INDIANAPOLIS –At times during the preseason, Head Coach Chuck Pagano stated that he wants his team to be strong finishers.
A trait in addition to that he prefers would be for the offensive and defensive units to start finding a rhythm a bit earlier as well.
Indianapolis zoomed to a 38-3 win in the preseason opener against St. Louis with a 21-point first half.
Week two in Pittsburgh saw the Colts fall behind by two touchdowns in the opening stanza before rallying for a 17-14 lead with the front-liners at halftime. The 14-point deficit came on a long Steelers touchdown pass and an interception returned the distance.
The third preseason game found the Colts hindered offensively early with two sacks and a penalty. A 14-7 deficit was on the scoreboard when the starters exited, but the club fell behind by 16 points and could not recover. The Redskins scored early on a 66-yard drive and rushed for 101 of their 147 yards before halftime.
The trend continued in Thursday's preseason finale against Cincinnati when the Bengals scored the game's first 10 points, and Indianapolis did not get untracked offensively until 26 of the first half's 30 minutes had bled off the clock.
Quarterback Chandler Harnish piloted two touchdown drives to help Indianapolis grab a 14-13 lead at the break but prior to those efforts, the club's offense gained but two first downs on five possessions that ended in punts. One of those first downs came when Cincinnati was flagged for illegal contact on the game's first play.
The Bengals moved 69 yards on 12 plays to start the game with a field goal. Their third possession covered 58 yards again on 12 plays, and Cincinnati gained four first downs on each drive in taking a double-digit lead 19 minutes into the game. Sixteen of the game's 24 penalties were assessed in the first half, with Indianapolis being fingered for seven of its eventual 10 violations.
The slow starts are something displeasing to Pagano's eye.
"As far as the game, again, a slow start," said Pagano. "We have got to find a way to start faster. I'm disappointed, obviously, with our play early on both sides of the ball and special teams. The penalties have to be addressed. I think we had six for 50 yards in the first half, and then ended up with 10 or 11, so we've got to get that cleaned up."
Excuses are not part of any coach's evaluation. Reality does show the club has been without a starting guard, Mike McGlynn, since the St. Louis game, and the line still is gelling. The top two tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, are draft picks, just as is quarterback Andrew Luck, who played only four snaps Thursday and engineered 17 drives over the course of the preseason.
Veteran wide receiver Donnie Avery played only in the last two outings, while Austin Collie played in the first two. A bevy of young receivers is trying to make the team.
Not many of the players were with the club last year when slow starts contributed heavily to a 2-14 record. Four times in 2011, the club incurred first-half deficits exceeding 20 points, and Indianapolis had double-digit deficits in 12 different outings. Additionally, there was an eight-game stretch last year when the Colts were unable to hold a lead even once.
Execution on both sides of the ball is essential in the most team-oriented sport. Each unit must pull its weight, and Luck knows the importance of starting well early.
"I think about that, especially on the road, we want to make sure we start fast," said Luck. "Obviously, (against Cincinnati), I know I'm personally a little disappointed in myself for not putting a drive together, getting points on the board, starting this thing off right.
"I give a lot of kudos to Chandler (Harnish) for coming in there with the other guys on offense and getting points on the board and finishing this game out. I know we'll have to start better if we want to give ourselves a good shot at winning football games."
Time to panic. Nope. Time to execute, you bet.
It will be a team heavy on youth that hits Chicago a week from this Sunday. Indianapolis saw two difficult road venues in Pittsburgh and Washington. The young defense faced solid rushing attacks in those games, while the offense contended with very good defenses in the last three games.
Pagano comes from a Baltimore team that historically set a very strong defensive tone. It is something he wants from his unit. Linebacker Robert Mathis feels it can be accomplished.
"If we do what we're supposed to do and be where we're supposed to be, we can be very dangerous throughout this league," said the multiple Pro Bowler. "We are just working towards that goal."
As for his quarterback, Pagano feels Luck's preseason orientation will be beneficial.
"For the most part (I did see what I needed to see of Luck)," said Pagano. "It was good to get the Washington game. Pittsburgh was big for him. You've got two of the better defenses in the league. From a pressure standpoint being able to see that type of pressure coming at him and identify as far as the blitz packages go, identify and change calls at the line of scrimmage, identifying 'hots' and 'sights' and things like that (was important).
"I think it was a great start, and it'll be a learning process as we go now into the regular season. We all feel pretty good where he's at right now."
As for being ready to move into live action in about a week, Pagano is excited, "Everybody is. Everybody is, believe me."