How the Indianapolis Colts Can Overcome Their Offensive Line Woes This Season

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How the Indianapolis Colts Can Overcome Their Offensive Line Woes This Season

It's no secret that the Indianapolis Colts offensive line was abysmal last season. 

Whether it was pass protection (according to Pro Football Focus, the Colts were dead last in pass-blocking efficiency last season, which measures pressures per snap) or run blocking (26th in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards and 26th in yards per carry), the Colts struggled to maintain any success throughout the season. 

If more convincing is needed on that note, there are plenty of statistics and film examples to choose from. 

Unfortunately for the Colts, the issue that existed last year remains. While Ryan Grigson didn't ignore the need, signing two starting offensive linemen and drafting two others, he did create a scenario in which Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn are once again starting at center and right guard, respectively. The two formed a dynamic duo of ineptitude last season as two of the worst starters in the league at their positions. 

With the two starting, disappointing play from Gosder Cherilus and vomit-inducing performances from the depth linemen, the Colts' 2013 preseason offensive line was still extremely questionable, especially in pass protection. For example, Luck was pressured on 43.1 percent of all dropbacks in the preseason, five percent more than he was last season. 

Obviously the preseason is a small, and ultimately meaningless, sample size, but it does help confirm fears about the offensive line continuing to be the offense's biggest drawback. 

What it doesn't mean, however, is that the offense will struggle because of it. The Colts can, and likely will, overcome the poor offensive line with certain schematic and personnel changes. 

 

The Savior

While certain schematic strategies can help, the best way to fix an offensive line is, quite simply, to actually fix it. 

The biggest problem with the Colts offensive line is the right guard. Fortunately, their 2013 third-round pick and lineman with the most potential is also a right guard. 

Hugh Thornton was drafted to be the right guard of the future, but he hasn't had much of a chance to show it. Thornton was kept out of most of training camp with an ankle injury, also missing the first two preseason games. He did manage to heal in time to play with the first-team offense in their win over Cleveland in the third preseason game, and he impressed.

Thornton, while not an All-Pro by any means, was dependable and consistent in that game, both in run- and pass-blocking. His second game, the Colts' 27-10 loss to the Bengals, wasn't quite as good, but he showed flashes of the ability that convinced the Colts to draft him. 

 

Less Time to Throw? Throw It More Quickly!

Outside of Thornton developing or McGlynn and Satele getting bit by a radioactive Bruce Mathews, the Colts will have to develop schematic ways to keep Andrew Luck upright. 

One way to do this is to shorten the time that the linemen have to block for by making the quarterback's first reads quick. This lessens the amount of big plays, but it increases efficiency, especially with a poor offensive line. During the preseason, the Colts displayed this, throwing short passes more often than we saw them do in 2012. 

Consider this table from 2012, detailing what percent of Andrew Luck's throws went to which areas of the field. 

 

Yards Right Middle Left Total
20+ 9% 6% 6% 17%
10-19 6% 17% 6%  29%
9 or fewer 8% 33% 12% 54%

 

Now compare that to where he threw during the 2013 preseason. 

 

Yards Right Middle Left Total
20+ 2% 2% 5% 9%
10-19 0% 19% 9%  28%
9 or fewer 12% 40% 12% 63%

 

It doesn't seem like a huge difference when you look at the individual zones, but when you combine it to just look at the depth on the field, you can tell the difference, as the Colts' have thrown it deep (20 or more yards) almost half as much in 2013, instead throwing shorter passes. 

Not only does that include shorter crossing routes and comebacks, but screens as well, such as this play in the Colts' win over the Giants in their second preseason game. 

It's not a flashy play, but a quick screen to Darrius Heyward-Bey here gains nine yards, something the Colts will take at any time. 

The key to screens is knowing when to use them. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's offense is all about finding favorable matchups with the defense and exploiting them. This is a perfect example of that, as the Colts took advantage of the soft coverage with a WR screen, which they would do a few plays later again for seven yards. 

 

Roll, Roll, Roll Your Quarterback

A personal favorite, rolling out a quarterback is a fantastic way to keep a quarterback away from a sieve-like offensive line, if the quarterback can both run and throw accurately on the run. 

Fortunately for the Colts, Andrew Luck can do both.

Rolling Luck out wasn't something that Bruce Arians did all that frequently in 2012. I found that Luck rolled out just 25 times (about three percent of dropbacks) during a film study earlier this summer, all of which were to the right. 

Hamilton, on the other hand, has not been shy about rolling Luck out in the preseason. Luck rolled out on bootlegs five times in just 51 dropbacks in the preseason, two to the left and three to the right. He was just 2-of-5 for 27 yards on those plays but had two dropped passes and one pass batted at the line. 

One of the things that makes all this possible is Luck's uncanny ability to square his hips to the line of scrimmage and throw an accurate pass while moving laterally. Being able to do that while running right (the strong hand) is one thing, but being able to do it while moving in both directions is another. 

Here you can see it while moving right, the easier throw. 

Here you can see a beautiful throw while moving left. 

The ability to do both adds an extra wrinkle to Hamilton's offense and keeps Luck from getting predictable. 

 

To the Left, to the Left

When it comes to running the ball behind this poor offensive line, it's all about knowing your strengths. 

Overall, the Colts struggled to run the ball last season, but there was one bright spot on the OL: Anthony Castonzo

When running behind Castonzo or around the left end, the Colts averaged nearly 4.3 yards per carry last season. When handing the ball off in any other direction, the team averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry, according to Pro Football Focus

It made sense: Castonzo was clearly the team's strongest run-blocker, and it showed in the results. 

In the preseason this year, things haven't changed much. 

According to Pro Football Focus, when the Colts tried to run behind the left guard, left tackle or around the left end, they ran for over 5.3 yards per carry. When they ran anywhere else (the middle or right), they averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. 

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Look where the hole is: between 74 and 66.

Again, considering the personnel, it makes sense. Castonzo and newly signed LG Donald Thomas are the strongest run-blockers, while new right tackle Gosder Cherilus is a pass-protection specialist and has never been strong in the running game. 

Now, running just left all the time would be counter-intuitive, tipping defenses off. But the Colts need to rely on their road-graders to pave the way, not ask their lightweights to carry the load. They need to run right just enough to keep opposing defenses honest (and rely on strong run-blocking tight ends like Dwayne Allen to help), but allow Castonzo and Thomas to earn their keep on the left side. 

 

Conclusion

Even with the changes on the offensive line, it remains one of the biggest concerns about the 2013 Colts. But there are ways to circumvent the detraction and still be a very good, perhaps even elite, offense. 

To reiterate, the best way to do so is to find the right personnel on the line, but that may not be possible for 2013. 

Rolling out Luck more often, however, is completely within reach. 

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