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Consistency, passion key to Colts' jump-start

INDIANAPOLIS -- Colts coach Tony Dungy didn't mince words this week. He called on the team to play with more passion, more consistency, more urgency.

It's not typical Dungy-speak.

Atypical start for the Colts


!**Since Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning joined forces in Indianapolis, the team has generally had immediate success:

Then again, this hasn't looked like a normal Colts start. After opening each of the previous three seasons with at least seven straight wins, the Colts are 2-2, struggling to keep pace with division-leading Tennessee and mired in a rare slump.

Dungy believes it can and must change.

"It's just energy and making things happen and not being denied," Dungy said. "It's two guys flying to get to the quarterback and the ball ends up coming loose. It's Robert Mathis diving from six feet behind the guy and stripping the ball. Sometimes you just have to do that. You have to go get a second block. You have to run over people."

Most years, it's the Colts making those big plays.

Not this season.

Two-time league MVP Peyton Manning, who has thrown at least twice as many touchdowns as interceptions in all but two seasons this decade, has five touchdowns and five interceptions.

The running game is ranked last in the league, the offensive line is on pace to give up its highest sack total since 2001 and the defense is yielding 188.5 yards rushing per game.

Even the penalties are up. A year ago, the Colts committed a franchise-low 67; now they're on pace for 92.

Little has gone right and while some want to blame the problems on a rash of injuries, Dungy and his players insist there are other explanations.

"I think he (Dungy) is right," middle linebacker Gary Brackett said. "It's just the emotion of making plays, and we've not made a ton of plays this year. Usually, we're getting three or four sacks a game. But it's tough to get excited when you're not making plays."

Clearly the season is not lost, and the Colts are showing signs of breaking out of their funk.

Last Sunday at Houston, the Colts produced three turnovers in the final five minutes with Brackett returning a fumble for one touchdown and Manning throwing for two more. The result: the Colts rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Texans 31-27.

It's not a strategy Dungy wants to rely on.

"You're not going to be able to come from 15 points down, from 17 points down week after week after week," Dungy said. "It just doesn't work that way in the NFL. So, we have to work to eliminate that. A lot of it is just knowing what we're doing and not having critical errors at the wrong time."

Finding solutions may require more patience.

The offensive line, which at times has played with two rookies and two linemen starting at new positions, finally seems to be getting healthy. Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday returned in Week 3, second-round pick Mike Pollak, a guard, made his NFL debut Sunday, left tackle Tony Ugoh said he feels good enough to play this week and starting guard Ryan Lilja could be activated from the physically unable to perform list next week.

Continuity on the line would provide stability in pass protection and in the running game, which Manning needs to be effective in the play-action passing game.

Manning also appears to be rounding into form after missing training camp after surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee. His quarterback rating against Houston was 101.0, easily his best of the season and more in line with those lofty expectations.

Still, Manning acknowledges he's been a little off. It didn't help that Marvin Harrison's knee injury last season and subsequent offseason surgery, coupled with Manning's surgery, prevented the Pro Bowl tandem from practicing for the better part of 11 months.

"I've probably missed a few guys," Manning said. "It's hard to summarize four games as a whole, but I've definitely had some guys open. I had Marvin open a couple of times deep on Sunday against Houston, and against Jacksonville, and missed him. It's something I'd like to correct."

The biggest factor has been a surprising disparity on third down.

Over the past three years, the Colts converted 51.3 percent of their third-down plays while holding opponents to 42.9 percent. In their Super Bowl season, the Colts had an astounding 56.1 conversion percentage on third down.

This year, the Colts are at 40.4 percent while opponents are at 46.4 percent. That's kept a defense without the injured Bob Sanders on the field, and Manning & Co. on the sidelines.

"It'd be nice if we could get some running game going and have a little mix on first and second down, where you can get into those 3rd-and-3s, 3rd-and-4s," Manning said. "Or sometimes, when you really get rolling, you just go first down, second down, back to first down, so that'd be nice."

Dungy believes it can all be fixed as the Colts head into their most difficult stretch of the season. They play Baltimore, Green Bay, Tennessee, New England and Pittsburgh in the next five weeks.

And if the Colts hope to contend for a sixth straight division title, they'll need to restore the precision, efficiency and passion they've won with in the past.

"We do have an explosive team that can score points quick and can make big plays," he said. "We have guys that can make big plays for us on defense, and we have talent. Right now, we're .500 because we aren't playing consistent football."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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