Indianapolis Colts Must Prevent Repeat of Andrew Luck's Sacktastic Rookie Season
Professional football is currently undergoing an offensive evolution of spread offense and read-option packages.
With these schemes, general managers are seeking extreme athleticism at all positions on the field, including quarterback.
They are smart to look for a mobile and athletic quarterback, not just because it fits their offense but also because their quarterbacks needs the mobility to run away from their appalling offensive line.
The quality of blocking has taken a nosedive in the NFL. That is reality, and there's perhaps no better example of a young, franchise quarterback getting pummeled to the ground than the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck.
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, was sacked 41 times last season. He was sacked in all but one game. In eight of the games, he was sacked at least three times.
Not all of the beating he took is the line's fault—he tends to hold the ball too long and the play-calling was questionable at times—but a lot of it is.
Indianapolis' blockers struggled with zone pressures and stunts all season long, it seemed. Whenever Luck had to take a deep dropback, he was on his back in seconds more often than not.
What's particularly frightening about their struggles is that it was with the basics of line play: communication and assignments.
In Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers, Luck was sacked four times. On one sack in the early second quarter, there was a simple mental lapse by right tackle Winston Justice.
The Colts had one running back and a tight end on the field, creating an "11" personnel grouping.
The tight end was lined up outside of the right tackle in a traditional "Y" alignment. He and the running back would be a part of the offense's seven-man protection scheme.
What this protection scheme entailed on this play was a "half-slide" call by the linemen. All but Justice would be sliding to their left and away from him and the tight end. That left four blockers to the left and three, including the running back, to the right.
The Packers only had two defensive lineman and both worked away from Justice at the snap. This was a part of the defense's five-man zone pressure package, which included inside linebacker D.J. Smith (No. 51) and cornerback Sam Shields (No. 37; not pictured).
When Justice kick-slid away from the line of scrimmage, he set deep in the backfield and awaited an outside rush by linebacker Nick Perry (No. 53). Perry was initially held up by tight end Coby Fleener and would later come in the direction of Justice.
Justice is taught by his coaches to always block inside-out, so when he recognized Shields coming, he left the outside to plug the gaping B-gap inside. So did Fleener, however, leaving no one to block Perry.
As a result, Luck went down in a hurry when Perry sacked him.
Later in the quarter, a similar situation came up.
There was more than a minute-and-a-half left, and the Colts only had a running back in the backfield. They were once again faced with the Packers' two-man front, but this time, the defense was clearly showing pressure.
To block it, the Colts referred to a half-slide once again, except to the offense's right.
That left the left guard and tackle to block two defenders—reasonable assignments. The defenders, end Mike Neal and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, would execute an "E-T" stunt at the snap, however, which would complicate things.
E-T is short for end-tackle, which indicates that the linebacker will attack the near gap (in this case, the B-gap) to occupy the tackle and guard. Simultaneously, the end will work to the outside gap (C-gap) and, ideally, be free for the sack.
At the snap, the defenders' movements suggested a stunt was coming, but the Colts' blockers didn't appear to notice it.
That's why when Matthews stunted into the B-gap, Neal cleanly disengaged from the guard and ran outside. He went untouched because the Colts' linemen didn't communicate a swap of assignments. Instead of the left tackle picking up Neal, he helped out the left guard.
And just like that, Luck was sacked again.
However, it's not all the line's fault. In Week 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Luck took a sack in the red zone midway through the first quarter because he held the ball too long.
The franchise signal-caller stood in a shotgun formation, set five yards away from the line of scrimmage.
He had two sets of twin receivers to each side of him. The two outside receivers would be running what I like to call skinny dig routes into the back of the end zone. These routes are like dig routes, which typically break off at a distance of 15 yards and work across the middle of the field, but the cuts are rounded.
Luck's responsibility on this play was to get the ball to one of the two receivers—left slot or right outside—based off the reaction of the safety. If the middle safety went in one direction, Luck threw in the other.
The underneath routes became key when the ball snapped. They cleared out most of the middle of the field in front of the safety, giving a rather clear passing lane for the quarterback to throw through.
While reading the safety, Luck looked at the left slot receiver running the skinny dig route.
If he was to throw the football, it would be a tight window to try and fit it into. That's too risky of a throw in this situation, and he didn't need to make it because he manipulated the safety with his eyes.
The single-high safety opened his hips up to the left and turned his back to the right, where veteran receiver Reggie Wayne was running his route. This was an opportunity for Luck to stick an anticipatory pass into the window.
For an unknown reason, he chose not to throw the football. Instead, he attempted to climb the pocket, which was initially protected but predictably fell apart on what was supposed to be a quick throw. Luck was sacked soon after.
Although Luck is at fault for this sack, many of them fall on the offensive line and partly the play-caller.
The offensive line has to do a better job of communicating their assignments and executing their initial responsibilities on the play. They also must improve in picking up secondary rushers from pressure packages.
Moreover, the coaches should look to get the ball out of their quarterback's hands quicker. To lessen the hits Luck takes, the offense should feature more rollouts and boot action from different platforms. It will not only allow him to take less hits, but it'll also improve how quickly he gets the ball out and his overall game.
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