as (many problems) as might have been publicized," said Essex. "I know Andrew got sacked like three times. It's the first game. It's a whole bunch of young guys who are just starting to play together. They haven't had the benefit of years to gel as an offensive line. I think it's something with time and practice that (will work)."
Last week brought a stiff test with Julius Peppers helping headline a talented Chicago defense. Under Head Coach Leslie Frazier and Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams, both former Colts, Minnesota features key performers across the board. Their scheme will seem a bit familiar.
"The good thing this week, it's a similar package. It's a four-down front," said Pagano. "There's history there between Leslie (Frazier) and Alan (Williams), schematically. There's a bunch of carry-over for Andrew (Luck), the offensive line, the tight ends and the backs as far as blocking in the run game and pass protection. Having seen what he saw in week one is definitely going to be beneficial.
"These guys have two formidable ends (Jared Allen, Brian Robison) on the outside who can bring it, obviously. Jared Allen, 22 sacks a year ago, he's still playing at a high level. You have Robison on the other side. You have (Kevin) Williams in the middle. They have plenty of guys. Everson Griffen they bring in on third downs. He does a great job. Obviously he's (Luck) going to be a lot better off this week than he was last week."
Pagano said Dwight Freeney remains day-to-day with a sprained ankle. Olsen should open a second straight game for Joe Reitz.