Coming into the 2014 season, the Indianapolis Colts had plenty to discuss. There was the potential of the offense, the defensive additions and the development of Andrew Luck, to name a few larger themes. But one issue that kept emerging was the inexperience and lack of talent on the offensive line.
With new options for Luck at receiver (Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, returning Reggie Wayne) and tight end (returning Dwayne Allen), the only thing that was going to hold the offense back, hypothetically, was the line.
With training camp remaining largely free of anything resembling live blocking, it was difficult to get a handle on how the offensive line would hold up. There were a lot of questions regarding the line, making it difficult to put much optimism behind the group.
For example, the interior linemen competing for starting jobs consisted of:
- A veteran recovering from two season-ending muscle tears who had never started a full season (Donald Thomas)
- A veteran recovering from a season-ending ACL tear, hadn't played in 17 months (Lance Louis)
- A second-year guard who was among the league's worst starters in 2013 (Hugh Thornton)
- A rookie guard transitioning from tackle (Jack Mewhort)
- A second-year center who played 13 snaps during his rookie season (Khaled Holmes)
Then Thomas re-tore his quad in training camp, ending his season and watering down the group even further.
By the time the Colts' first preseason game against the New York Jets rolled around Thursday, the starting line was made up of Anthony Castonzo, Mewhort, Holmes, Thornton and Gosder Cherilus. Today, we take a look at that line, as well as the key reserves (Joe Reitz, Louis, Jonotthan Harrison) to break down the current forecast for the line.
To break down the Colts' performances from their loss to the Jets, we turn to several sources, including Pro Football Focus and Colts Authority's Ben Gundy. Below, you'll see a chart of the linemen's respective grades and success rates, followed by my observations from the film.
|Colts Offensive Line vs. Jets|
|Player||Snaps||PFF Grade||CA Run Block %||CA Pass Block %|
|Pro Football Focus, Colts Authority|
It was a quick night for veteran tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, the cornerstones of this line. Castonzo continues to be the best lineman on the roster, protecting Andrew Luck's backside and being generally reliable in the run game. He and Mewhort showed some decent chemistry in pass protection, and there could be some potential there for a strong pairing. Cherilus wasn't particularly impressive, but as an established veteran there is some leeway given.
The interior was a bit difficult to judge. During the first drive, with Andrew Luck at quarterback, the interior was fairly solid, both before and after Holmes left the game with an ankle injury. Holmes himself looked comfortable, and the offensive line as a whole looked surprisingly solid when he was in the game, including blocking this draw for Trent Richardson extremely well.
Even after Holmes went out, the pass protection was solid for Luck, although the team's philosophy was predicated on fairly quick throws on the drive in question. The running game saw some difficulty once they got into the red zone, particularly on this draw to Richardson, where three of the Colts linemen got pushed back into the backfield, leading to a two-yard loss.
But overall, the first-team offensive line was surprisingly effective against a stout Jets defensive line. But after Luck, Cherilus and Castonzo hit the bench, some struggles for individuals emerged.
The rookie, Mewhort, especially had difficulties in run-blocking. The Colts scheme asks for the left guard to pull quite often, and Mewhort isn't quite athletic enough to do so effectively, at least not with any regularity.
It wasn't just pulling, however. Mewhort was clearly uncomfortable when asked to move in space to the second level, whether it was as a lead blocker, screen plays or pulling.
Fortunately, Mewhort's pass protection was quite good for a rookie in his first NFL action. He was quite fluid when dropping his hips and shuffling back for a pass block, looking like a tackle in the guard position. His experience at tackle at Ohio State over the last two years has certainly helped him here, although it also had some negative effects, as he sometimes stood up too quickly and gave up leverage when blocking in-line on run plays.
Hugh Thornton showed a few of the same issues as last season, including a rough technique that led to him allowing Luck's sole pressure on the day.
We'll need to see more from Thornton to make an accurate assessment, but right now I'll defer to Gundy's analysis:
Thornton is flipping from left guard to right this year. Right guard is the more difficult position, since most protection schemes leave the right guard in isolation more often, while the left guard usually has help (Ross Tucker discusses that, and several other interesting aspects of line play, here). I have a hunch Thornton will do well in his new role. It might seem counterintuitive, but a more difficult, individual assignment should suit his skill set better than a job that involves working in tandem with the left tackle and center. He and Castonzo never developed great chemistry, and this season he'll be playing next to Cherilus, another lone wolf-type who does better when he can focus on a single defender. Thornton never lacks for aggressive individual effort.
Then there are the reserves.
Joe Reitz, who's been underrated for the better part of three seasons, received PFF's highest grade for the entire team, and deservedly so. Playing at both right and left tackle, his foot speed and technique were much more refined than they were when he was forced into some short stints at tackle in previous preseasons.
I've been a staunch supporter of Reitz and believe he should get a chance to compete for the left guard spot (he and Castonzo have always had good chemistry), but it seems the Colts are content to keep him at tackle, which is understandable given the lack of depth behind Castonzo and Cherilus.
Jonotthan Harrison looked like an undrafted free agent center at times, but he also had his positive moments. He'll fill in for Holmes for a few weeks, but hopefully the Colts' fourth-round pick from 2013 is healthy sooner rather than later.
Veteran guard Lance Louis was unimpressive and was a big reason why the Colts running game was stagnant for much of the final three quarters. Louis has the experience to fill in during short stints, but if he's forced into a starting role for any length of time, the Colts could be in trouble.
Forecast After Injury
With Holmes going down for what should be a few weeks and rookie tackle Ulrick John suffering what reportedly is a broken ankle, here is my current projection for who starts and makes the roster in a few weeks:
- Anthony Castonzo (starter)
- Jack Mewhort (starter)
- Jonotthan Harrison (starter due to injury)
- Hugh Thornton (starter)
- Gosder Cherilus (starter)
- Khaled Holmes (injured starter)
- Joe Reitz (reserve)
- Xavier Nixon (injured reserve)
- Lance Louis (reserve)
The Colts may keep one of the other linemen, especially if Nixon's injury turns out to be anything significant. He did have surgery on his injured knee last week, according to his Twitter account.
But the players listed above should make up the core of the line.
Can it be successful? I think the positive reviews of the team's first drive against the Jets would indicate yes, although one must keep in mind that there are still serious questions about the roster as a whole.
The key players to watch out for during the rest of the preseason will continue to be the interior, especially Mewhort and the way he's used. If the Colts refrain from pulling him often and he improves his technique a bit, he could give them a big boost, especially since the left guard and center often work together on double-teams. If Mewhort could cover up some of Harrison's struggles, the Colts line may just be able to hold its own.
Of course, this is also dependent on a clean bill of health from here on out. With the Colts' significant injury issues this preseason, the city's breath will be bated as the rest of the preseason is played out.
All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.