Projecting a New-Look Colts Offensive Line
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In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line was one of the worst in the league under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
There were numerous reasons for this enormous weakness, ranging from scheme issues to individual talent, but the end result was the Colts' being 31st in pass protection and 24th in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus' grading system.
So what needs to change, and how can we expect it to change?
The answer is long and complicated, but in my opinion, worth fleshing out.
The main issue with the Colts' horrific results along the offensive line was the lack of talent across the board, coupled with injury issues.
We'll start with left tackle Anthony Castonzo, whose sophomore season was a mixed bag. Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 team ranked Castonzo as the 22nd-best left tackle in 2012, giving him a grade of 27 (out of 50) in pass protection and 38 in run blocking.
This lines up with most people's analysis of Castonzo, who struggled at times to protect Andrew Luck, especially against edge rushers, but he was consistently the team's best run blocker.
The upside with Castonzo in regards to 2013 is that his struggles in 2012 can partially be attributed to the lack of talent and communication among the rest of the linemen.
One example of this is the Colts' comeback against Green Bay, one of two games that earned Castonzo the majority of his ire in pass protection.
With 1:32 left in the second quarter, the Colts lined up for 2nd-and-10 from the Packers' 26. Castonzo went for the outside linebacker, who made a move inside while the defensive tackle begins to move to stunt to the outside.
While we can't see or hear exactly what's happening here, it's clear that Castonzo and guard Jeff Linkenbach have missed something here. Both are attempting to block the outside linebacker while the defensive tackle, as shown next, has a free run to Andrew Luck.
Castonzo ends up realizing the mistake too late, tripping, and allowing the sack. No matter what happened, something went wrong.
My initial instinct is that Linkenbach needed to have communicated the stunt right away to pass off the tackle to Castonzo. Whether that's accurate or not, the awareness and communication between the two on the play was minimal and resulted in a sack.
With a more consistent tackle/guard combination on the left side, those issues can be fixed, evident by the vast improvement throughout the rest of the season. Castonzo's main struggles came in the first half of the season against Minnesota, Green Bay, and Tennessee.
During that first half, Seth Olsen, Jeff Linkenbach, and Joe Reitz all got snaps at left guard. As the season went on, the communication between Castonzo and whoever was at left guard improved dramatically.
Castonzo's proven to be a serviceable left tackle at the very least. While it certainly is an option to move him to the right side and allow somebody else to take over the left tackle position, there are very few players available that will allow the Colts to do that.
Jake Long and Sebastian Vollmer come to mind, but outside of either of those two signing, Castonzo will be a left tackle in 2013.
Moving on to the guard positions, the unfortunate truth is that the Colts can't afford to keep either guard positions static in 2013. The talent level wasn't there in 2012, and keeping the same players around in 2013 isn't going to yield better results.
Left guards Jeff Linkenbach and Joe Reitz ranked 66th and 63rd, respectively, on NFL 1000's ranking of the NFL's top 70 guards in 2013. Meanwhile left guard Seth Olsen and starting right guard Mike McGlynn didn't even make the top 70.
While PFF's grades would agree that the guards offered little in the run game (no Colts' guard got a positive grade in run blocking in 2012), the really deficient area was pass protection. None of the Colts' top guards ranked higher than 106th in pressures allowed per snap, according to PFF's pass block efficiency statistics.
Because of the poor play from both sides, the Colts will certainly go after a guard in free agency. The word on the street is that San Diego's Louis Vasquez may be the main target, but the Colts would be better off to go after Buffalo's Andy Levitre, who projects as an elite pass protector and a better run blocker than Vasquez.
At center, the Colts have a conundrum.
All season I praised reserve A.Q. Shipley, an undrafted journeyman who spent nearly half the season replacing starter Samson Satele due to injury. While Shipley was no All-Pro, the offensive line didn't give nearly as much pressure up the middle to Andrew Luck while Shipley played.
Turns out, I wasn't the only one to have this view, as the the center rankings from both PFF (Satele 33rd, Shipley 15th) and NFL 1000 (Satele 34th, Shipley 21st) support the view.
After the season, I summarized the situation for Colts Authority, describing how Satele's contract could result in him keeping the starting position, despite the clear differences in performance in 2013. With Pep Hamilton's hiring and his desire to pound the ball, Satele, and his better run blocking ability, likely keeps his starting position.
I would still advocate for the Colts to re-sign Shipley, however, not only as injury insurance for Satele (who missed significant time in nine games in 2012), but also as a back-up plan if the six-year veteran's play is less than desirable once again.
Finally, there's right tackle, where Winston Justice's injury issues confused the whole season.
In the beginning of the season, Justice was doing a solid job, rating as the second-best pass protecting tackle in the league through late October. While he didn't offer much in the run game, he was keeping Luck clean, at least from one side.
But injuries came, and they never left.
It started with a concussion that kept him out of the Colts' win against Minnesota. The concussion didn't seem to hurt his game, though, as he continued to grade out very well, especially in pass protection for the next few weeks.
