Considering the Colts in prime time

Things haven't been easy for Kerry Collins and the Colts without Peyton Manning in the lineup. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Indianapolis knows it. Colts devotees know it. Those who follow the league closely know it. Fantasy football owners with Colts in their lineups know it.

The rest of football-watching America is scheduled to find out Sunday night that the Indianapolis Colts are not good.

Typically a great national draw, Indianapolis plays its first game of the season on national television on "Sunday Night Football" when it hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers.

No team in the NFL had the capacity to come so undone by the loss of its best player like the Colts have without Peyton Manning. At 0-2, they’re talking about seeing incremental improvement. But they’ll have to make a giant leap from how they played at Houston and against Cleveland to have a chance against the Steelers.

A week later, they’ll play in Tampa Bay on "Monday Night Football." Then there is Oct. 23 at New Orleans (Sunday night), Dec. 4 at New England (Sunday night) and Dec. 22 against Houston (Thursday night).

The Colts will be a candidate to be flexed out of those late Sunday night games instead of being flexed into more. (Flexing starts the weekend of Nov. 20, so that New Orleans game is locked in.)

Five prime-time games for a team now expected to be among the NFL’s worst could make for some painful viewing. Let’s remember, however, that plenty of matchups that look bad turn out to be good games to watch and plenty of good-looking matchups turn out to be lopsided duds.

There really is no predicting, except that the networks and the people watching them won’t be seeing what they expected when the schedule came out: The Colts with Manning.

Three thoughts on the status of the Colts as they approach their 49th meeting with the Steelers:

1) Originally, I set out to write about moves the Colts could make to try to patch things up.

But the fact is, there simply isn’t much they can do with what they’ve got.

I thought Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. put in eloquently in our email exchange this week when I asked him what he would do to fix things.

“That is the problem,” he said. “They are built in such a manner that they really cannot adapt. It isn’t like their offensive line can all of a sudden switch to a power running game and starting pushing people off the ball. Or that the defense can get bigger and more physical to play the run. They are built for speed on D and for shootouts. But this O isn’t getting in any shootouts.”

The Colts have been dismissive of the idea that they are built to play from ahead, citing all of Manning’s last-minute comebacks. Sure, there have been glorious exceptions.

But against lesser teams, they’ve spent a lot of time out in front. Clearly it’s the best scenario for them. It allows two of their best players, ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, to focus solely on terrorizing quarterbacks. It allows their secondary to keep things in front of them and concentrate, most of all, on not allowing big plays.

Other teams, with more physical defenses and offenses that seek to wear opponents down, are better equipped to stand toe-to-toe for 60 minutes than the Colts are, even when healthy.

2) Coach Jim Caldwell has hinted there could be some lineup changes, but there is nothing major the team can really do. Ten guys besides Manning missed practice Wednesday, so injuries may dictate some alterations.

One move Caldwell said isn’t coming is Ben Ijalana into the starting lineup at right tackle.

Why not? When the Colts spent their second-round pick on Ijalana, more than one person who scouted the draft for an NFL team told me he thought Ijalana was going to be a better player than the team’s first-round pick, tackle Anthony Castonzo. Castonzo’s been starting on the left side.

Unless Ijalana is really stinking it up in practice, the Colts should accept that any fall off from Jeff Linkenbach to the rookie should be made up in relative short order if Ijalana is who they thought he was.

It’s OK to acknowledge that, given the season’s circumstances, you’re willing to change course and accelerate Ijalana’s timetable. Maximize the chance to have a good line for Manning in 2012.

Again, why not?

3) Two games into the season, Manning’s injury is hardly the only one the team is concerned with.

Thirteen players were on the team’s Wednesday injury report. Questions about why the Colts can’t stay healthy have been around for a long time, and there aren't any easy answers.

They are, by design, built with faster guys who are smaller than a lot of the competition. Surely that’s at least a small factor.

But they’d be wise to track who’s injury prone and who’s not and to make it more a part of their philosophy more often to steer away from guys with long injury résumés -- both in re-signing their own and in making their draft picks.

Manning had the league’s longest consecutive starts streak before his neck knocked him out. Reggie Wayne has played 16 games in eight straight seasons. Neither is the biggest or most rugged guy at his position. They’re stars, of course, but they are stars who’ve had a knack for staying healthy enough to play.

If the team philosophy and construct remains the same, somehow the personnel folks need to do better at finding those kinds of guys. Waiting on your luck to change isn’t a great strategy.