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Luck ready to leave sparkling debut behind, focus on stiff Steelers test

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ANDERSON, Ind. -- By now all football fans are quite familiar with Andrew Luck's near-perfect first preseason outing Sunday, which began with a 63-yard touchdown pass to Donald Brown and ended in a 38-3 blowout of the Rams. No one could ask for a more rousing debut.

But let us not forget that this is a league that quickly humbles all -- even Peyton Manning flopped as a rookie -- and as the Colts wrapped up their final training camp practice at Anderson University on Friday, I can assure you Luck's level of perspective and insight are equal to his on-field acumen. The No. 1 overall draft pick fully grasps that things will only get more difficult each week, that he will be seeing better and more established opponents and that even leaving the comfy confines of domed Lucas Oil Stadium will bring new challenges.

This kid simply gets it, everything about his daunting gig as the guy who replaced Manning. And he understands that duplicating that immaculate box score from a week ago (10 of 16, 188 yards, two touchdowns), and looking as savvy and efficient on third down as he did against St. Louis, is probably not realistic with uber-coordinator Dick LeBeau and the Steelers' defense waiting for him in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

Luck is anything but too high coming off his debut, and, I suspect, is just as well-equipped to manage the inevitable missteps and obstacles.

"It was nice to have a change of venue and go against a different-colored jersey and pass that test and put some good stuff on film," Luck said of his first game. "But there are a lot of things we need to clean up, and we all know it was one preseason game. And in the grand scheme of things, what is one preseason game? But it was good to put a good foot forward as opposed to a bad foot forward."

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It was not, however, a coronation, or an indication of how easily everything will come for Luck. He is primed to have a stellar rookie season and few doubt he will have a tremendous career, but there will be interceptions thrown and sacks to absorb, and none of that is a bad thing. It's all part of the steep learning curve at the NFL level.

Andrew Luck will have bad games and he will flat out look like a rookie at times. But he is also, undoubtedly, the single greatest thing that could happen to this franchise, post-Manning. If anyone didn't already believe that the ugliness of last season was worth it -- with Luck the draft reward -- then soon enough they will. No one inside this organization needs to be convinced.

It would not surprise me at all to see Luck and his youthful teammates have difficulty moving the ball on the Steelers (though the fact that former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is now Luck's coordinator, and knows that defense inside out, should help). Pittsburgh generally keeps things pretty vanilla, but this will be a much more menacing bunch that Luck faces this week.

"I hope I can recognize all the blitzes and either make sure we're in the right position to pick it up, or get it out to the hot," Luck said. "And I know it's damn sure a lot easier said than done when you're playing the Pittsburgh Steelers. But if we want to be a competitive team, then offensively we have to be able to pick those up and take advantage of the situation."

Arians, who worked with a young Manning as well, can't help but see similarities between the two, all the way down to how Luck's first TD pass was a flashback to Manning's.

"It was like déjà vu," Arians said when he met the media earlier this week. "I'm sitting there looking at the defense and I'm thinking, 'This could go to the house.'"

Even Luck's mannerisms on the sidelines and his singular focus are Manning-esque. As he jogged to the practice field this morning it was no surprise that he went straight to his offensive linemen, surrounded by them under the goalposts chatting before drills began.

So as you would imagine, Luck didn't spend the hours after his glorious debut against the Rams reveling in his accomplishments. Instead he was picking himself apart on tape and taking a more critical eye to his performance than even the coaching staff did.

"He's such a great kid, and he understands and he's mature beyond his years, so he takes it all in stride," rookie head coach Chuck Pagano said. "He's his own worst critic. So he'll go in there and they'll look at all the good things, but he's going to point out he missed a throw in the end zone that was wide open, a couple of throwaways here, some things he could have done better, calls at the line of scrimmage, those kind of things.

"He doesn't beat himself up, he doesn't dwell on it, he moves on, and a lot of guys can't do that. He's a really, really sharp guy and he's been very impressive. We watched it all through training camp, so it's not surprising to see him have the success he's had to this point. But this is the next step, Pittsburgh, the crowd noise, playing that defense. This will be a great test for him and our whole football team."

That statement alone -- having a true barometer game in the second week of the preseason -- shows how much the Colts have changed from the days where they owned the AFC South. But all things come to an end, and while Pagano and rookie general manager Ryan Grigson are barring use of the word "rebuilding" for the most part, everyone is embracing the newness and sense of renewal that has permeated this camp.

The quarterback and coach and GM are all doing this for the first time, and each is utterly enthusiastic about the chore at hand. They bask in even the minutia of the job. The camp climate is more open, amicable, hospitable and comfortable than the draconian regime of former football czar Bill Polian, when people in the facility were often on edge and suspicion was the norm.

The newness of everything is inspiring. Luck is sincerely giddy about the history of the Steelers, his first road trip, all of it.

"It's still a novelty," he said, laughing, admitting he really can't get enough of this stuff. "Hopefully if I can make it a couple of years down the road, and training camp maybe won't be as much fun, but right now definitely I'm really enjoying every part of it."

Even the drudgery of being asked about Manning, and what it's like to replace a legend, is cool with him ("I would ask the same question to me if I was a fan," he said), and the fact his teammates haven't made him feel like "I'm following in the biggest footsteps ever" has helped. The entire organization has embraced Luck's cause.

Grigson inherited a massive task -- with one of the highest-profile departures in sports history hanging over him for months, the Colts in a salary cap bind and the team reining in its spending and getting younger. Limited to mostly restrained forays into the trade and free-agent market, he retained top receiver Reggie Wayne and made a point to add veterans like Samson Satele, Winston Justice and Mike McGlynn to a wobbly offensive line. "There isn't a bigger priority than protecting our quarterback," said Grigson, a former offensive lineman himself.

They also used two high draft picks on tight ends -- multiple tight-end sets are all the rage and giving Luck as many quality options in the slot to help avoid the rush is imperative as well.

"Ryan has done a great job," Pagano said, "and was able to bring in those linemen and the draft was a positive thing for Andrew to surround him with some weapons so he doesn't have to shoulder the whole thing, or doesn't have to press or think he's got to carry this whole football team."

Pagano knows a thing or two about watching a young passer develop. He was Baltimore's defensive coordinator while the Ravens used a formula of attack-minded defense and commitment to the run to aid Joe Flacco's development and be competitive at the same time.

"At any level you have to be able to run the ball, and stop the run," Pagano said. "And they understand that."

Luck will make it easier on all involved, just by being the eager, diligent, hard-working, levelheaded kid that he is. The less he changes in that regard over the years, the better off this franchise will be. He has the perfect mindset for this game ahead in Pittsburgh and will have it as well for the season opener at Chicago, not that he's thinking that far ahead.

"I'm just worrying about not being late to the next meeting," Luck said. "I'm still living in that rookie life, with maybe 10 phone calls to make sure you know where you're going, and then you show up early because you're scared to death of being called out in a team meeting. So I've managed not to get too ahead of myself, and I think the whole team has, really."


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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