Are the Colts Failing to Take Advantage of Andrew Luck's Athleticism?
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After last season's offensive line allowed Andrew Luck to be hit more than any other quarterback, the Colts brought in four potential starters in the offseason as well as hiring Pep Hamilton to replace former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
The message from Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson, of course, was protect the quarterback. If it wasn't clear enough from their offseason acquisitions, Grigson came right out and said it last month, per the Indy Star.
"We have to do a premium job of protecting our quarterback. He’s obviously an outstanding player. We don’t need him running for his life. We need him to feel as comfortable as possible.”
The sentiment is certainly an admirable one. Andrew Luck was rarely afforded a clean pocket in 2012, as a downfield offense combined with a poor pass-blocking offensive line to make life a living hell for the rookie quarterback.
When Luck was able to throw the ball without pressure, he generally fared very well. Football Outsiders charted Luck's DVOA improving from minus-51.9 percent while under pressure to 28.3 percent without pressure. Similarly, Pro Football Focus gave Luck a plus-14.4 grade when not under pressure, compared to a minus-1.6 grade when pressured.
Add the efficiency drop-off to an increased injury risk, and it's plain to see why Irsay, Grigson and the rest of the Colts staff would be in favor of a cleaner pocket for Luck in 2013. Another way to keep Luck out of harm's way is by running the ball more, which Hamilton should do as the offensive coordinator.
While Colts fans are, and should be, excited about the prospect of Luck getting cleaner looks from inside the pocket, there's one aspect of the non-stop pressure in 2012 that is often overlooked.
The constant pressure meant that Luck often had to elude pressure by scrambling and throwing on the run, something that was generally very profitable for the Colts. Football Outsiders' game charting credited Luck with a DVOA of 33.1 percent when throwing outside of the pocket, as opposed to 2.0 percent when inside the pocket. Luck's movement outside of the pocket extended plays and created opportunities down the field for his receivers, something that was key in many of the Colts' last-minute scoring drives.
This ability to throw on the run didn't surprise anybody who scouted Luck coming out of college. Optimum Scouting noted Luck's ability to throw with velocity and accuracy even when running in any direction back in 2011. A few months later, Matt Waldman (Author of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio and Fifth Down contributor) had this to say about Luck:
Luck is one of the better prospects that I’ve seen when it comes to working away from pressure, getting outside the pocket and completing the pass on the move. He throws with excellent touch while on the run and he is excellent at making adjustments to his throws so that he gives receivers optimal space to make a play. His anticipation is excellent.
To get a better feel of how Luck fared when throwing outside of the pocket, I took a look at a few games in the middle of the season last year, starting with Week 8 against Tennessee and working my way all the way through Week 12 against Buffalo. The results were astounding.
As you can see, Luck was willing and able to scramble and throw from any direction, although he was noticeably more comfortable while running right, which is to be expected. What stuck out to me about his running right was how much more effortlessly accurate his throws looked. For example, in this play Luck avoids a defender and goes right before threading the needle to Reggie Wayne for a first down.
The throw just looks so effortless, not to mention accurate, which gives a hint to why Luck was 9-for-11 for 132 yards when going right in the five games I charted.
Of course, that's not to say Luck struggled going the other ways. No, in fact, Luck was surprisingly effective when going left, such as in this 22-yard completion on 3rd-and-12 against Miami.
Luck does a good job of squaring his hips to get the throw off while going left and has the arm strength to make the short throw, all while giving Dwayne Allen the ball in perfect placement, allowing him to get a few extra yards after the catch.
There's no question that Luck showed an uncanny ability to throw the ball accurately while outside the pocket, but there is a valid concern as to whether that will be used in 2013.
While Grigson et al. don't want to expose Luck to unnecessary hits, getting him out in space on designed bootlegs and quarterback rollouts should allow Luck to use his athleticism as well as give him the sight and space that a crowded pocket often lacks.
Pep Hamilton has discussed using Luck in non-traditional ways before, but what actually happens during the season is yet to be seen.
One staple of a zone-blocking team like the Texans over the years has been the play-action bootleg to the right, something the Colts ran occasionally last season, such as in the following play that resulted in a 20-yard completion to Dwayne Allen.
Plays like this should be more frequent given their success with Luck in 2012. The Colts need to protect their quarterback, but by designing the rollout and giving Luck the room to work with, they may be creating a safer environment than a hurried pocket that causes scrambling and poor throwing lanes.
With Hamilton's familiarity with Luck and his specific rollout plays designed for quarterbacks with Luck's athleticism, we should see the Colts utilize Luck's skill more often in 2013. If we don't, it will be an extremely irresponsible waste of an exceptional talent.
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