How the Colts Can Prevent a Repeat of Andrew Luck's Sacktastic Rookie Season
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Luck finished with 40 sacks on the year, the fourth most among individual quarterbacks.
Those sacks were a colossal contributing factor of failing drives, coming at inopportune times, creating turnovers and threatening the health of Indianapolis' future superstar.
You could see examples of the Colts' ineptitude costing them simply by watching the Colts' final game of the season: a 24-9 loss to Baltimore in the wildcard round of the playoffs. Luck was sacked three times in that game, all directly or indirectly ending drives.
The first sack ended up as a turnover, as Luck didn't see Kruger, and got the ball knocked out of his hand before he could get rid of it. The second sack came on 2nd and eight, and the six yard loss led to a long 3rd and 14, which the team failed to convert. The third and final sack, by Kruger again, was on third down again, ending yet another drive.
Two of the drives were in Raven territory when the sack occurred, directly keeping points off the board.
So, as the team moves forward, one of the easy, direct improvements they can make on offense is decreasing the number of sacks that Luck has to take. There are several ways to go about this, which we'll discuss shortly.
The first and easiest way to reduce the number of sacks taken is by reducing the amount of time spent while vulnerable.
Bruce Arians, the Colts' previous offensive coordinator, was a great offensive mind, but left his coat in the common area much too often for my taste. With long-developing plays and an offensive line that was sub-par, the vertical offense that Arians' installed was a horrible match with the underwhelming offensive line.
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Pep Hamilton should bring some West Coast concepts to the offense, however, which will increase the amount of short throws and screens, and dramatically decrease the amount of opportunities Luck has to take a sack.
By improving the players on the offensive line, the Colts' can easily affect their pass protection in 2013. The offensive line was one of the weakest on the team in 2013, with one real starter among the group.
Outside of Anthony Castonzo, the rest of the offensive line was sub-par at best, and downright embarrassing at worst.
Samson Satele was one of the worst starters in the NFL, finishing 33rd in ProFootballFocus' grading systems for centers. He ended the season with the worst Pass Block Efficiency (pressures surrendered per snap) among starting centers in the league.
Mike McGlynn, the starting right guard, was tied for the worst PBE for guards, finished as the worst overall guard according to PFF's grades, and second worst in pass-block grades.
The left guard spot was a rotating door, as injuries and inept play caused Joe Reitz, Seth Olsen, and Jeff Linkenbach to share the position. All three finished in the bottom third in the league in PBE.
It was an especially disappointing year for Joe Reitz, who came off of a strong year in 2011 as the starting left guard, but injuries pushed him out of the lineup until Week 8. While he didn't allow a sack in his nearly 300 pass block snaps, he did allow 18 pressures, a rate just slightly better than McGlynn's.
Both of the tackles were much better in pass protection, but still finished in the bottom half of the league. With Justice a free agent, the Colts will need to figure out where they want to go. Castonzo was a much better run blocker than pass protector in 2012, and a move to right tackle may be a good idea. If the Colts had someone like Lane Johnson fall to them at #24, they could leave the left tackle spot up for competition between the two.
But, the biggest way the Colts can shore this area up is in the middle. The interior line was the worst group in the NFL, and the middle pressure caused Andrew Luck to have no room to step up in the pocket far too often, which sometimes led to pressure from the outside. This made the tackles look even worse than they really were at times.
At guard, the Colts need to look to free agency or the draft. The top two targets in free agency will be the Bills' Andy Levitre and San Diego's Louis Vasquez. Either player would be a dramatic increase in pass protection talent, ranking first and ninth in PFF's pass protection grades.
Levitre is the better player, but Vasquez has more experience in the blocking scheme that the Colts will likely be running. Personally, I would always rather take the better player, but you factor in that Levitre will likely be more expensive as well (if Buffalo even lets him go), and the comparison is evened out a bit more.
The other option is the draft, where a player like Jonathan Cooper, from North Carolina, may be available at 24. Outside of Cooper, there are very few players available in the draft that will be able to play at a high level right away, but a guy like Barrett Jones (AL) may be available in the second or third round as well.
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At center the Colts can dramatically improve by allowing A.Q. Shipley to take over the starting position. Shipley filled in for Satele this season when the latter was injured, and performed much better. Shipley, who played 245 snaps in pass protection compared to Satele's 404, was a much better pass protector, and an adequate run blocker.
Shipley finished 4th among centers in PBE (Satele was last), and was one of just three players to finish the season without a negative grade in any category (Luck and Dwayne Allen being the other two).
I don't expect the Colts to bench Satele, who currently has the sixth highest cap hit on the team in 2013. But it's a move that they should make, ignoring the money and putting the best player on the field.
Holding the ball and pocket presence
It's been well-documented that sacks often are the fault of the quarterback more than they are of the offensive line. There's a reason that the sack rates of quarterbacks like Peyton Manning stay incredibly low, even with terrible offensive lines (such as the 2009-2010 Colts teams, which featured Charlie Johnson at left tackle).
So, in the case of the 2012 Colts, how much of the blame goes to Andrew Luck?
Well, first, it's important to put some numbers in context. Luck's sack total looked egregious, with 40 sacks being fourth highest in the league. But when you take into consideration the enormous number of drop backs Luck took, things don't look nearly as bad, as Luck's sack rate of 6.1% was 15th in the league.
So, are claims of the offensive line's ineptitude simply exaggerations? Not at all.
As we've discussed already, the individual performances for the offensive line this season were largely abysmal, but the number bear it out as a unit as well.
While Luck's sack rate was respectable, Pro Football Focus reports that Luck was pressured on 38.1% of his dropbacks, the fifth highest rate in the league. But on those plays where Luck was under pressure, he took a sack just 14.9% of the time, the 7th lowest rate in the league.
So Luck actually was exceptional at avoiding the sack, for the most part.
However, there were still times this season where Luck held on to the ball too long, resulting in a sack, or worse, a turnover. This area combined with a rookie pocket presence lead to multiple sacks at very inopportune times.
While none of the sacks against the Ravens exemplified Luck's slight tendency to hold on to the ball, the first sack (also a fumble) did show a lack of pocket presence. Luck, looking to the left side, didn't feel Kruger pressuring him from his right and behind, and got stripped completely unexpectedly. It was plays like that that caused Luck to fumble the ball 10 times this season, all of which happened in the pocket.
Time and Growth
Fortunately for Colts' fans, it seems extremely unlikely, near impossible in fact, for the Colts' sack numbers to do anything but improve in 2013.
As we've discussed, Pep Hamilton's offense is sure to include shorter, quicker elements, the offensive line will be hard-pressed to be worse than it was in 2012, and Luck's pocket presence and instincts should improve with experience.
That experience should translate to guys like Vick Ballard as well, who's pass protection in 2012 was below average at best. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, the rookie tight end duo, should see an improvement in their sophomore seasons as well.
But the biggest growth should come in Luck, and that alone should power a big jump in the sack rates for 2013.
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