It was a record-breaking rookie season for Luck, but he was sacked 41 times, avoided at least that many, and was hit as much as any quarterback in the league. He never sat out any plays with injury, but this type of beating will not allow for a long career.
As injuries drained an offensive line that was already porous, the pressure on Luck only increased as the season wore on, which limited his individual stats and the production and efficiency of the offense.
Fortunately, the Colts have multiple solutions to improve this weakness for next season. It cannot be fixed entirely in one offseason.
Run the ball better
A little more balance never hurt anyone. Luck dropped back an absurd 730 times in 2012, which is the third-highest amount by a quarterback in NFL history for one season.
Naturally, this was in part due to an ineffective running game. However, the running game has been ineffective in Indianapolis ever since the second half of the 2007 season. For whatever reason, ever since the Colts returned from halftime of their Week 9 epic clash with the 2007 Patriots, the running game has all but dried up.
The following table shows the Colts’ regular-season rushing numbers for all non-quarterback carries:
No mistakes here, the Colts have had just five 100-yard rushing performances from a running back in the last five seasons. The average was a poor 3.75 in 2012, and the amount of yards is miniscule.
It is not like the Colts need to rush for 2,200 yards to have success, but a little more balance will open up the passing game for bigger plays, and the overall efficiency of the offense will be better. Instead of being in 3rd-and-long situations so often, it will be more manageable.
Countless running backs have come and gone since 2007. Vick Ballard was solid in his rookie season and will likely pair with Donald Brown again in 2013.
But the blame for the lack of rushing production first has to go on the lack of talent on the offensive line.
Upgrade the talent core of the offensive line
Peyton Manning was there for most of those seasons when the running game was terrible, and defenses had all the respect in the world for his passing game. That still was not opening up any holes on the ground when it came time to hand the ball off. You have to have good linemen capable of actually blocking people instead of being minor inconveniences for the defense.
While a lot of fans complain about their offensive line, Colts fans are justified in doing so. The Colts actually went into the playoff game in Baltimore, starting Anthony Castonzo, Jeff Linkenbach, Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn and Winston Justice.
That is not exactly a NFL-caliber offensive line. Castonzo was a first-round pick (No. 22 overall) in 2011, so he will continue to get a chance to start, but none of the other four positions should be considered long-term investments or the future for the team.
Looking to replace all of them should be the top priority for GM Ryan Grigson this offseason. He has free agency, a ton of cap space – the Indianapolis Star (per Mike Chappell) is reporting around $45 million—and of course the draft in April to do so.
Tackles like Ryan Clady (Denver), Jake Long (Miami) and Sebastian Vollmer (New England) may be in the market. If none of those options work out, the Colts can always target the offensive line heavily with their premium draft picks. The Colts hold the No. 24 pick in the first round.
Fortunately, the way the Colts drafted last year means no need to take a quarterback, tight end, running back or arguably even wide receiver with a premium pick. It has to be about the linemen because what they have now is not cutting it.
Improve the offensive system
Offensive coordinator and surprise Coach of the Year winner Bruce Arians left to become coach of the Arizona Cardinals, which has some believing Luck will struggle without having that consistency with the play-caller.
Not so fast.
The Colts have reunited Luck with Stanford’s Pep Hamilton as the new offensive coordinator. He has already talked about improving the efficiency of the offense, bringing in West Coast principles, and perhaps, even adding some of the pistol/zone-read option stuff that is the latest trend in the NFL.
While it should not be a big factor in the offense, Luck is definitely athletic enough to take advantage of the zone-read option to run for some first downs, and it could be a play the Colts go to 10-15 times this season.
Getting to the guts of the offense, Luck has the familiarity with Hamilton, and frankly, he succeeded a lot in spite of Arians his rookie season. Arians runs an offensive system that is very demanding of the quarterback to take risks by holding the ball for downfield throws. There are not many outlet receivers, and throwing to the running back seems like a foreign concept to Arians.
This was the status quo in Pittsburgh as well for Arians.
While the downfield attack is great, the problem is you need more blocking time from your linemen for those plays to work.
Arians has been fortunate to have strong quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Luck, who are both capable of breaking out of sacks and using their mobility to make plays. It will be interesting to see if Arians flops in Arizona, running the same system without the same level of quarterback.
As the season wore on and teams understood what the Colts were doing, the pressure was getting to Luck more easily. This data is based on my own weekly video analysis of the Colts this season:
Luck is a rare talent, and while his completion percentage (54.1 percent) was low in 2012, the vertical throws and amount of pressure he was under had a lot to do with it. The offense was fairly efficient early on in the season in terms of moving the ball and converting third downs (elite rankings in yards per drive and third-down conversion rate), but things stalled after the New England loss.
The pressure was getting to Luck more easily, hence his drop in statistics and the lack of scoring efficiency. Here is a comparison between the first 10 games and the final six (“PRES%” is the percentage of drop backs Luck was under pressure for):
Luck did a good job of not turning the ball over in the final three games, but it was no doubt a struggle to close out the season when the line was starting backups like A.Q. Shipley at center or the dreaded combination of Joe Reitz and Linkenbach together.
Hamilton has likely already gone through every play by Luck this past season and likely has done a far superior job than anything I could have done with my Following a Legend Series at Colts Authority. But any eyes, trained or not, could watch the games and see that this offense was not putting players in their best position to succeed.
There is a lot of young talent to work with on this offense, and a fresh-but-familiar set of eyes like Hamilton’s could be exactly what Luck and the Colts need to take things to the next level.
Potential is limitless for an improved Colts’ offense
The Colts will not have a surprise factor in 2013 like they did this past season. But if players improve the most going into their second season, then the Colts are in good shape with Luck, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Vick Ballard all making that sophomore jump this year.
That is why the Colts, despite their downright ugly statistics in 2012 that scream regression, should be able to improve significantly in 2013. That need for seven game-winning drives will not be there if the offense is playing at a higher level, which means fewer turnovers, more points and fewer close games.
An improved offense can also help out the defense, which still needs a lot of work as well. Just getting some more takeaways to help this offense actually have some good field position would be a welcomed change. The Colts started just seven drives in opponent territory last season, and the opponent 28 was the best start they had all year.
It was long fields and little help from the running game for Luck’s offense. Combine that with a low percentage of yards after the catch from the receivers and it is easy to see why Luck’s situation was deemed so difficult in 2012.
The onus is on Grigson to improve the talent that’s blocking for Luck, Hamilton to find ways to get the ball out of his hands quicker while diversifying the offense, and for these young players to naturally progress after their rookie success.
You may not be able to pencil them in for 11 wins again, but the Colts should be a better team performance-wise in 2013.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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