The Journal Gazette
Monday, September 20, 2021 1:00 am

Bright spot? Weak division

INDIANAPOLIS – Did you hear the one about two guys camping in the forest, when a bear started charging at them? One of the men began putting on his sneakers.

“You don't think you're going to be able to outrun that bear, do you?” his friend asked.

“Don't need to,” the man answered. “All I have to do is outrun you.”

It would appear, after another dreary day at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts are like the guy putting on his shoes. They're 0-2 after Sunday's 27-24 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, and let us count all the bad tidings.

The offensive line has been conspicuously leaky in front of Carson Wentz, who was chased, sacked, bashed and battered, until he was finally knocked out late in the game with an ankle injury.

“Watching him take abuse, it's really sad seeing (him on) the ground in pain and then get up limping off,” guard Quenton Nelson said.

There was a startling first-half display of red-zone futility, Indianapolis twice getting inside the Rams' 3 without scoring, including when they had first-and-goal at the 1. That time, the Colts ran the ball up the middle for nothing. Then did it again. And again. Then on fourth down, Wentz was sacked.

“We didn't do a good job on offense. And I say offense collectively,” coach Frank Reich said.

The defense was pushed around with the game on the line, its second inconsistent showing.

“It's on us to execute. We're going to continue to look in the mirror,” safety Khari Willis said.

The Colts now must take their winless record into an arduous stretch of four road games in five weeks.

“The mountain is unforgiving,” Reich said of life in the NFL. “You make a mistake or two and it's going to cost you.”

And nobody knows how long Wentz might be out. Doesn't all this sound like big trouble, as if 2021 is crumbling before it even gets started?

But the Jacksonville Jaguars lost Sunday, as did the Houston Texans. The Tennessee Titans won in overtime with an impressive rally at Seattle, but the shaky AFC South is a combined 2-6. Thus, the camping parable. To get to the playoffs, the Colts don't have to outrun any bears, they just have to outrun their division mates.

Except, who knows how long the Wentz's right ankle might need wrapping?

“We're not going to press the panic button,” Willis said. “This is a long journey.”

It might not take a scintillating record to win the South, but the Colts' quarterback can't always be under siege. Opponents see that on the game film, they're going to launch a full-scale assault. Seattle did it. Same for the Rams.

“There's no hiding it in this league,” center Ryan Kelly said. “We've got to stop it.”

Wentz has played well enough to earn his new teammates' confidence and endured enough punishment to win their respect.

“All the times he's gotten hit, all the times he's gotten up, it's on a different level,” Nelson said. “He hasn't complained once. We need to be better up front and do a good job protecting him because he's a great player.”

It's never good news when a quarterback is describing his last play of the game by relating how much his ankle was hurting.

“I could feel it underneath the pile right away,” Wentz said. “I think the guys around me could hear me yelling because it was rolled up on pretty good.”

The Colts face something of a crossroads with this Sunday's trip to Tennessee. They need to give their quarterback more time, whoever it is. They need to do something about that 3-for-8 performance in the red zone in their two defeats. They need to find their offensive rhythm that maybe couldn't be developed in preseason because so much practice was missed, including by Wentz.

“I don't care who you are, it makes a difference,” one former quarterback said Sunday. That was Peyton Manning – in the house with Edgerrin James to get their Hall of Fame rings – and he ought to know.

The Colts have fixes to make, and quickly. A quarterback with past injury issues and a line having protection issues is a bad combination. But hey, they're a game out of first place in the AFC South.

Mike Lopresti's columns appear periodically in The Journal Gazette.

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