Colts go from little wiggle room to none

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts were never a team that had much wiggle room.

They didn’t have much when they opened the season with a healthy roster that featured receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen. They have no wiggle room now that those two, and three other offensive players, are out for the season with injuries.

They’re not good enough to fall behind and think they can suddenly turn it on in the second half. Quarterback Andrew Luck is good, but he doesn’t have the offensive personnel around him to come from behind each week. The running game, partially because of falling behind early and lack of production, continues to be inconsistent. The same goes for the offensive line.

The defense, well, it continues to take gigantic steps back every week. The Colts can’t stop the run, and quarterbacks have plenty of time in the pocket to pick them apart. The Colts are ranked 23rd in the league defensively overall -- 19th against the pass and 27th against the run.

“The margin for error is small right now,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “And I think it’s regardless. Everybody we play is good, you know that. Every team that you play is good, they all got great players and so forth, so the margin for error is minute. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out there and play cautious and those type of things. I think we just got to get back to playing football and playing better fundamentals and techniques and doing the things that we did early in the season, doing the things that we did to beat the football teams that we beat early in the season, the teams like Denver and Seattle and San Fran and those type of things.”

Beating Denver, Seattle and San Francisco is the best thing going for the Colts right now. They’d be 4-7 instead of 7-4 if they lost those three games.

You wouldn’t believe the Colts beat those teams if you’ve only watched their past four games. They’ve been a completely different team since beating Denver on Oct. 20. That’s the game in which Wayne went down with his torn ACL.

The Colts should still win the AFC South barring a complete collapse in the final five weeks of the season. But they’ll have a difficult time winning a game in the playoffs if their younger offensive players don’t grow up and the defense doesn’t get the necessary stops to get off the field.

“No panic button. Not at all,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. “All you got to do is look to the locker next to you and know who you’re playing for out here, and just know that we’re going to pull it together. We’ll be alright. ... We probably got a lot of people coming off the bandwagon now. But we know if you really represent this horseshoe, we know what we have in this building, what we have as a team, and we should be alright.”

Pagano quickly defended the effort of his players Monday, saying, “they’re doing everything.” Effort can’t replace experience, though, and that’s what the Colts are missing at receiver.

There’s no replacing Wayne. The coaching staff knows it. The players know it, too. But the clock is ticking for them to try to fill Wayne's void by committee.

T.Y. Hilton had 121 and 130 yards in the first two games without Wayne, but Tennessee (44 yards) and Arizona (38 yards) made him a nonfactor by providing help over the top.

That’s left Darrius Heyward-Bey, LaVon Brazill, David Reed and tight end Coby Fleener to step up. That hasn’t happened outside of Fleener’s 107 yards against the Titans on Nov. 14.

Heyward-Bey, Brazill and Reed have combined for 14 catches and 130 yards since the Colts lost Wayne.

Luck spent a lot of time scrambling, trying to make something happen against the Cardinals. Rather than break their routes to help Luck, the receivers were more worried about running the correct route. That’s where the Colts miss Wayne’s experience.

“They have to [step up]. They don’t have a choice,” Pagano said. “And that’s why we’re going to continue to practice and work extremely hard at developing some chemistry there between Andrew and those new receivers. Like I said, in order for us to play well on Sunday, we’ve got to make strides and we’ve got to practice well Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and continue to build that chemistry and continuity between Andrew and the guys that he’s going to throw to on game day.”