Colts’ main priority? Protecting Andrew Luck

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Andrew Luck (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When it comes to the Indianapolis Colts offense, only two rules truly apply.

Rule 1: Protect Andrew Luck.

Rule 2: See Rule 1.

“We’ve got Andrew at quarterback,’’ left tackle Anthony Castonzo said Wednesday. “As long as you can keep him upright and throwing the ball, he can do some special things.’’

That was the case in Sunday’s opening loss to Detroit. After raising serious questions about its ability protect the franchise’s most indispensable player – we can show you X-rated video of the Eagles preseason game – the offensive line afforded Luck enough time to do what he does. It allowed two sacks and six QB hits, but kept Luck out of harm’s way more often than not. He responded by passing for 385 yards and four touchdowns.

“They did a heckuva job,’’ Luck said. “They’re fighters. They’re grinders.

“They’re a bunch of good dudes. They’re fun to play behind.’’

But this is the NFL. It isn’t about what’s in your rearview mirror. It’s what’s ahead.

And that would be the Denver Broncos.

“We know they can put a tremendous amount of pressure on your quarterback,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “We’ve got to do a great job with protection.’’

Peyton Manning hoisted his second Lombardi Trophy in his final game in February, but Denver’s 24-10 win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50 was a brass-knuckle beat-down by its defense. The Broncos sacked Cam Newton six times, hit him on another 13 drop-backs and forced a pair of Newton fumbles that resulted in Denver TDs.

Consider the combined wreckage created by pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware: 4.5 sacks, six hits and a pair of forced fumbles.

Denver’s defense didn’t lose interest during a seven-month offseason.

In their season-opening rematch with the Panthers, the Broncos once again pummeled Newton. They sacked him three times and were credited with another eight hits.

Several were of the helmet-to-helmet variety, and two caught the attention of the NFL. Linebacker Brandon Marshall was fined $24,309 for his illegal hit and safety Darian Stewart docketed $18,321.

Luck was asked his assessment of what some have described as a “dirty’’ defense.

“I wouldn’t use that word,’’ he said. “I’d say they play hard. Like any good football team, you want to toe that line of aggression.

“Sometimes you get hit in the head and the flag comes out or doesn’t come out. I don’t worry too much about it. It’s the ref’s job. I can’t worry about that. I go out and try to figure out, ‘OK, how can we go out and get first downs? How can we get touchdowns against what was one of the premier defenses in the league last year and starting off on that foot?’’’

Luck won’t lack experience in facing what Denver has to offer. He’s 3-1 against the Broncos in his career, including a 2014 playoff win in Denver.

“Very few times in life do you get to go somewhere where 80,000 people want to call you bad names,’’ he said with a smile. “It’s cool. It’s sort of special.’’

Luck’s last meeting with Denver – Nov. 8 – was memorable on two fronts.

Despite having coordinator Pep Hamilton fired the week prior to the game, Luck and the offense enjoyed their finest moment against a Broncos defense that would finish the season as the NFL’s best. In a 27-24 win that knocked Denver from the ranks of the unbeaten, Luck passed for 252 yards and two touchdowns.

But that also marked his final appearance of the season. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Luck suffered a lacerated kidney on a front-and-back hit by Danny Trevathan and Vance Walker.

After what proved to be a season-ending kidney injury, Luck would lead the Colts to a fourth-quarter comeback. He completed 5-of-7 passes for 64 yards, including an 8-yard TD to Ahmad Bradshaw, and directed an offense that cranked out 149 total yards on 31 fourth-quarter plays.

“But who cares about last year?’’ he asked. “It’s on to this year.’’

And this year, again, the Broncos will do everything possible to turn up the heat on Luck. It’s what they do. It’s what any defense attempts to do.

It’s Defense 101: pressure the QB. And that transcends sacks.

In his four starts against the Broncos, Luck has passed for 1,115 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions on 176 drop-back situations. He’s been sacked six times and hit on another 11 occasions.

“The sack totals may not add up, but pressures and hits, those add up,’’ Pagano said. “They start to get in that guy’s head a little bit and he starts to drop his eyes and start looking at the rush a little bit more instead of keeping ‘em down the field to try to find his receiver, go through his progression and find his check-down.

“They all matter. They all count.’’

The Colts’ pass protection, he added, must be on point against Denver.

“It comes down to matchups,’’ Pagano said. “You’ve got to win your one-on-one matchups down after down after down, and they’re going to be challenged big-time with this defensive front.’’

The offensive line was up to the challenge against the Lions. But so what?

“We have 16 outings,’’ left guard Jack Mewhort said. “You can’t judge us (after one). You can’t tell us we’re good or we’re bad based on one.

“It’s one week. Our body of work will come after 16-plus weeks. Then we’ll evaluate.’’

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