Even on a day when the Jacksonville Jaguars got their first victory of the season, it's clear the St. Louis Rams' emphatic victory over the Indianapolis Colts was the biggest surprise on this NFL Sunday.
Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin had two receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns to go along with a 98 yard punt return for a touchdown. Austin will steal all the headlines for his big plays, but that shouldn't overshadow the struggles of the usually transcendent Andrew Luck.
Luck wasn't the main reason the Colts lost the game. The offense continues to fail in its attempts to run the ball, as Trent Richardson and Donald Brown combined for seven carries and one total yard, while the defense was repeatedly gashed with cornerback Vontae Davis in particular being exposed.
This game is a real testament to how much the Colts rely on Luck. Every team relies on its starting quarterback to win football games, but in Luck's case, he has essentially no help. He didn't enter the season with much help, but once wide receiver Reggie Wayne joined tight end Dwayne Allen on the injury list, Luck was left with a supporting cast that no quarterback could easily carry to the playoffs.
Even though Luck's display must be considered within the context of the game, he shouldn't completely be without blame.
The second-year-quarterback has set very high standards for himself. Standards that he routinely reaches on a weekly basis, but even when adjusting those expectations to be more like your typical NFL starter, Luck can't say that he played well Sunday.
Just three minutes into the game, on the Colts' first drive, Luck made his first mistake. It should be noted that Rams defensive end Robert Quinn made an outstanding move on this play, while the primary reason that the play failed was the ineffectiveness of the Colts' double-team attempt against Quinn.
The first thing to note on this play is the situation. It's 3rd-and-13, and the Colts come out with nobody in the backfield with Luck. Running back Trent Richardson is on the field, but he and tight end Coby Fleener are lined up just outside the offensive tackles. That allows the St. Louis Rams to widen their pass rush, with both their defensive ends and defensive tackles closer to the sideline than they would typically be.
Fleener on the left side of the offense chips Quinn before releasing into his route, while left tackle Anthony Costanzo looks to gain enough depth to stop the speed rush.
Luck is going to drop deep into the pocket, but with each of his offensive tackles getting help on the edges, he is expecting to have time before stepping forward. Luck needs that time because the Rams only rush four defenders and drop all seven cover men to the first-down marker.
Quin shows phenomenal explosion as he easily brushes off Fleener's initial hit before bending around Costanzo as if he weren't even there. As Quinn turns the corner, Luck is at the top of his drop surveying the field.
He has two receivers in the flat, so he is trying to find one of three receivers working against seven defenders down the field. Even though there is space underneath for Richardson and Fleener, Luck is reluctant to throw to them because they would more than likely be stopped short of the first-down marker.
Instead of checking down, Luck continues to survey the field in the pocket. Crucially, he doesn't step up into the pocket quick enough because he never feels Quinn's presence behind him. There was plenty of space for Luck to step up and even out into the flat if he had been quicker to feel Quinn's pressure. Instead, he winds back to throw the ball and turns a sack into a forced fumble.
That fumble turns into a touchdown for the Rams. By Luck's own standards, he should have stepped forward and extended the play with his pocket presence before looking to throw downfield. By any normal quarterback's standards, he absolutely cannot compound the sack by starting his throwing motion at that point of the play.
Being in a hole early for the Colts isn't a real problem. During the Luck era, he has repeatedly brought his team back into games after falling behind early.
After the fumble, a bad decision on special teams put the Colts deep in their own territory. Luck completed a pass to Donald Brown to put the offense in a 3rd-and-1, but the Colts couldn't convert on a running play. Running was a problem on the following drive, too, as Richardson had two carries for no gain.
Quinn jumped offside after those two carries from Richardson, so Luck and the Colts offense faced a long 3rd-and-5 instead of a long 3rd-and-10. Again, Luck is in the shotgun, but this time, Richardson is in the backfield alongside him.
The Rams won't get to Luck on this play, but Luck's inability to recognize the blitz before the snap is what costs the Colts a first down. Luck never looks to his left, where Cortland Finnegan is already looking in the backfield.
Finnegan immediately springs forward when the ball is snapped, while Quinn attacks the inside shoulder of the left tackle. This allows Finnegan to come clean off the edge. Luck never looks in this direction, as his focus is on the deep safety as he tries to manipulate the secondary.
Fortunately for Luck, Richardson makes an outstanding play in pass protection as he sees the blitz and comes across to meet Finnegan. Luck never looks back to the other side of the field, however, where Darrius Heyward-Bey is open. Any pass to Heyward-Bey would have been easy, while the receiver would have had a good chance of converting the down-and-distance.
Instead of the easy throw into the blitz, Luck evades a pass-rusher in the pocket and steps up to create a small pocket for him to throw downfield. He does very well to create this bit of space, but he is throwing the ball from a very difficult body position now.
The throw down the field is much more difficult than the throw to Heyward-Bey would have been. Luck's pass floats over the sideline, even as Fleener comes open on an out route.
Luck's issues were varied throughout the game. He threw three interceptions, one of which was inexplicable at the goal line, after the Rams took a huge lead in the second quarter, but his most worrying throw on the day wasn't intercepted. Very early in the second quarter, when the Rams were only ahead by 14 points, Luck made a throw that is very uncharacteristic of his typical play.
This wasn't a play where Luck made a bad read, threw an exceptionally inaccurate pass or forced a pass into a bad matchup. Instead, this was a play when Luck's arm strength simply wasn't there. Heyward-Bey is running a short curl route. He fades away from the football which makes the play look even worse than it was, but Luck floats his pass when he normally rifles it.
Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson breaks on the football from off coverage, but he should never have had a chance to tip the ball away. Questions about Luck's arm strength have never existed, he has a huge arm and can make every single throw required of an NFL quarterback. This throw was lacklustre, however, and should have been returned for a touchdown the other way.
After that, Luck missed a number of throws he usually makes before the game got out of hand.
They weren't all easy throws, but they were throws that Luck normally makes routinely.
If anything, this loss shows just how much value Luck has to the Colts. Obviously, every ordinary starting quarterback is valuable to their franchise, but it's clear he's not just any ordinary quarterback either. At just 24 years of age, Luck is already compensating for bad offensive line play, a lack of receiving options and an unreliable defense on a weekly basis.
When he fails to be spectacular, we can't condemn him because his mistakes are being magnified. Unlike other young quarterbacks, he doesn't have anyone he can defer to on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. This game highlighted how poor the rest of the Colts roster is rather than any potential long-term flaws in Luck's game.
Sometimes, Luck must feel like a professional tennis player playing against an amateur doubles team. Even though he may be the best player on the court, there are going to be times when he is overwhelmed simply because he doesn't have any help.
Can we ignore his mistakes? No, of course we can't because he made many. Can we qualify them in the context of the game and in the context of his career so far? Certainly and we definitely should when criticising him.
Andrew Luck remains the best young quarterback in the NFL. Only Russell Wilson can even consider challenging him for his crown. One poor performance won't change that.