For the Indianapolis Colts, expectations are high.
Andrew Luck is entering his third season in the NFL, Dwayne Allen and Reggie Wayne are both back from season-ending injuries while new faces like Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief look to find their own roles in the passing game.
Even with questions at running back, Colts fans believe that Luck and company can be a top-five offense in the NFL. However, if their offensive line can't hold it together, the Colts could see an early exit out of the playoffs in January.
The offensive line in Indianapolis has been a big weakness since Luck came to town, yet the Colts are hoping that the pieces they brought in will be enough of an upgrade to improve upon their scoring numbers, as they ranked 14th in the NFL in 2013 with 24.4 points per game.
Even with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the conference, the AFC is wide open. The Colts are almost a lock for the AFC South title, but the offensive line is going to determine just how far this team can go.
Depth a Bigger Concern Than Talent
Heading into the offseason, Chuck Pagano and the rest of the coaching staff felt good about the depth they had on the offensive line.
Unfortunately, that has quickly changed.
Donald Thomas once again tore his quad, leaving him out for the second consecutive season. Khaled Holmes sprained his ankle in the preseason opener against the New York Jets, and backup center Jonotthan Harrison is dealing with an injured thumb, with both questionable to play on Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
Injuries continue to pop up, and the season hasn't even started.
|Colts Offensive Line Depth Chart|
|LT||Anthony Castonzo||Joe Reitz|
|C||Khaled Holmes||Jonotthan Harrison||A.Q. Shipley|
|RG||Hugh Thornton||Lance Louis|
|RT||Gosder Cherilus||Xavier Nixon|
Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus will have to stay healthy for the Colts to have any kind of consistency on the offense line. The two starting offensive tackles played on nearly every snap last season, and both held their own.
The bigger concern is on the interior of the line, especially with Thomas out. Hugh Thornton will start once again after a rough rookie season, although he may be able to turn it around in his sophomore stint. Still, the Colts will have two inexperienced offensive guards in Thornton and Jack Mewhort with a huge question mark in between them at center.
It's still unclear whether or not Holmes or Harrison will be ready to go Sunday, which means that the Colts have been working with A.Q. Shipley, who returned to Indianapolis last Sunday, as the first-team center.
"It’s definitely a little bit of a whirlwind. It’s been an interesting weekend for sure. You go from a down, then you get an up." Shipley told Kevin Bowen from Colts.com about being thrown into the fire. "You find out you’re coming here, then you’re on a plane three hours later and eight hours later you’re back in here running reps."
The pressure currently on Shipley could shift to any of the backups on the depth chart as the season progresses. After bringing in Shipley, the Colts still only have five backup offensive linemen, and all could be asked to play anything from center to offensive tackle down the road.
It's not a question of if an offensive lineman will go down, it's a matter of when. According to Kyle Rodriguez from Colts Authority, the Colts have been the most injured team in the NFL since 2009 with 468.4 adjusted games lost.
Injuries will force the Colts to make adjustments and move players around, but as we've seen in the past two seasons, Luck can carry this offense when needed.
Can the Offense Overcome Offensive Line Concerns?
Even though Pep Hamilton and Pagano want to base their offense around the running game, it will run and thrive through Luck. In just two seasons, he's accumulated 11 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comebacks with both his arm and legs.
Having said that, Luck hasn't been terrific when under pressure, and he's had to deal with it a lot over the past two years. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he completed just 44.9 percent of his passes under pressure in 2013 and only 39.4 percent in 2012. Those numbers aren't pretty, but it's also worth noting that he was under pressure on 37.5 percent of his dropbacks the past two seasons (h/t PFF).
|Andrew Luck Passing Under Pressure in 2013|
|Drop-backs||Comp. %||YPA||TD||INT||QB Rating|
|Pro Football Focus|
Those numbers should go up thanks to the plethora of weapons at his disposal. T.Y. Hilton is primed for a huge season with the defense having to focus on other targets, which should help Luck get out of a few more jams.
Even if Luck carries the offense, you can expect the Colts to continue to try and work Trent Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield. While Richardson can't pass along all of the blame, the offensive line didn't do him any favors. The third-year running back has had a full offseason with the team, but he needs to be more decisive when hitting the hole.
With Luck at quarterback, anything can happen, but this offensive line needs to stay intact. Sunday's game against Denver will be a good barometer for how this offense can perform with the current line against an intimidating front seven that has players like Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Terrance Knighton.
If the Colts can put a few touchdowns on the board against Denver, they might be able to get by. But once the playoffs start, an injury-plagued offensive line is going to have a lot of problems.