By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — The defense that dominated the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday featured a strong safety making just his second NFL start and appearing in just his third regular-season game.
Two defensive starters missed that 37-3 victory as well as the stunning 27-7 upset against the San Francisco 49ers a week early.
The offensive line that manhandled the Niners' front seven was missing two starters, and three players in the middle (both guards and the center) were making their first appearances of the season at their respective positions.
Tight end Dwayne Allen has been out since early in the first quarter of Week 1, and he's just one of eight players already on the season-ending injured reserve list.
Yet, the Indianapolis Colts just finished the first quarter of the season at 3-1 and stand tied with the Tennessee Titans atop the AFC South.
Next man up, indeed.
"Everybody's accountable, and everybody's held to a certain level of expectation," head coach Chuck Pagano said during his afternoon news conference Monday. "You're one play away. We've seen it week in and week out since I've been here, it happens and so guys are going to get called upon. It was like we talked about last week, no worse feeling than walking into an exam that you haven't studied for.
"I asked the guys last week, 'Everybody raise your hand if you ever walked into a test that you didn't study for.' I, myself, I was the first one to raise my hand, and everybody else rose their hand. It's not a good feeling. That's why we ask these guys, every one of them, to prepare as starters. Because, again, you're one play away from having to go in and compete and perform at a level which gives us an opportunity to win."
No one embodies that philosophy more completely than safety Delano Howell. The Stanford product spent much of last season on the practice squad with the Buffalo Bills before being claimed late in the year by the Colts. He made just one regular season appearance and needed a strong preseason just to make the 53-man roster this summer.
Howell was inactive for the first two weeks, then got a surprise start against San Francisco when LaRon Landry wasn't able to play because of an ankle injury.
In the past two weeks, he's made six tackles and deflected two passes playing in tandem with veteran free safety Antoine Bethea.
"I just credit a guy like Delano, that since he's been here he's done everything we've asked him to do from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint," Pagano said. "He takes his job very serious, and he prepares. So it's no surprise to any of us that he's able to go out and play pretty good. If you put the time in and you study your opponent, you practice hard, chances are you're going to play well on Sunday."
Howell is far from alone.
Inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard filled in for Pat Angerer against the Niners, and defensive end Fili Moala — a former starter — ably replaced Ricky Jean Francois in Jacksonville.
On the offensive line, rookie Hugh Thornton — who spent much of the preseason learning to play right guard — has stepped in at left guard for Donald Thomas, who is out for the year with a quad injury. Mike McGlynn has moved over from right guard to center in place of Samson Satele the past two weeks, and utilityman Jeff Linkenbach has made two straight starts at right guard.
When running back Vick Ballard was lost for the season to a knee injury, general manager Ryan Grigson acted quickly in trading for 2012 No. 3 overall draft pick Trent Richardson. But holdovers Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown have shone brightest in the past two outings.
Then there's second-year tight end Coby Fleener. A rough preseason that included a couple of dropped passes, a fumble and an injury raised concerns. But the 2012 second-round pick has responded in Allen's absence.
Fleener had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville and has 12 catches for 166 yards and two scores on the season.
"Anytime a guy like Dwayne goes down, who makes such a big impact for the offense, other guys are going to have to fill in here and there," Fleener said. "So, yeah, I would say my role has expanded a little bit."
The Colts' challenges are far from over.
Pagano announced Monday rookie outside linebacker Bjoern Werner will miss four-to-six weeks with a torn plantar fascia. That means Cam Johnson — a second-year player with six regular-season games under his belt who was acquired in a trade with the 49ers in August — will become the next man up.
Johnson will be asked to spell outside linebackers Robert Mathis and Erik Walden during Sunday's game against 4-0 Seattle. But it won't change anything about the way the Colts prepare.
"Certainly, it's never going to be perfect," Pagano said of the team's play thus far. "We're chasing perfection. I like where we're at. I like where this team is mentally, physically. We've lost some guys, but guys prepare around here as starters. So we've had guys that have been able to step in and fill the shoes of the guys that we lost and perform at the level that we need them to perform at. So I feel good where we're at."