By Tom James Tribune-Star correspondent
---- — INDIANAPOLIS - The goal for the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s home game with the St. Louis Rams is relatively simple.
Just keep getting better.
The Colts are off to a 6-2 start and has a two-game lead in the AFC South over second-place Tennessee. St. Louis, meanwhile, will come into Lucas Oil Stadium at 3-6.
Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano, however, isn’t about to let his team fall into the easy trap of looking at the Rams’ won-loss record. St. Louis has lost their last two games to Seattle and Tennessee by a combined 22 points, including a 14-9 heartbreaker to the Seahawks.
The Colts return to “The Luke” after a two-week absence, including last Sunday night’s 27-24 come-from-behind victory over division rival Houston.
If Indianapolis is interested in making a serious run at the AFC South crown this year, winning at home is important.
“We always talk about win your home games, split on the road and you’re probably going to make the playoffs nine-out-of-10 times every year. You’ve got to dominate at home. You’ve got to protect your house, so to speak. Our guys, we were 7-1 last year. I think we’re 3-1 currently. It’s the next game, [with a] good football team coming in here,” Pagano said Wednesday.
“It happens to be at home. Is it a must-win? Yeah. We want to win them all. We prepare to win them all. And again, it seems like it’s been a long, long time since we played at home, after the Denver game and the bye and all that stuff. Our guys are really excited. It’ll be great to be back at Lucas Oil.”
One area where the Colts will need to continue to improve is pass protection. Quarterback Andrew Luck has been sacked 19 times so far this year. St. Louis, meanwhile, has registered 29 total sacks, led by defensive ends Chris Long (5.5) and Robert Quinn (10).
“From a defensive standpoint, they’re number one in the league as far as putting pressure on the quarterback and sacking the quarterback. They’ve got 29, which ranks first. Sacks per pass play. They’ve got really good front four, two edge guys. The rest of the guys, they do a great job off the edge. They get after you. They’re going to be up in your face,” the Colts coach said.
“They play press man [pass defense]. They got back end guys. They got corners that can play. They can get up in your face and make things tough on your receivers to work to get off the line of scrimmage. From a defensive standpoint, they kind of smother you. That’s going to be a challenge.”
He’s equally impressed with the St. Louis offense.
“They’ve got a runner who is emerging as a legitimate number one [rookie Zac Stacy]. He’s had back-to-back 100-plus yard weeks. Tough guy. A guy that gets yards after contact, hard to get on the ground. They got playmakers on the outside. They got a tight end, obviously, that they went out and got in free agency and paid a lot of money for. That’s a darn good football player and leads their team in receptions right now in [Jared] Cook,” Pagano previewed.
“Wide receiver crew that is excellent, can beat you vertically. One of the most dynamic young players in football in Tavon Austin, not only as a receiver but as a returner. He’s legitimately one of the best, going to be one of the best to play at this level. He’s a dynamic guy and he can score from anywhere. It doesn’t matter how they get him the football. He’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field.”
The Colts want to get to backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, who has replaced an injured Sam Bradford as the starter. Clemens, a veteran in the NFL, has earned the respect of the Indianapolis defense.
“He’s not a guy that hasn’t been around. He definitely knows what he’s doing, he’s a veteran quarterback, and we have our job cut out for us,” outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. “We just have to execute and we can’t take anything for granted.”
Miami reaction - The news coming out of the Dolphins locker room concerning the hazing and harassment of second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin has hit hard in Indianapolis.
Luck, tight end Coby Fleener, wide receiver Griff Whalen, safety Delano Howell and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton were all with Martin at Stanford.
“Jon is a close friend. We had a lot of great times together at Stanford. I have talked to him. Really an unfortunate situation. It does hurt. Out of respect, I’d rather not talk about it any more. But he is a close friend,” the Colts quarterback said Wednesday.
Fleener, though, was a bit more vocal in defending his former collegiate teammate.
“Being my buddy, I want the best for him. I really don’t have a reaction other than wanting the best for Jonathan. [He’s] a standup guy. Awesome character guy. Very much like a lot of his teammates out there,” he said, adding that he doesn’t accept the notion that Martin is too “soft” to play in the NFL.
“That’s a stupid, stupid statement. If somebody wanted to dispute that, I’d be happy to talk to them.”
As for whether Martin wants to keep playing football -- he has taken a leave of absence from the Dolphins for now -- Fleener had a quick response.
“Oh yeah. Absolutely. He loves this game. He’s worked his butt off since high school to get where he is now. I think for anybody to think that he’s walking away from the game that he loves is inaccurate,” the Colts tight end said.
Injury report - Running back Trent Richardson (ankle), nose tackle Josh Chapman (knee), cornerback Josh Gordy (groin), cornerback Greg Toler (groin), offensive guard Hugh Thornton (calf), Mathis (shoulder), Toler (groin) and Howell (neck) did not practice Wednesday.
Outside linebacker Cam Johnson (knee) and wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey (shoulder) both saw full work.
Chapman, Toler, Howell, Gordy are all questionable for the Rams game.
“[Chapman] just practiced last week. He doesn’t know really know how it happened, but he’s got a bone bruise that he’s dealing with. He’s getting better,” Pagano said.
Thornton was wearing a walking boot on his left foot during Wednesday’s workout.
McGinnis returns - Former Indiana State assistant football coach Dave McGinnis will be returning to Indiana Sunday with the Rams.
McGinnis, who served as the Sycamores secondary coach under former head coaches Dick Jamieson and Dennis Raetz, is St. Louis’ assistant head coach. He previously served as Rams head coach Jeff Fisher defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans.