Colts owner Jim Irsay: Andrew Luck needs help from better defense

Photo from Michelle Pemberton/Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The piece is in place.

Andrew Luck is on the mend after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder in January, but he’s the undeniable axis around which the Indianapolis Colts’ organization spins.

He gives them a chance – every year, every game – to be something special. To a point, that is.

“We have with Andrew, in my mind, just the special element,’’ owner Jim Irsay said Saturday afternoon as the NFL Draft was winding down. “I can’t emphasize enough Andrew’s leadership skills and his passion to win a world championship, how much that means to him big-time. It’s his focus, what his life is based around.

“And we’re trying to get that on defense. We’re trying to get leaders on defense.’’

While the Colts will remain an offense-centric franchise as long as Luck is under center – he’s under contract through 2021 on a deal that will pay him nearly $140 million – there’s a solid argument to be made they’ll forever come up short of their ultimate goal until they get their defense fixed.

It’s an argument Irsay made Saturday after rookie general manager Chris Ballard used six of his eight picks in the NFL Draft to address defensive deficiencies. First-round safety Malik Hooker and second-round cornerback Quincy Wilson should be projected as opening-day starters.

Irsay endorsed the potential of the Luck-led offense, mentioning it should routinely score in the mid-20s and low-30s. Last season it averaged 25.6 points per game.

“If we can run the ball . . . this offense is going to be dangerous and consistent,’’ Irsay said.

The defense, though, must start holding up its end. In 2016, it ranked No. 30 in total yards allowed and No. 22 in points. It yielded at least 26 points nine times.

“There’s no question that defensively we have to become good enough to finish games, good enough to win games,’’ Irsay said. “I don’t think right now we’re talking about the Colts being a defensive team that’s going to go in and dominate.

“You guys know with a healthy Andrew Luck . . . we’re going to have that expectation of being a winning football team. But to really be complete and be as good as we can be, we know we have to add some great young talent, particularly on defense. We’ll see how good of a job we can get that done this year.’’

Again, Hooker and Wilson appear to be immediate starters. Tarell Basham, the third-rounder out of Ohio, should help boost the pass rusher in “sub’’ packages.

Of the 12 veteran free agents signed over the past two months, eight were defensive players. That included at least three who should start: nose Johnathan Hankins and linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon. Jon Bostic or Sean Spence also will compete for significant playing time.

Despite the additions, Irsay realizes there’s work to be done. He said the team still needs to address its pass rush, cornerback and inside linebacker.

To reinforce his commitment to fielding a more formidable defense, Irsay pointed to a pair of memorable events. One was glorious, the other humbling.

“The opening game last year speaks for itself,’’ Irsay said.

The Colts piled up 35 points and 450 total yards, but fell 39-35 to Detroit when the defense yielded a game-winning field-goal drive in the final minute. After Indy took a 35-34 lead with 37 seconds to play on Luck’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Jack Doyle, the Lions needed only 33 seconds to move 50 yards in five plays for Matt Prater’s 43-yard field goal.

“You score 35 points at home and you can’t win the game,’’ Irsay said. “Hey, that’s a problem.’’

Irsay’s mind also flashed back to Jan. 21, 2007 and the AFC Championship Game against New England. Peyton Manning led the dramatic second-half comeback against the Patriots, but it was Marlin Jackson’s interception of Tom Brady with 16 seconds to play that clinched the 38-34 victory.

Irsay shared the magical defensive moment when he talked with Hooker and Wilson.

“I told (Hooker) when he was on the phone – I told Wilson, too – ‘Yeah, I have a good memory of Marlin Jackson having an interception one fine late afternoon and sending us off to Miami to get the Lombardi,’’’ he said.

Irsay could have taken it a step further. The Colts’ 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI was in doubt until cornerback Kelvin Hayden returned a fourth-quarter Rex Grossman interception for a touchdown.

Once the Colts get their defense figured out, perhaps Irsay and the franchise can return to the ultimate destination.

“This year Andrew is healing up really well,’’ Irsay said. “I really think we have an excellent chance to have an outstanding year. It’s about greatness. It’s about world championships.

“I look for us to go out there and compete and have a winning season. That is our hopes. We’re not sure how good we can be, but we sure are looking to be playing in January. I don’t think that’s unrealistic at all.’’