What to watch for: Fast start critical in Colts’ season opener against the Lions


INDIANAPOLIS – DECEMBER 14: Dominic Rhodes #38 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to avoid a tackle by Daniel Bullocks #27 of the Detroit Lions on December 14, 2008 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ season-opening game against the Detroit Lions Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium:

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

Broadcast: WXIN FOX59

Fast start, or else?: The head coach is aware of the unsettling trend. More important, so is the owner. The last two seasons, the Colts have opened 0-2. The already arduous task of reaching the postseason was further complicated by faulty starts.

So, Sunday’s opener is sorta important?

“It’s a big game,’’ Irsay said. “We know we have to go out there and win this football game. There is no other way to put it. Look, Ryan (Grigson) knows what he signed up for, Andrew (Luck) knows what he signed up for, Chuck knows what he signed up for.

“We have to get it done. It’s a home opener and we need to win it.’’

That’s been the mindset from the first day of training camp. Practices were at a quicker tempo and more physical. The reason: avoiding another false start.

“You can’t dig yourself a hole in the National Football League, so it’s been a point of emphasis,’’ Pagano said during a visit last month with 1070 The Fans’ The Ride with JMV. “ . . . you have to win at home and we have to win that damn opener. Nothing more important than that and you have to get off to a great start.’’

Not convinced? Here’s a quick history lesson. The Colts have gotten off to 0-2 starts – or worse – 12 times since their relocation in 1984. Most resulted in hills too steep to climb. They recovered to post a winning record only three times and reached the playoffs just twice – in ’14 and during the strike-impacted ’87 season.

Protection concerns: For those of us more than a little curious whether the Colts have actually provided Andrew Luck with a more competent offensive line, Sunday should serve as a litmus test. It’s hard to erase the memory of the Eagles’ pass rush piercing Luck’s protection to the point Pagano had to keep his meal ticket out of harm’s way in the third preseason game.

And now, Luck faces a Lions defense that features bookend rushers Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor. They combined for 21.5 last season as the Lions piled up 43 sacks, tied for seventh-most in the league.

Listen to offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski, who considers the Lions’ D-line one of the NFL’s best: “One of the keys to the game is . . . how we play in the trenches.’’

The Colts apparently caught a break this week with left guard Jack Mewhort (ankle) returning to practice. He’s questionable for the game, but sounded like someone expecting to play, and start.

There’s scant little time for left tackle Anthony Castonzo to get his act together and rookie center Ryan Kelly to find his comfortable zone. Now’s the time.

One bit of trivia: Kelly is the first rookie center to start on opening day since Jamie Richard in 2008. Jeff Saturday missed the first two games with a knee injury.

Luck’s return: We’ve watched Luck do everything during the OTAs and minicamps, during training camp and limited preseason exposure (seven series in two games). Now, comes the final step on his return from The Season to Forget.

Luck is back under center in a game that counts for the first time in nine months, for the first time since suffering a lacerated kidney Nov. 8 against the Broncos.

Chudzinski monitored every Luck pass during the offseason and preseason. He never questioned his QB’s readiness.

“Some of the throws he was making, there were no questions in my mind that Andrew is back,’’ he said.

Now it’s up to Luck to deliver and direct an offense that must compensate for an injury-depleted defense. It’s up to 12 to strike an acceptable balance between spreading the football to his various targets – T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Phillip Dorsett, Dwayne Allen, even Frank Gore – and making better decisions. The Colts don’t appear equipped, especially early in the season, to overcome a rash of turnovers. And let’s remind everyone Luck has had 84 in 61 games, including the playoffs.

Cornered: We might be witness to a historic moment Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. It might be the first time in team history each of the active cornerbacks will be making his first regular-season appearance in a Colts uniform. Let that sink in for a minute or two.

Left-side starter Patrick Robinson was one of the few offseason free-agent acquisitions, so he’s at least had time to get up to speed with Ted Monachino’s defense. But the rest are late arrivals: right corner Antonio Cromartie was signed Aug. 22 and backups Darryl Morris and Rashaan Melvin added this week.

Ankle injuries to Vontae Davis and Darius Butler have forced Ryan Grigson to find last-minute replacements, and it’s anyone’s guess how that group will hold up against pass-happy Matthew Stafford. Since 2012, he ranks No. 2 in pass attempts (2,555, 39.9 per game) and No. 3 in yards (18,136, 283.4 per game).

“I’ve never experienced anything like this, but it happens,’’ Cromartie said of the new faces in the meeting room. “I think the guys that are coming in, including myself, need to take advantage of the opportunity that we have to show that we can play at this level and still can go out and play at a very high level.’’

It figures to be all hands on deck as the Colts undoubtedly will be in their nickel alignment – an extra corner – much of the game. The Lions no longer can lean on Calvin Johnson, but the cupboard’s hardly bare. There’s Golden Tate, the former Notre Dame standout who’s coming off a 90-catch season; Anquan Boldin, one of 13 players in NFL history with 1,000 receptions; Marvin Jones Jr.; tight end Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick, whose 80 receptions a year ago were tied for most by a running back.

And the winner is: Colts 27, Lions 24. It’s ridiculous to claim a September game is “must-win,’’ so we’ll put it in the “would-be-a-good-idea-to-win’’ category. Let’s not forget Game 2 is at Denver. And we’ve already discussed the history of starting 0-2.

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