Colts Football 101 – Understanding Jeff Saturday and The Offensive Line

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Colts Football 101 – Understanding Jeff Saturday and The Offensive Line
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Why is Bill Parcels the greatest football mind in the NFL today?  Why is it that every team he has touched has turned to gold, and is better off when he leaves than when he got there?

He understands that to build a great team, you need to start from the inside out—this means you build a great offensive and defensive line first. If you don’t have a good offensive and defensive line, then I don’t care who your QB and WRs are; you’re not going to win too many games. 

There are four reasons the Colts have been so consistently successful on offense since Manning was drafted: Howard Mudd, the offensive line, Tom Moore, and Peyton Manning.

Still not convinced about the importance of the offensive line?  Go watch the Giants/Patriots Super Bowl. The Patriots’ poor offensive line play made Tom Brady look just ordinary.

So let’s get started with the offensive line by going over each position:


Center

The center is the most important position on the offensive line. Most people don’t understand that he does more than just snap the ball to the quarterback and block someone—a center’s job, pre-snap, is to read the defense and call out all the blocking assignments with verbal and non-verbal cues, and he must do all these things in mere seconds.

He must make split-second decisions: Is the defense going to blitz?; Is the defensive line going to stunt?; Are all the guys on the line picking up the right guy to block?; Do I need to call an audible and change the blocking assignments?

Often, this requires an educated guess. The really good centers guess correctly more often than they guess incorrectly. 

Finally, after the snap, he has to pick up a defender to either protect the quarterback or help with the run play.

Now, imagine you play for the Colts. Howard Mudd is one of the best in the business at figuring out how a defense is trying to attack the offensive line. If he sees something, he lets Peyton know. Then the center, Jeff Saturday, has to change all the blocking assignments, and make sure everyone on the line knows who to pick up when blocking.

On top of that, how many times have we seen Peyton call an audible with 5 seconds on the clock? That audible might not just be a play change or a hot route to a receiver—it could be a change in the blocking scheme.

Guess who has to make sure everyone on the line got it right? That’s right, the center. This is why it was so critical that the Colts got the deal done with Kelvin Hayden—so that they could re-sign Jeff Saturday. There is a reason Jeff has been a three-time Pro Bowl starter.

Contrary to what many think the Colts run a very complex offense with lots of pre-snap reads, and changes. Jeff is one of the best in the business at both handling this pressure, and making sure that everyone on the line knows what they’re doing, so Peyton doesn’t have to.

Everyone could see the difference in offensive line play when Jeff was out last year, but they probably didn’t understand why. Hopefully, now, they do.


Guards

The guards line up to the left and right of the center. A guard’s main job is to block the opposing defenders rushing on the inside. There’s a reason they’re called "guards"—they must be the best blockers on the line, so that they can protect the quarterback, and open up holes in the running game.

The Colts suffered two huge losses last year at the guard position: Jake Scott was not re-signed, and Ryan Lilja went down to injury in training camp. The effects of these losses were seen all season long.

An offensive line is like a chorus line—it has to work in unison. With the loss of two experienced guards, and rookies filling in for them, we all saw the effect—the Colts ranked 31st in the league in rushing.

Show me a good running game and I’ll show you a good offensive line that has been playing together for a while.


Tackles

Tackles line up to the outside of the guards. Their job is to block the defensive ends, or depending on the defensive scheme, some other defender coming off the edge.

Tackles tend to be the biggest guys on the line and they must be the most athletic. Not only do they have to block some of the best pass rushers in the business, but they have to be able to seal off the edge in running plays to the outside, and even run up the field to the second level, blocking for the running back.

One of the hardest parts of the tackle's job is that, depending on the formation, one or both of them is out on an island. In other words, there is no one to the left or right of them to help with blocking. If a defender beats them to the outside, they’re in trouble.

Of the two tackles, the most important one is the left tackle. 90 percent of the quarterbacks in the league are right-handed—this means that when the QB gets the ball, he tends to look to the right first, with the result being that his left side is his blind side. That is why the left tackle is sometimes referred to as the "blind side tackle"—he is responsible for protecting that blindside.

If he loses the contest against a defender, the QB can get sacked, or have the ball stripped, without knowing what hit him.

The left tackle’s position is made even more difficult by the fact that he is on the weak side of the formation. Typically, he doesn’t have the benefit of having an extra blocker lined up to the outside of him.

Finding a good left tackle is tough, and when you have one, you don’t want to let him go. Why do you think that, after the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning begged Tarik Glenn not to retire? Tarik, in my opinion, was an outstanding left tackle. He was huge, but athletic, and played well in both the running game and the pass.

I recommend buying the DVD of the Colts 2006 Super Bowl run, which has complete coverage of all the games. Watch Tarik play, and then compare him to Tony Ugoh.

Ugoh, to me, has been a disappointment. He shows flashes of potential, but he is injury- prone and inconsistent. I have seen him make some great plays in the running game, getting to the second level and blocking defenders for Addai. Other times, I’ve seen him play poorly, missing blocks and letting pass rushers get close to Manning.

He’s lucky that he plays for a quarterback that gets rid of the ball quickly—Manning makes him look much better than he is.

In fact, according to Vic Carucci, last year the Colts preferred Charlie Johnson to Ugoh at left tackle—that’s why Ugoh didn’t play even after he had recovered from his injury. They felt he needed to sit on the bench and learn. The reason he got back on the field was due to injuries at other positions, which forced the Colts to move Charlie Johnson around.

I’m not positive that Ugoh is a lock to start at left tackle this year. You might see Charlie Johnson starting at that position when the season begins.

With Ryan Diem, Ryan Lilja, and Jeff Saturday all coming back healthy this year, and the rookies getting a lot of playing time last year, I expect the Colts' running game to get back on track, especially with the news that Howard Mudd will be back.

In the next article, I will discuss how the Colts deploy their offensive line, and explain some important terms and techniques that are use.

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