Pagano faces daunting challenge as Colts try to rebound

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chuck Pagano might be facing his greatest challenge all season.

He needs to keep the reeling Indianapolis Colts together, unified and working toward the same goals. It won’t be easy.

One day after the Colts were shut out for the first time in 376 regular-season games, Pagano ignored the outside chatter about his job status and instead focused on the most immediate solution — winning a game to get back in the AFC South chase.

“We’re not worried about anything other than Cincinnati and what we put out there yesterday (for the fans),” he said. “They deserve better and we’re going to do everything we can to do better.”

Jacksonville exposed many flaws in Sunday’s 27-0 victory.

The Colts (2-5), without three of their projected starting offensive linemen in the second half Sunday, allowed seven sacks in the final 25 minutes.

Jacksonville finished with 20 quarterback hits and 10 sacks, the most ever permitted in a single game in the franchise’s Indianapolis era.

Indy’s offense finished with a paltry 232 yards and the defense wasn’t much better.

Blake Bortles threw for a season-high 330 yards by hitting big play after big play and the Jaguars managed to rush for 188 yards even with Leonard Fournette, the league’s No. 2 rusher, inactive because of a sprained right ankle.

Things got so ugly Colts players were showered with boos when the first half ended and again during a miserable second half as the number of empty seats steadily increased.

Then the real trouble began.

Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton urged the offensive line to take “some pride up front and block more,” demonstrating a rare fissure in a usually unified locker room. His comment didn’t go over well with his teammates.

“That’s what needs to not happen. There can’t be pointing of fingers,” left tackle Anthony Castonzo said.

“Everybody has to look at their own game, see what they can do better on each play and if everyone gets a little better than the team can get better.”

On Monday, after meeting with Pagano, Hilton backtracked and apologized.

“I love them to death, and I was wrong. I’m always against that, and then I go out there and do it. So, 100 percent I messed up. All on me,” Hilton said.

“I’m sorry for that, and I’m a leader. Those guys look up to me, and I kind of stabbed them in the back. So for me, I’m very sorry about that, and I’ll approach them individually, one-on-one, and just let them know that I was 100 percent dead wrong.”

Other solutions will be just as difficult to find.

With Indy two games out of the division lead and facing a two-game road trip, fans again are vociferously calling for Pagano’s ouster with play-calling among their top complaints.

The latest criticism came after Jacoby Brissett was stopped short of a first down on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-2 from the Jaguars 6, ending Indy’s best scoring chance. Pagano explained that’s not how the play was designed and blamed himself for the miscue — even though it came after a timeout.

“Just a communication breakdown,” he said. “It’s bad, bad ball.”

Then there are injuries.

Andrew Luck will not throw again this week after being temporarily shut down last week because of soreness in his surgically repaired throwing shoulder.

Center Ryan Kelly (hamstring), who didn’t finish Sunday’s game, is expected to practice Wednesday.

Meanwhile, inside linebacker John Simon (stinger) and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (concussion), both starters, may not be available for the Bengals game.

And, as feared, the rookie season of promising safety Malik Hooker is over after he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee. Indy’s first-round draft pick was tied for third in the NFL with three interceptions, and his absence leaves a gaping hole in an already undermanned secondary.

“He’s a ballhawk. You can’t really teach that,” cornerback Vontae Davis said. “The games he did play — he was always around the football. We’ve just got to do a better job of just continuing to create turnovers — overemphasize it.”

All of it looks as if the Colts may have hit rock bottom after 5½ seasons under Pagano.

But inside the locker room, Pagano insists there’s time to find a fix.

“You’ve got to execute and you’ve got to make plays. There’s nothing magical about it,” Pagano said. “We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play better.”