ANDERSON, Ind. -- The Indianapolis Colts did the unexpected last season. Those on the outside know it. The Colts know it too.
They put quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, under center from day one, and he led them to an 11-5 record that included seven game-winning drives. The Colts never lost consecutive games and, most importantly, made it back to the playoffs.
And they did it while dealing with the absence of coach Chuck Pagano, who was battling cancer.
Now there’s no going back for the Colts.
“The bar has definitely raised,” receiver Reggie Wayne said, “as we feel like we are contenders. We feel like we’ve got the right pieces in order. ... We set the stage at a nice, high level. I don’t think teams will treat us the way they did last year.”
Second-year general manager Ryan Grigson isn’t satisfied with what the team accomplished last season. That’s why he went out this offseason and spent $134 million on unrestricted free agent contracts.
It’s also why owner Jim Irsay didn’t hold back his feelings in calling his team out on Twitter over a “crap performance” in its preseason opener last weekend.
“You win 11 games after the circumstances we were under and then you add quite a few players you feel can help us in the mix, then you do the simple math, then yes, we should come back better than we were last year, and we expect to,” Grigson said.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Protecting the franchise: Luck was phenomenal last season. He was also sacked 41 times and hit so hard on some of them that you wondered if he would last a full season. Luck took every snap last season. Additions Gosder Cherilus at tackle and Donald Thomas at guard will team with holdovers Anthony Castonzo, Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn to try to keep Luck on his feet. The Colts want to cut Luck’s sacks in half this season.
2. Stopping the run: Opponents averaged 5.1 yards a run and gained 2,200 yards rushing (29th in the league) against the Colts last season. The Colts added more size, signing nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois from San Francisco and linebacker Erik Walden from Green Bay, to help a defense heading into Year 2 under Pagano’s 3-4 scheme. Josh Chapman, a fifth-round pick in 2012, is back after missing last season with a knee injury. The 341-pounder will help clog the middle of the line at nose tackle.
3. Special teams: The Colts were without some of their key special-teams players, but if the Aug. 11 preseason game was any indication, it could be another long season for that unit. Buffalo’s Marquise Goodwin had a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 53-yard kickoff return. Giving an opponent a short field to work with won’t cut it, even if Luck and the offense are capable of putting up a lot of points.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Scoring points should not be a problem for the Colts. They have weapons at every skill position for Luck to choose from.
They potentially have a dynamic duo at running back in Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. Wayne will continue to be Wayne -- a steady, reliable, Pro Bowl receiver. He joins Darrius Heyward-Bey and second-year speedster T.Y. Hilton in the receiving corps. Second-year players Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener have the potential to be the best pair of tight ends in the league.
The Colts should easily be able to improve on their 22 points a game, and Luck’s completion percentage should be better than the 54 percent he had last season.
“We are excited about all of our playmakers. ... We feel good about the repertoire of guys that we have, and we’re excited about those guys making plays on game day,” new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The offensive line has to prove it can protect Luck and open up holes for the running backs. Having a strong running game to go with the receiving options Luck has won’t mean much if the line can’t do its job.
Indianapolis is supposed to be a fresh start for Heyward-Bey after an uneventful four seasons in Oakland, where he had problems with drops. It's a different team, but he’s still having problems holding on to the ball. Heyward-Bey proved that during Tuesday's practice when he dropped at least four catchable passes from Luck. He bounced back with a strong practice the next day, but the Colts aren’t looking for mixed results. They’re looking for steadiness from Heyward-Bey.
The top three receiver positions are set with Wayne, Heyward-Bey and Hilton. The fourth receiver, LaVon Brazill, is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The Colts have five other receivers on the roster, but they’re still waiting for at least one of them to separate himself from the pack. Grigson won’t hesitate to look elsewhere if nobody steps up.
Hamilton wants to make the Colts a power-running team by using Bradshaw and Ballard in the backfield. Hamilton noted that last year’s Super Bowl teams, Baltimore and San Francisco, were both physical teams. “I believe that we should be able to run the football and commit to running the football, but by no means are we going to not work on being an efficient passing team,” Hamilton said.
Joe Reitz has done a good job transitioning back to tackle from guard. He has the skill set and size to play there. The Colts wanted to move Reitz back to tackle in the past, but a lack of depth on the line stopped them from making the switch sooner.
Bradshaw, who has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, has yet to practice with the team. He was added to the active roster Monday after being on the physically unable to perform list while he worked his way back from foot surgery in January. The Colts are fortunate to have Ballard to start until Bradshaw is ready to step in and be the primary back.
Something that could become a concern if it continues to linger is free safety LaRon Landry’s health. Landry, who signed during the offseason, has been out more than a week with a knee problem. Like Bradshaw, the Colts need Landry on the field as soon as possible to work on continuity.
The battle for one of the starting inside linebacker spots should intensify now that Pat Angerer is off the PUP list. Angerer, who was recovering from foot surgery, had 146 tackles during the 2011 season. He was limited to only 11 games (three starts) last season. Angerer is battling Kavell Conner and Kelvin Sheppard for the starting spot alongside Jerrell Freeman and Walden.