Colts want Scott Tolzien to be ‘best Scott Tolzien he can be’

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Scott Tolzien

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Listen to Chuck Pagano, and a major part of Scott Tolzien’s job description seems clear.

Get the Indianapolis Colts’ offense in the right plays Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. Dial up the proper protections and blocking schemes. Be in sync with rookie center Deyshawn Bond. Protect the football.

And there’s this: Don’t screw things up.

“Manage things,’’ Pagano insisted. “He needs to just focus on playing really good quarterback play.’’

That’s the perceived blueprint as long as Tolzien, who’ll make his fourth career start at age 30 and in his seventh season, stands in for rehabbing Andrew Luck.

But there will come a time – third-and-7, red-zone trip in the third quarter, pivotal drive in a close game – when Tolzien must step up and make a play. Make plays.

There always are a handful of plays in a game that require the quarterback to quit managing and start manufacturing. Take a deep shot to T.Y. Hilton. Look for Donte Moncrief on a crossing pattern and squeeze the football into a tight window over the middle.

Play the position.

“No doubt,’’ offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski said. “If you’re a quarterback in this league, you have to make plays. There are going to be points and times in games where it’s third down or whether it’s two-minute, red zone – whatever it may be – that you have to make plays.

“I’ve always believed that you have to attack and you have to play aggressively and cut it loose. I think if you play any other way, you are worried about making mistakes and you’re worried about doing the wrong things and that’s not where you want your mind to be.’’

Added Pagano: “We’re going to have to be able to move the ball and put the ball down the field some, hit some chunk plays and (Tolzien) can do that.’’

Tolzien played extensively during the preseason and there was little evidence the offense would retain its vertical tendencies while Luck is out. There were a few chunk plays as Moncrief and Kamar Aiken generated 55- and 29-yard catch-and-run completions.

More often, Chudzinski dialed up a conservative game plan that had Tolzien working underneath and targeting his tight ends and running backs.

Tolzien’s only start with the Colts – Thanksgiving Night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 28-7 loss – might serve as a more accurate barometer of what to expect. He averaged a modest 5.8 yards on his 37 attempts and 9.4 yards on his 23 completions, but took occasional shots downfield. Drops by Hilton, Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett were missed opportunities and skewed the overall performance.

In the past, the Colts often climbed on Luck’s back, confident he would carry them. He could make difference-making plays only a handful of quarterbacks can make. He could erase mistakes – an interception, a lost fumble, a holding penalty that resulted in first-and-20 – with a flick of his wrist. He could compensate for lapses by his own defense.

Can Tolzien do likewise?

“He doesn’t have to be Andrew Luck,’’ Chudzinski said. “He just has to be Scott Tolzien, and the best Scott Tolzien he can be.

“That goes the same for everybody.’’

Hilton was a nonfactor during the preseason, in large part because of a hamstring injury. He was targeted three times with no catches in the first two games. He was held out of the last two games.

“Preseason is preseason,’’ Hilton said. “(Now) let the playmakers play.’’

Now’s the time Tolzien’s teammates – most notably those playmakers – have to lend a hand.

“We’ve just got to help him,’’ Hilton said. “When there’s a play to be made, we’ve got to make it.’’

In the past, a Luck-less offense has been a lackluster offense.

In 70 regular-season games with Luck under center, the offense has averaged 25.4 points, 368.9 total yards and 281.1 passing yards. Without him, the numbers dip dramatically: 18.3 points, 291.3 total yards, 212.7 passing yards.

One of the best ways for the Colts to ease Tolzien’s load is to provide him with a viable running game. And there are ample options with Frank Gore, Robert Turbin, rookie Marlon Mack and Matt Jones.

But again, the numbers with and without Luck are markedly different. With Luck and the deep-threat in the passing game he brings, the Colts have averaged 104.3 yards per game and 4.1 yards per attempt. Without him: 78.8 yards per game, 3.2 yards per attempt.

The reason is obvious. With Luck on the sidelines, defenses tend to crowd the line of scrimmage until his replacement proves he can stretch the field.

And that’s been an issue. In the 10 non-Luck games, the Colts have averaged 9.8 yards per completion and 5.8 yards per attempt.

Tolzien has remained in character leading up to Sunday, which means he’s been low key and focused.

“You just try to treat it like every other game and not make it too much different than all the others,’’ he said. “That’s why you prepare every week as if you’re playing just so when times like these (occur), it’s not too different.’’

Tolzien had little warning before making his only previous start with the Colts. Luck suffered a concussion in a 24-17 win against Tennessee, and subsequently was ruled out of the Steelers game.

Instead of running the scout team the week of the Pittsburgh game, Tolzien took all of the reps in two practices with the starting offense.

This time, he’s directed the offense throughout the offseason, training camp and preseason while Luck has been with the trainers and rehab staff. He’s as prepared as possible.

“Really, I wouldn’t say there was one moment where I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is real,’’’ Tolzien said. “I keep my focus kind of on the now and not try to get too caught up in the future. Nothing has changed there even leading into week 1.’’

Chudzinski was asked if he thought Tolzien might surprise some people with how he plays against the Rams.

“Yeah, it depends on what people expect,’’ he said. “But again, I feel confident and good about his preparation and what he’s put into it and how far he’s come.

“That’s why we play the game – to see what happens on Sundays.’’

Something’s got to give

As we’ve mentioned, Sunday’s game is one for the history books. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it marks the first time since the 1970 NFL merger a season opener has involved starting QBs who had previously started a game but have yet to post a victory. Tolzien is 0-2-1 and the Rams Jared Goff 0-7.


You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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