INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts have had adversity in more than one area during the first seven games of the season.
One of the units most affected has been the offensive line. The unit on opening day featured new starters in rookie tackle Anthony Castonzo and first-year guard Joe Reitz to the left of veteran center Jeff Saturday. Veteran tackle Ryan Diem was moved to right guard to start the year, a position he had not manned since 2002. Second-year pro Jeff Linkenbach, who opened three games at right guard and one contest at left tackle in 2010, was moved to right tackle.
With that, the Colts were ready to go.
Change struck in the second game against Cleveland. Diem left the contest with an ankle injury that pushed fourth-year pro Mike Pollak back into action. Pollak started 33 games at right guard over his first three seasons, including 13 each in 2008 and 2010.
Week four altered the landscape even more dramatically. Castonzo, the Colts' first-round draft pick, exited the game at Tampa Bay with an ankle injury. He was replaced by second-round 2011 draft pick Ben Ijalana. Castonzo had set a school record by starting 54 games at Boston College. Ijalana, who had started all 53 career contests for Villanova at left tackle, met the duty call for a fallen Castonzo and played into the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers before suffering a knee injury that would end his season. In the heat of a tight battle, Linkenbach flipped back to the left side and was replaced by Mike Tepper, who had been signed to the club's active roster earlier in the day.
The NFL is a results-oriented business. It is a tough bottom line. Also, the Colts embrace a theory where excuses are not an option and the next man must respond. It has been the club's approach for years, and the unit soldiered on.
Prior to the Kansas City game, the Colts re-signed veteran tackle Michael Toudouze, along with adding Quinn Ojinnaka, a sixth-year pro who had played with Atlanta and New England. As the starting bell rang for the Chiefs contest, it was Ojinnaka moving onto the field with the starters.
He had been a Colt for three full practices.
Diem started at Cincinnati at right tackle for the club's fourth starting combination and Indianapolis will feature a fifth starting group this Sunday at Tennessee because Reitz underwent arthroscopic knee surgery this week and will be out for an undetermined period. Toudouze has returned to the Colts, along with guard Jamey Richard, who served with Indianapolis from 2008-10. At issue also is the availability of Pollak, who missed practice time Wednesday with a hamstring ailment. An anticipated line for Sunday could include Tepper and Seth Olsen opening at the guard positions. The line will keep on keeping on.
"Well, we have two guys that are playing right now at the guard spot, (Mike) Tepper at one and Seth (Olsen) at the other," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "(Quinn) Ojinnaka, we're playing at the tackle position, and we'll back him up with (Michael) Toudouze and Jamey Richard. That's kind of, at this point, where we are, and hopefully it remains that way throughout the week."
Caldwell is no stranger to the challenges of the game, and he knows the difficulty in melding cohesiveness at this critical unit.
"I think it creates a real challenge simply because there are two units on the field that I think require time to get really accustomed to one other because communication is essential, that's in the secondary and also the offensive line," said Caldwell. "Any time you have a little bit of a disruption in terms of your starting lineup, there are some communication issues that have to be worked out between those who are playing adjacent to one another. They get accustomed to one another, how they take on blocks. To get a feel for the guy working next to you it's very, very important that they can work in unison with one another.
Communication among all units on the field is essential, and the line likely has more forms of it, verbal and non-verbal, than any other group. The line must perform in unison across the board for any success to happen for the offense.
"It's a choreographed exercise. When you think about it that way, you know how difficult that is to learn in a short period of time," said Caldwell. "That's where your problems lie. That what we have to overcome and give these guys enough reps together. Hopefully, they're able to gel quickly. Sometimes it's within a week, like Quinn Ojinnaka. He came in the first part of the week (prior to Kansas City), and he played for us on the weekend."
In 2010, Indianapolis had four different starting combinations. The longest duration with the same unit was five games, the last five of the season when the club rallied to make the playoffs.
The stability then made a difference for the club. The only constant this year has been change. The Colts have not started the same combination for more than two consecutive games.
A must for any team is for players experienced in a system to teach it to newcomers. Caldwell believes the team has a great spirit of inclusion, and that means all levels of the organization.
"I think because of the fact we have an organization that lends itself to new guys coming in and getting quickly acclimated without necessarily having any preconceived notions about an individual, and our willingness within the organization to share information with new people that come in, I think it makes it easy for them to learn," said Caldwell. "I think this environment is conducive to learning. In particular, to get guys up to speed quickly. So many of our players are willing to assist as well.
"I think it's always been around here that everyone's more interested in winning than anything else. When you have that kind of attitude, then whoever is best to go in and play that position, these guys are going to pour it all into him, just making certain that they're well-prepared and ready to go. I think it's something that has been around this organization for a long time."
Ojinnaka represents this process as well as any lineman on roster. Caldwell sees Ojinnaka's mental aptitude being as much of a strength as his physical talent and open mind.
"When you look at him, he learns systems extremely well," said Caldwell. "That jumps out at you right away. We thought it was a little bit out of the ordinary because he said, 'Hey, I think I have that.' Most often guys when they come in new and make that kind of a statement, they usually don't have it all. In this particular case, he had a real good sense of things. He said he's always been able to learn systems and pick them up extremely well. You couple that with the fact he's been in games before, so he has played. He has, I think, a real good skill level. Those things all made it very easy for us to slide him in there, and he functioned."
Ojinnaka seems intent on down-playing what it takes to become fluent with a new team. In fact, his matter-of-fact nature may be the biggest reason he can succeed.
"An offense is an offense," said Ojinnaka. "I don't know the whole offense 100 percent, but all I needed to know is the game plan for the week. The team we're playing that week. An offense is an offense. Like I said before, there are not a lot of plays teams can run that another team hasn't run, so it's just about picking up the terminology."