INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis may finally have the kind of defense that can complement its offense, and Andrew Luck likes it.
After throwing two touchdown passes and watching the Colts' suddenly dominant defense score its own TD in Saturday night's 27-6 victory over Cleveland, Luck explained the best part of the night for him was standing on the sideline as the Colts' defense went to work.
"They've been opportunistic, they've been getting their hands on balls," Luck said. "They were a pain in the butt to go against in practice, and it's fun to see them play this way out here."
When coach Chuck Pagano took the Colts job last year, he promised to improve the usually maligned defense. Now, the Colts are finally beginning to show what they can do.
Over the last two weeks, Indy has not allowed a touchdown. Before leaving early in the third quarter Saturday, the starting defense limited Cleveland (2-1) to four first downs and just three plays in Colts territory, one of those being a punt. They forced two turnovers, including Larry Asante's late 48-yard interception return for a score, and harassed Browns quarterbacks all night long.
Cleveland never even made it into the red zone.
"It's very exciting to see guys humming around, having fun and getting the job done at the same time," five-time Pro Bowler Robert Mathis said.
Saturday night's performance also was a drastic improvement over what Colts fans witnessed in this same venue two weeks ago, when Buffalo's rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Jeff Tuel dinked-and-dunked their way to a 44-20 victory that drew the ire of Irsay.
Of course in that game, most of Indy's starters exited before the end of the first quarter.
This time, Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden had to contend with a very different lineup.
Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry made his preseason debut against the Browns, and linebacker Pat Angerer was on the physically unable to perform list against Buffalo. Having both back marked the first time this preseason the Colts had their entire starting unit on the field at the same time.
The result: Weeden went 12 of 25 for 105 yards just four days after coach Rob Chudzinski chose him as the starter for the regular season.
There were drops, turnovers and penalties. Trent Richardson carried seven times for 31 yards, but the rest of the Browns managed only 28 yards rushing.
Cleveland didn't even get on the scoreboard until Weeden took them on a 48-yard drive — against the Colts backups — that ended with Shayne Graham's 50-yard field goal late in the third quarter. And all this from a team that had beaten the Rams and Lions by a combined 51-25.
"We can learn a lot of things from this game. A game like this is good, because you can get an assessment of where you're at," Chudzinski said. "They played very well on defense, and by the same token, against good football teams, playoff-caliber teams, you just can't make mistakes."
Luck, meanwhile, had no trouble.
Despite losing starting right guard Mike McGlynn (bruised knee) in practice this week and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (right knee) on the game's opening series, Luck still managed to go 16 of 25 for 164 yards with one interception and ran four times for 20 yards.
He opened the game by taking Indy on a 46-yard drive to set up Adam Vinatieri for a 32-yard field goal, and two series later, capped a 66-yard drive by finding fullback Stanley Havili for a 3-yard TD pass to make it 10-0 midway and hooked up with a wide-open T.Y. Hilton for an 8-yard TD catch to make it 17-0.
Cleveland futilely played catch-up the rest of the night, and scoring ended, fittingly, on Asante's interception return.
"They had played two really good football games and they looked impressive running the football, and Brandon Weeden had thrown the football," Pagano said. "It's a confidence builder, a big psychological boost for our guys."
Notes: Pagano said Castonzo had a sprained medial collateral ligament and will undergo an MRI. Indy also lost receiver Nathan Palmer with a sprained knee late in the game, and Palmer also will have an MRI. ... The Browns lost rookie defensive back Josh Aubrey (hand) and Jamoris Slaughter (groin) in the second half. ... Reggie Wayne caught seven passes for 79 yards for Indy. ... Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer were a combined 10 for 18 for 123 yards against Colts backups. ... NFL referee Tony Corrente made his first appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium since last November's foul-mouthed tirade, part of which made it onto the television broadcast.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org