There are a number of reasons why the Indianapolis Colts lost to the St. Louis Rams Sunday.
Andrew Luck had the worst game of his career, the defense allowed far too many big plays, the team was poorly coached—the list goes on and on.
This is not an attempt at explaining why the Colts lost or their biggest flaw (although that may be applicable).
Rather, it’s simply an observation, and one that is deeply concerning as the Colts move forward.
The Colts cannot run the football.
That shouldn’t be a shock to anybody who has watched this team for any length of time. The offensive line was never going to be a strength this season, not with Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn starting.
The running backs, while versatile, weren’t stars that would be able to carry the rushing attack without semi-successful blocking.
Although the team highlighted its high rushing totals at the beginning of the season, those were a bit misleading considering Andrew Luck’s contributions. The success that the Colts did have was not going to be sustainable. Now, that seems all too clear.
Part of this is due to injuries: left guard Donald Thomas, tight end Dwayne Allen and running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard are all starters that were lost for the season. Part of the problem is Trent Richardson, who has been forced into a role that he simply can’t succeed in. Part of the problem is that the offensive line simply isn’t very good.
In response to this inability to run the ball, the Colts have stopped trying. While they’ll often run it early in an attempt to “establish” the run, the Colts have been forced into an offense that's slowly become all Luck, all the time.
They’ve lost any semblance of offensive balance. The epitome came Sunday, when Luck dropped back 51 times while handing the ball off nine times for two yards.
Colts traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson. He's in for 1st-and-goal from the 1. Colts run play action. Luck takes 9-yard sack.— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) November 10, 2013
Anybody who calls the Colts a “run-first offense" hasn’t been paying attention since Week 5.
Now, it’s not that being a pass-first team is a bad thing in itself. Luck is the Colts’ best chance at winning football games. He’s their best offensive player, their brightest spot for the future.
But the way the offense is constructed under Pep Hamilton won’t allow for this to work.
Hamilton’s offense needs some sort of running success in order to work. It needs the threat of the run to be there to lure linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. It needs to keep defenses guessing. When defenses key on the run, the pass can be a dangerous weapon in Hamilton’s offense.
Currently, that’s not an issue for opposing defenses.
As a result, the passing offense is incredibly volatile. Luck is talented enough to make it seem explosive and efficient, but the reality is that it will be incredibly inconsistent without the run to balance it out. Hamilton’s plays and route combinations are designed to take advantage of a defense’s fear of the run (specifically power-runs out of heavy formations), which doesn’t currently exist. In that context, Luck is trained to hit his first or second read, which, theoretically, would be open.
Pass-first offenses (think Denver or New Orleans) use the threat of the pass to set up the run, to set up screens and to get the ball to their playmakers with room in front of them. By keeping opposing defenses worried about the downfield threats, the middle of the field and the flats end up holding few defenders more often than not.
The Colts offense, on the other hand, has too many plays in which all or most of the routes are short of the first-down marker or spaced poorly, resulting in little space for yards after the catch and much less targets deep down the field.
To put it simply: The Colts’ play designs don’t do a good enough job of getting the receivers open—at least, not without the threat of the run.
Reggie Wayne and, to some extent, T.Y. Hilton are the only two players on the Colts roster that can get separation on their own; the rest of the Colts need well-designed plays. With Wayne now out for the season and the run game struggling more than ever, the talent deficiencies are glaring. Couple that with Andrew Luck’s tendency to rush his reads behind this offensive line, and you get results like the Colts’ stinker against St. Louis.
The million-dollar question, then, is: Can the Colts adapt?
There are two options.
One: The Colts improve their running game and regain real balance.
Two: The Colts adjust their play-calling and offensive philosophy, using the threat of the deep pass to set up short passes and “finesse” runs.
I fear the Colts will focus on the first option. If the Colts could actually do this, it would work. But it seems unlikely, to put it nicely, that the offensive line will simply become more talented, or that Trent Richardson will philosophically change who he is overnight.
The problem with the second option is that it will still be inconsistent unless the Colts can give Luck time in the pocket. There are things the team can do to give him time, but they’ll never have one of the league’s better offensive lines.
Luck will bounce back, and the offense will look much better when he does. But something has to change if the Colts are going to truly be a contender.