Indianapolis Colts Must Continue to Work on Offensive Line After the NFL Draft

In a draft that was celebrated for its quality and depth on the defensive side of the ball, the Indianapolis Colts drafted three offensive linemen.

Half of the Colts’ first six picks were spent on linemen, the first on center Ryan Kelly in round one, the second on Le’Raven Clark, an offensive tackle, in round three and the third on Joe Haeg, a guard, in round five. The Colts needed linemen. They have needed linemen ever since Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson took over. In these three picks, they have potentially added three rookie starters.

Only health will prevent Kelly from opening the season as the starting center. He should remain there for more than a decade. Clark should be the starter at right tackle also. He will be inconsistent and has to develop his technique over the coming years, but he should still be an upgrade over Joe Reitz. That would leave the right guard spot as the only remaining void to be filled. Haeg wouldn’t have any great rival to overcome through training camp for that spot.

Adding more talent to the offensive line was important for protecting Andrew Luck. They don’t need linemen who can win one-on-ones in space, but they do need competent players across the board.

The Colts have never protected Luck well or run the ball well with him as their quarterback. Adding these three players should help improve the output and efficiency of the whole offense. However, protecting Luck will require more than just new faces in front of the quarterback. A major reason for the Colts’ failures with less talented linemen is the scheme that the Colts offenses have employed. Unlike other quarterbacks who have opportunities to release the ball quickly, Luck is typically expected to hold the ball.

By prioritizing the run, the Colts ask Luck to take deep drops from under center while his receivers outside primarily run vertical routes downfield. This pits the offensive line in situations where it has to hold up for longer and prevents Luck from masking their failings with quick throws/decisions because he has to wait for the deeper routes to develop.

If the Colts don’t change their approach, the talent upgrade won’t have a significant impact.

Luck was sacked 15 times last year. For the PSR QB Catalogue, I went through each sack for each quarterback and labelled each one as ‘avoidable’ or ‘unavoidable.’ This measurement doesn’t account for pre-snap adjustments, instead it solely looks at whether the quarterback had a realistic opportunity to get rid of the ball before being sacked or not after the ball had been snapped. Every sack is avoidable obviously, but you can’t expect a quarterback to just throw the ball away as soon as he takes the ball from under center so the escape route had to be realistic.

13.3 percent of Luck’s sacks were deemed ‘avoidable.’ Or two out of 15. Just two quarterbacks had a lower Avoidable Percentage than Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, Brees was the only quarterback to not have a single sack that was avoidable. Eight of Luck’s unavoidable sacks were a result of his blockers being beaten too quickly. Four came on blown assignments and one was a result of the coverage downfield. His two avoidable sacks saw him miss reads to open receivers downfield.

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This play comes against the New England Patriots from Week 6 of last season. It is a play that highlights many of the problems that have faced the Colts passing game over the past three years. Firstly, let’s look at the talent issues on the offensive line.

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When Luck gets to the top of his drop, his center is already lying on the ground having been knocked there by Patriots defensive tackle Dominique Easley. The Patriots only rushed three defenders after the quarterback and a fourth dropped to the line of scrimmage when the running back stayed in to help. Despite the obvious numbers advantage, Luck’s center couldn’t hold up and both edges close quickly to his spot that is deep behind the line of scrimmage.

Most quarterbacks would be expected to find their quick outlet in this situation, but the Colts don’t have one.

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They don’t have one by design. Every single one of the receivers who release into a route downfield release vertically. None of them are looking back for the ball and none of them have a horizontal action that would allow Luck to throw them open on. This play is designed to be slow in developing and Luck’s only short outlet is a checkdown to his running back in the flat. The same running back that initially stays in to be an extra blocker.

Furthermore, Luck’s depth in the pocket should be noted. He begun the play in shotgun and took a deep drop from that already deep position so he is further away from his receivers releasing vertically. With the Patriots crowding coverage and only rushing three, it will be easier for waiting defenders to break on his passes.

Most NFL offenses use route combinations that complement each other to attack specific areas, sides or levels of the defense. The four routes the Colts call on this play don’t appear to have any relation to each other.

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None of the routes cross each other’s paths. Each is a route run in isolation that plays into the hands of the Patriots coverage. The routes naturally condense the field for the Patriots coverage as the receiver furthest to the right squeezes infield and there is no threat outside of him as his slot receiver sits down beneath him. The shot play to the streaking receiver from the slot on the right is easily covered while the deep curl to the tight end is never an option because of how long it takes to develop.

If the Colts want to run this vertical passing game, they can do so but it will continue to stress their quarterback and offensive line unnecessarily.

Using different alignments and route combinations to get receivers open quickly underneath or over the middle of the field would allow for more easy, quick reads for Luck so he could alleviate the pressure on the offensive line. It’s not like the Colts aren’t built to run that type of offense with their receivers. Their stubbornness in running the offense they do would be more justifiable if they had great vertical threat receivers who could dominate at the catch point for consistent big plays.

That’s not the case though and if the Colts want Luck to get rid of the ball and throw receivers open, they will need to alter their identity.

Rob Chudzinski is the new offensive coordinator. Chudzinski took over during last season. He altered his offense for Matt Hasselbeck but it’s unclear what he is going to do for Luck with a full offseason to prepare. The pressure form Pagano to run and the influx of new talent on the offensive line could prevent him from straying too far from what is familiar.

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