Of course you remember Andrew Luck’s first play with the Colts, unofficial though it was: a little inside flip to Donald Brown that turned into a 63-yard touchdown back in the preseason opener against the Rams on Aug. 12.
What you may not remember: That was the last time the offense scored in the first quarter.
Three more preseason games and the regular-season opener in Chicago passed since then and, as the Colts prepare for their home opener Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in Lucas Oil Stadium (1 p.m., 1070 the Fan, WXIN 59), solving the propensity for slow starts not only has become a point of emphasis, it has become a near mandate from Coach Chuck Pagano.
“What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to come out and start fast,” Pagano said. “We’ve got to get (the fans) in the game and keep them in the game. If we come out and start like we did in our first preseason opener against St. Louis and we get the crowd into it and get the fans to it, then obviously we are going to feed off their energy.”
Last week, the Colts had three possessions in the first quarter that produced a single first down, 32 yards, and three punts. In three previous preseason games, they had eight first-quarter possessions that produced six first downs, 75 yards, seven punts and an interception.
On the two occasions when they did mount drives, acutely painful penalties killed them. A 15-yard chop black against Samson Satele in Washington on Aug. 25 stopped one march. A hold against Jeff Linkenbach wiped out a 29-yard gain to the Cincinnati 29-yard line by Vick Ballard.
“You don’t have to score points as much as flip field position, make first downs, because every kickoff it seems you’re starting at the 20 or behind the 20,” said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. “Get the ball, move it, make first downs. We did a good job last week of playing on first down. We wanted to play the game at third-and-five or less, got ourselves in great position, didn’t hit ‘em, whether it would be pressure or a missed pass here and there.”
Since the Rams game, the Colts have been outscored 24-7 in the first quarter, the only points coming on Jerrell Freeman’s interception return for a touchdown in Chicago.
Falling into an early hole in and of itself is a problem but doubly so for the Colts because it cuts the playbook in half and skews the run-pass balance, magnifying the demands on rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
The Colts had 48 drop-backs and just 15 runs in Chicago, a big reason Luck faced constant pressure and wound up throwing three interceptions in a 41-21 defeat.
“Obviously you’d love to be more balanced than we were but if you dig yourself a hole and get down 31-14, then it’s hard to be balanced if you’re trying to get back in the game,” Pagano said. “Certainly, we don’t want to come out of a game and have our quarterback having to throw 45 times. That’s not the balance we’re looking for and we’ve said that since we’ve got here as a staff. We want to be able to run the football, which sets up everything else in the pass game.”
Luck’s background is weighted heavily on balance, as Stanford featured a power running game. In his senior season, the Cardinal ran 55 percent of the time. Luck’s college career high for attempts was 46 (Oct. 2, 2010 in a loss to Oregon). The team was much better when balanced; in 2010 and ’11, Stanford was 2-2 when Luck attempted at least 40 passes, 21-1 otherwise.
The Colts have similar aspirations; they do not want to have a chuck-and-duck approach.
“The first three quarters you’d love to be 50-50 and then play the fourth quarter whichever way the game plays out, ahead or behind,” Arians said. “That one (in Chicago) didn’t quite do it.”
No one is demanding, or expecting, big plays such as Brown’s touchdown reception right out of the gate. Putting together a few small ones, however, would be a nice start.