By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
With Lucas Oil Stadium rocking at full roar, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was attempting to drive the Indianapolis Colts to an upset victory late Sunday afternoon against the Green Bay Packers.
But as the game reached the two-minute warning, it appeared as if Indianapolis’ late-game momentum might be lost. A 2-yard loss on a draw play to Donald Brown left the Colts facing third-and-12 at Green Bay’s 47-yard line, and the Packers’ ferocious pass rush smelled blood in the water.
Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers unleashed the hounds. Indianapolis right tackle Winston Justice picked up Packers rookie outside linebacker Nick Perry, who had leveled Luck earlier in the game, and pushed him wide and out of the play. At the same time, Brown slammed into Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett, who was blitzing from the left side.
But Packers all-pro linebacker Clay Matthews sneaked through. Indianapolis left tackle Anthony Castonzo initially pushed him wide, but Matthews’ speed allowed him to recover. And as Luck felt the danger and stepped up in the pocket, Green Bay’s most menacing defender grabbed the quarterback’s right arm.
Luck never took his eyes off veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who was beginning to make his cut downfield. With a quick shrug of his shoulder, Luck freed himself from Matthews’ grasp then set his feet and fired.
Packers safety Charles Woodson was patrolling the middle of the field and was camped out on Wayne’s right. So Luck put the ball high and to the left.
Wayne leapt and made the catch for a 15-yard gain. The drive continued, and Luck’s burgeoning legend gained a signature moment.
“Not only did he shake (Matthews) off, he had great ball security in the situation and put it right on the money, and Reggie made a great play,” Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians said. “But that was a big-league play.”
Even during a season that already has been filled with superlative performances from a precocious group of rookie quarterbacks, Luck’s star turn during the Colts’ emotional 30-27 upset stood out.
Making just his fourth NFL start, he threw for 362 yards and led Indianapolis back from an 18-point halftime deficit. The final points came on a 4-yard pass to Wayne with just 35 seconds remaining.
It was the second game-winning drive of Luck’s nascent career and provided further evidence this is far from your average first-year signal caller.
“You can ease him in if you don’t want to try to win, if you’re just going to try to protect him and grow him,” Arians told the media at the Colts’ headquarters Monday. “We want to win. We’ve got some guys on the team that aren’t into rebuilding, and neither am I. I’m too old, I’m with those guys. We’re all about right now in the moment. And he’s more than capable of handling it.”
Luck has been asked to handle a lot. Despite missing all but two weeks of the team’s offseason program while he finished his architectural design degree at Stanford, Luck has been working with the entire playbook.
On Sunday, Arians took it to the next level. Indianapolis spent 80 percent of its snaps in a no-huddle attack and set a franchise record by running 89 plays.
“They’ve put a lot of plays on everybody’s plate,” Luck said. “I don’t think coach Arians would do it if he didn’t think we could handle it. He wouldn’t bombard us if he thought it would have a negative impact on us playing the football games.”
The evidence supports Luck’s words.
The rookie has been outstanding in hurry-up situations. The Colts have made 13 drives in the final five minutes of the first or second half this season. Luck has led them to 37 points on those drives, more than one-third of their season total of 90.
Luck is 40-of-64 for 476 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in those situations and has a quarterback rating of 94.27. Wayne has been his favorite target with 15 catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns.
“Coaches do a great job of teaching us situational football, especially offensively with coach Arians,” Luck said. “He talks to us about not being robots, understanding the situation, understanding what’s going on. Coaches put us in a good situation.”
Of all Luck’s accomplishments Sunday, Arians was most impressed by a play that started with a mistake. The quarterback was hit from behind and fumbled at his own 35-yard line. But instead of lying on the field and cursing his lot, Luck chased after the ball and knocked it out of bounds to keep Green Bay from seizing momentum.
It comes out of the same mentality that allowed Luck to rush for a 3-yard touchdown in the third quarter or to convert a late third-and-7 with a diving run to the Green Bay 4.
“That is what you’re looking for in a quarterback,” Arians said. “That grit. That will to win. A rookie I don’t put statistically in the categories with (Tom) Brady and those (elite) guys. His passer rating is not going to be as high as theirs, but he’s playing at a level that far exceeds where he should be at this time.”