But in Week 7, Justice showed up on the injury report with an ankle injury. He still played, but that was the first week in which PFF didn't give Justice a glowing review in pass protection (signified by a +1.0 rating overall). He wouldn't get another all season, as knee, biceps and shoulder injuries piled up.
So, the question now is how much was Justice affected by injuries, and what can we expect from him in 2013 if the Colts re-sign him?
Well, personally I would advocate against re-signing him. While on the surface it seems like the injuries were his demise, and they certainly played a part, it's a little more complicated than that.
Justice being second in the league in pass pro through the first six weeks is a little misleading, simply because he only played in four games in those six weeks. In those four games, he was great in two of them, and average to above average in the other two.
The two games he was great in were against the Jets and the Jaguars, two teams that were notorious for being unable to get to the passer. One of the other two games was against the Packers, who also struggled mightily in pass rush this season. All three of those teams finished in the bottom six in PFF's pass-rush grades.
When you look at Justice's past, it gets even more sketchy. Sure, he had a good year in 2009, but he was just about average in 2010, benched in 2011, and again average to below average in 2012.
Throw in all of the lingering injury problems, and you have a player whose upside for 2013 is a healthy, average year.
While he's not a bad option to re-sign to play right tackle as the Colts try to fill other holes, he's not reliable to start the whole season, and the Colts' have nobody dependable to fill in in case of injury.
I'd rather see a free agent or draft pick fill this spot. Most likely we'll see a free agent, such as Eric Winston, recently cut by the Chiefs, come in and be a road-grader with solid pass protection skills.
One of the most frustrating issues with Bruce Arians, as good of an interim head coach as he was, was his seeming inability to understand the talent that he had on the offensive line.
Arians called one of the most vertical offenses in the NFL, as Andrew Luck threw deep (20+ yards) on over 16 percent of his passes, third highest in the league. The only two quarterbacks ahead of him? Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson, two quarterbacks with solid offensive lines.
Those long-developing plays were very difficult for the under-talented offensive line to block for, yet Arians continually ran the same type of plays, especially in the first half of the season.
That play calling was a huge reason why the Colts were so inefficient. They could get big plays here and there, but they struggled to put together consistent drives.
While Arians was in the hospital during the Colts' wild-card loss to Baltimore, analysts and fans wondered what could have been if the Colts' offensive coordinator had been healthy and coaching for the playoff game, in which the Colts' only scored nine points.
But this ignored the fact that Clyde Christensen, who played the role of OC in Arians' absence, actually called a pretty good game. The Colts moved the ball very well with a much more mixed approach, using short and intermediate passing mixed in with effective situational running. It led to nearly 420 total yards and 25 first downs.
Unfortunately, it was the converting those yards into points that killed the Colts, as turnovers and settling for field goals led to having little to show for a lot of work.
Another example of this disconnect between Arians' play calling and the Colts' talent level was this blocking scheme that was used at times this season.
As you can see above the left guard (Jeff Linkenbach) is pulling to the right edge as if it's a run to that side. Luck is play-faking and will throw a screen, but the pass isn't important. The Colts ran this play-action play several times this season using other routes and plays as well.
While it didn't matter as much with this play (being a quick screen), you can see that Linkenbach is simply too slow and not athletic enough to block the blitzing linebacker effectively when pulling like this. If the play weren't a screen, Luck would be facing the linebacker in the backfield.
None of the Colts' guards are athletic and strong enough to pull this off, and the Colts still ran it far to much for my liking in 2012.
While Pep Hamilton's happy medium between pound-it-out road-grading and vertical, pass-happy offenses, the offensive line will need to be diverse enough to be able to both pound the ball and protect the passer, but the talent level should be much higher than it was in 2012. The Colts need to go after at least one guard and one tackle in free agency and the draft.
The perfect scenario for the Colts would be to sign guard Andy Levitre and tackle Eric Winston in free agency. Levitre doesn't fit the "power running" mold so much, but he's an adequate run blocker with elite talent in pass protection, which is needed with Samson Satele struggling to protect Luck so much in 2012.
Winston, on the other hand, is an excellent run blocker, and a more than adequate pass protector. While Houston fans rail on Winston's pass-protecting abilities, he's been in the top 25 among tackles in pressures allowed per snap in each of the last three years.
While his playing at right tackle would leave the Colts' slightly vulnerable to speed edge rushers on both sides, this could be offset by excellent blocking in the interior, allowing Luck to step up and avoid the outside rush.
The final piece to the puzzle would be drafting a guard in the draft, likely in the third or fourth round, who could come in and compete for the final guard position.
Mike McGlynn, despite arguably being the third best guard on the team in 2012, will likely have the inside track on the job, but he is simply a liability each week, and should not be allowed to keep the starting spot on experience alone.
But, no matter what happens, the Colts' 2013 unit should look, and perform, drastically different than the 2012 version. With money to spend the the available players in place, salvaging the offensive line is the next step to forging an efficiently dominant offensive unity.
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