Published September 14, 2010
INDIANAPOLIS – Indy's offensive linemen will never forget the vivid imagery from Sunday's game.
Peyton Manning trying to elude another pass rusher. Manning taking another hit. Manning laying on the ground.
For two days, that's all this five-man unit has heard and seen, and now they're ready to make amends.
"Our job is to get them blocked, and we didn't do it," said Charlie Johnson, Indy's left tackle. "I give the Texans credit, but there were a lot of things we did wrong and that we've got to get fixed."
Anyone who has followed the Colts over the past seven months knows this is hardly a revelation.
Following the Super Bowl loss to New Orleans, team president Bill Polian publicly criticized the offensive line, which failed to open a big enough hole on third-and-1 late in the first half to allow the Colts to run out the clock. Or get the Colts into the end zone from the Saints 3.
So Polian spent the offseason remodeling an offensive line that has traditionally ranked among the league's best in quarterback protection. Polian released starting guard Ryan Lilja in March, then uncharacteristically signed two veteran free agents — neither of whom made the team.
The project continued on draft weekend when he took guard Jacques McClendon in Round 4 and blocking tight end Brody Eldridge in Round 5, and last week, the Colts cut ties with former second-round pick Tony Ugoh — once labeled their left tackle of the future.
But after all that work, Indy's blockers were even worse in Sunday's 34-24 loss.
Manning, the four-time league MVP, was sacked twice and knocked to the ground nearly a dozen other times. He wore a protective sleeve over his left elbow in the second half, though coach Jim Caldwell said it was only intended to keep his arm "warm" inside Houston's dome.
Clearly, it's not good enough.
"We didn't protect the passer very well at all, and part of that was the injury situation," Polian said on his weekly radio show Monday night. "But regardless of that, you've still got to go out and do the job."
Admittedly, the unit is not at full strength.
Johnson sprained his right foot in practice Aug. 6, missed the next 32 days and didn't make it onto the field again until last Wednesday. He did only limited practice work Wednesday and Thursday, sat out Friday and then started against Pro Bowler Mario Williams on Sunday without ever taking a preseason snap.
Four-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday is still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Saturday didn't return from the Aug. 10 surgery, full time, until last Wednesday and like Johnson didn't take a snap in the preseason.
And Jamey Richard was making his first pro start at right guard after beating out Super Bowl starter Kyle DeVan.
The results were predictable.
Manning was repeatedly twisted, chased and put in harm's way like he's rarely been during his 13-year NFL career. The Colts adapted to Houston's pressure by using shorter drops and quicker passes to help Manning survive for a 194th consecutive regular-season start this week against his brother, Eli and the Giants on Sunday night.
Polian insists things will improve.
"In Charlie's case and Jeff's case, they are at less than 100 percent," Polian said. "I think that will change and they'll get better. But I don't think you could have found a worse matchup (than Houston) in that situation."
Exasperated fans are already worried.
One caller to a local radio show expressed his disgust by saying: "They're going to get Peyton killed out there."
It could have happened in Houston.
On one first-half play, an unblocked Williams came free off the left side and hit Manning square between the shoulder blades as he threw it away. In the fourth quarter, Manning was shoved to the ground by Williams and stayed there, face down, for several seconds. A few plays after that, Antonio Smith drove right tackle Ryan Diem into the backfield, forcing Manning to trip over Diem and nearly forcing an interception.
If the Colts can't solve the line problems, well, it could be a long season.
This week, Manning faces the sack-happy Giants, who knocked Matt Moore out of the season opener, and they will be seeing the same thing the Colts' linemen watched on the Houston tape — problems.
"It was one of those days where it was kind of a perfect storm. We were not playing well and they were playing well," Johnson said. "But that (pressure) has kind of been the Giants calling card since the Super Bowl, and we have to step up and play better."