The Indianapolis Colts (8-4) were able to defeat their closest divisional competitor Sunday. They emerged victorious against the Tennessee Titans (5-7) by a score of 22-14. It appears as though the Colts now have a stranglehold on the AFC South.
However, if the Colts are to make a deep playoff run in 2013, quarterback Andrew Luck must improve his play in short order.
Over the last four games, Luck seems to have lost his luster. Indianapolis is 2-2 over that stretch, and Luck's lack of efficiency is partly to blame:
Looking over the four defenses that Luck has faced during his last four contests indicates that it is not the strength of these defenses that are hindering his performances:
|Opponent||Avg. Pass Yds Allowed||NFL Rank|
So, why has Luck been struggling of late?
One possibility could be the struggles of the offensive line. Luck was sacked five times for a total loss of 40 yards Sunday against the Titans. He was constantly pressured throughout the game which caused some errant passes.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks the Colts offensive line 22nd in the league in pass protection with a negative-18.3 grade. Simply put, Luck will not have the chance to succeed if he is not given enough time in the pocket.
Colts better figure something out with their protection schemes, or that brutal OL is gonna get Andrew Luck hurt. Titans are whipping them— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) December 1, 2013
Another problem is an inconsistent running game. Over the last four games in which Luck has struggled, he has not had a balanced offense:
Note that in the Colts' two wins—both against the Titans—they were able to effectively establish a running game. This kind of balanced offensive attack takes pressure off of the second-year quarterback and allows the team a chance for success, despite Luck's struggles.
However, against the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals, the running game was almost nonexistent. The Colts attempted fewer than 20 rushing attempts in each contest which puts an enormous burden on a quarterback—especially one who is in the midst of a rough stretch.
Despite trading a first-round draft pick for running back Trent Richardson earlier this season, it has been Donald Brown who has recently emerged. Perhaps a changing of the guard in the backfield was necessary to maintain a balanced offensive attack.
After all, Brown has outplayed Richardson since he joined the Colts in Week 3:
Brown has been able to provide some explosiveness out of the Colts backfield while Richardson continues to falter. In fact, Richardson has yet to rush for more than 60 yards this season in any contest. His lone 60-yard game came on a 20-carry performance in Week 4 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Can Andrew Luck just be running back and quarterback for the Colts?— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) December 1, 2013
The loss of Reggie Wayne for the season has continued to haunt Luck. Wayne and Luck established tremendous chemistry, connecting 38 times for 503 yards and two scores. They also connected for a total of 28 first downs.
T.Y. Hilton remains a reliable target for Luck; however, Darrius Heyward-Bey just has not been able to step up in Wayne's place. Heyward-Bey and Luck have struggled to create a rapport and have connected just 26 times on 54 targets this season.
One could speculate that Luck will continue to struggle if another wide receiver fails to step up throughout the remainder of the season.
The Colts' offensive scheme must continue to evolve in order to hide the weaknesses of the offense and highlight Luck's strengths going forward.
If offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants to get Luck back on track, he needs to instill confidence in his young quarterback. This can be done by scaling the offense down to high-percentage passes on short-to-intermediate routes by wide receivers and relying on screens to tight ends and running backs.
Not only will these types of plays give Luck confidence, but they will also help chemistry and timing between the quarterback and his weapons. Being that these plays do not take long to develop, they will also help hide the deficiencies of the offensive line.
Once this type of passing attack is established, it will prompt defensive secondaries to move toward the line of scrimmage. Without deep protection by the opposing defense, it gives Luck an opportunity to go over the top. These types of slow-developing deep plays must be put into play only at opportune times.
Clearly, there are many factors that have attributed to the lackluster play of Luck over the last several weeks. It is the duty of the coaching staff to create an offensive scheme that can produce despite Luck's current supporting cast.
Next week, the Colts will square off against a Cincinnati Bengals pass defense that ranks sixth in the league. This matchup comes with tremendous ramifications regarding the playoffs, as each team currently sits with an 8-4 record.
We get Colts at Bengals next week. Should go a long way in deciding AFC seed between South & North. Yes, I know Ravens still have a shot.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) December 2, 2013
If the Colts are to get past the Bengals and head toward a deep playoff run, offensive changes must be immediately implemented.