Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Indianapolis Colts have offensive line issues.
Despite spending half of their 2015 draft – as well as a third of the draft picks in general manager Ryan Grigson’s tenure – on offensive linemen, the Colts still have an inability to protect franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.
Owner Jim Irsay concurs, telling CBS4 in Indianpolis that he is “as concerned as any fan” about the number of shots Luck has taken in his career, and the series of hits he was subjected to in the preseason.
Luck has taken been more hits than any other quarterback since entering the league. But that didn’t stop Irsay and the Colts from handing him a 6-year, $140 million contract with $87 million in guarantees.
A poor line is nothing new in Indy. Put bluntly, it has stunk throughout Luck’s career.
To be fair, they’ve been nothing if not consistent. In Luck’s five years as the starter his sack percentage has hung between 5–6 percent.
And if you think that’s because they’ve spent their time plowing open holes and helping to create a complementary run game, think again. The Colts are currently on an epically bad run of 56-games without a 100-yard rusher – the longest drought in the NFL in nearly two decades. Indeed, in the Luck-era, Vick Ballard is the only running back to have rushed for over 100-yards in a game.
An organization that is built around its young quarterback and its passing game has had average success. Even in years in which they’ve made playoff runs they’ve hovered around the middle of the pack in offensive DVOA.
Offensive DVOA Rank
2015 (games Luck played)
Much of the blame fell on former offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Hamilton was unceremoniously fired midway through last season, while the rest of the staff secured contract extensions during the offseason.
With Hamilton fired, head coach Chuck Pagano promoted talented coordinator Rob Chudzinski. He then hired Joe Philbin in the offseason in a bid to beef up his “finesse” offensive line – yes, you read that sentence correctly.
Philbin addressed the line concerns in an interview with Andrew Walker for Colts.com “The things in blocking that I want us to be known for are fundamentally-related first and scheme second,” Philbin said. “There are umpteen different schemes, but the real emphasis for us [is] going to be moving people and creating space for our running back.”
“Scheme second” confirms one of the most interesting dichotomies in the league right now: The Colts front office has assembled a roster that needs one scheme, and the coaching staff has been running a different style.
Chudzinski is a pro-style “bombs away” coach, similar to former Colts coordinator Bruce Arians. He wants to run the ball to set up play-action shots, run vertical-stretch concepts, and chuck the ball down the field whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even when he shouldn’t.
In Luck he has a quarterback ready and able to run that style. But the rest of the offense is assembled in such a way that it opens him up to punishment without pulling off an individual herculean effort.
It’s the kind of scheme that the Colts and Luck have embraced ever since the quarterback arrived from Stanford: power football, two tight ends, extra linemen and deep, deep, dropbacks.
The result? Luck has been crushed.
The deeper the dropback, the more time for edge rushers to set their sights on a quarterback who is notorious for wanting to hold onto the ball and make plays.
In 2014 – his last full season – Luck was 10th in the league in average time to throw, and just five quarterbacks held onto the ball longer in 2015, per ProFootballFocus.
Part of that can be put down to his own indecisiveness, but there were two greater components: slow-developing play designs that required deep dropbacks, and defenses rushing just four – knowing the Colts line was poor – and flooding the rest of the field with seven men in coverage.
Even when the team made the coordinator switch ahead of its matchup with Denver in Week 9, Chudzinski ran similar concepts. Denver teed off on the Colts line. Luck was bombarded and knocked out for the rest of the season. He suffered abdominal damage and a lacerated kidney.
The deep dropbacks and slow-developing passing concepts have certainly had some success. But they’ve come with a cost. And that cost is the health of the most important guy in the organization.
It’s something the Colts are aware of. When asked by Mike Wells of ESPN.com where he needed to improve, Luck replied, “situational awareness and getting rid of the football.”
That second part isn’t necessarily on Luck, though. That falls on his coaching staff’s self-evaluation and the relationship between that staff and the general manager.
It’s now time for them to adapt their scheme in order to protect the future of their franchise – and preserve their jobs.
In order protect Luck they need to limit the amount of time he holds onto the ball, increasing the number of spread looks and increasing the pace of the offense.
That Week 9 game – the first under Chudzinski – showed a small rise in rhythm throws; the ball was usually out in 1.9 seconds. In Luck’s previous six games only 41.9 percent of his passing plays were out in 2.5 seconds or less. In the Denver game that number was up to 45.2 percent, per ProFootballFocus.
A quick rhythm, up-tempo attack – similar to that run by Tom Brady in New England – may not maximize Luck’s playmaking talents, but it’s the best option for him and the Colts given their current roster.
Grigson has drafted shorter receivers with good short-area quickness, all of whom are good threats after the catch. Quick rhythm throws that get the likes of T.Y. Hilton and Phillip Dorsett the ball in space – while limiting the impact of the offensive line – should be the core feature of the offense moving forward. Slow developing concepts that ask receivers to generate separation down the field and require protection to hold up for longer put Luck in harm’s way and can get the Colts stuck behind the chains.
Chudzinski has been open to adapting and changing his offense, telling Kevin Bowen of Colts.com, “We are going to adjust to the guys and what they do well and fit the Xs and Os… you have to highlight those things.”
Those adjustments have to involve Luck taking mostly one- and three-step drops, as well as upping the tempo.
In 2014, Luck’s best individual year, the Colts ran the fourth quickest offense in football – finishing 4th in Football Outsider’s “Situation Neutral” pace stat. Last year they dropped down to 13th in games Luck started.
With one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league at the helm, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be challenging the Patriots for second in the league in pace. (Chip Kelly, now coaching in San Francisco, owns a monopoly on the top spot.)
Increasing the tempo makes it difficult for the opposing defense to substitute. That forces them to remain in the same defensive package and allows the offense to move around pieces in order to exploit mismatches. In Donte Moncrief (WR) and Dwayne Allen (TE) the Colts possess two effective mismatch weapons.
Grigson has built a roster that should be able to take advantage of modern spread concepts. The coaching staff must respond by building an offense that suits that style and protects the present and future of the franchise.