INDIANAPOLIS -- If the early struggles to protect quarterback Andrew Luck weren't problem enough, the injuries along the offensive line in recent weeks gave the Indianapolis Colts every excuse to fall apart up front.
Seven different starting lineups along the line, including five in the past five games, have forced coach Chuck Pagano to be creative in his tinkering with the line.
The Colts had only six healthy offensive linemen before they brought center Thomas Austin up from the practice squad the day before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. Austin was released on Tuesday.
But despite all the mixing and matching of interchangeable players, the Colts are in the midst of their best offensive-line play of the season.
Luck has been just sacked twice in the past three games and the Colts have rushed for at least 135 yards in each of the past two games.
“I think the more adversity you face sometimes, it tends to bring you together,” Pagano said. “The players have found a way to put the pieces together week-in and week-out and it doesn’t really matter who’s up and who’s down and who’s available and who’s playing where. They all know they all have position flexibility and know what to do. Those guys all prepare as starters and they’ve done a great job. And they have played well the last couple weeks, especially protecting Andrew.”
The improved play comes after the Colts gave up 22 sacks through the first nine games. They’ve given up a total of nine since then, with five occurring against Tennessee on Dec. 1.
The interior three of the line – the weakest part of the group – is the one that has undergone the constant changes. Jeff Linkenbach replaced the struggling Mike McGlynn at right guard against Tennessee on Dec. 1. McGlynn was back starting at guard the following week because Linkenbach got injured. Then McGlynn had to start at center against Houston on Dec. 15 because Samson Satele went down with an injury.
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Xavier Nixon, a tackle during his college career at Florida, started at left guard against the Chiefs last weekend. His pull-block helped open a hole for Donald Brown on his 51-yard touchdown run that featured some poor tackling by the Chiefs.
Castonzo, the protector on Luck’s back side, limited Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, who has 11 sacks this season, to only two tackles and no sacks in the game.
“There’s been so much change that you really have to get back to your fundamentals because you don’t know who is going to play next to you, so it comes down to everybody doing their own fundamentals properly,” Castonzo said. “It might be just the refocus on fundamentals that’s allowed us to play well.”
“Chuck and [general manager] Ryan [Grigson] brought the right guys in here,” Cherilus said. “The new guys come in and they listen to the vets and when your number is called they show up and perform. They’ve been doing that. You want to finish the season with your starting lineup. But we’re talking about football, change is going to come, you’re going to have to make yourself available to be a part of it.”