AFC South All-22 Review: In Indianapolis, the Offensive Line Is Expendable

Nate Dunlevy@NateDunlevyGuest ColumnistDecember 19, 2012

The Indy line has been shoved around all season.
The Indy line has been shoved around all season.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Watt is the best defender in the world.

Even the best lines have trouble blocking him, but when he faced off against one of the worst lines in football, he had his biggest game of the year.

Watt posted three of the Texans' five sacks of Andrew Luck in Week 15, illustrating what fans in Indianapolis have known for months.

The Colts have protection problems.

It's nothing new in Naptown. The Colts haven't fielded a quality offensive line since at least 2007. For the most part, the struggles to find run blockers and pass protectors hasn't held the franchise back. The issue has been debated and discussed, but by now it's clear.

Nearly everyone on the Colts' offensive line is expendable.

Over the last four games, Luck has been sacked 15 times.

When assembling a rough-neck team of super thieves and assassins, there are rules.

So too with building an offensive line.

You have to find the right anchor to ground your line.

For the Colts, that man is Anthony Castonzo.

The former first-round pick is the biggest box-office draw on the unit, and unquestionably the most accomplished run-blocker the Colts have.

Castonzo is the Sly Stallone of the Colts' Expendables. When you hear he's on the job, you feel better about the overall shape of things, as long as you don't look too closely.

Unfortunately, much like Stallone, Castonzo's game begins to look a little plastic on a second watching.

He struggles with speed rushers to the outside, and there's still some question if he's a natural left or right tackle. In the overall scheme of the Indy offense, however, it's clear that he's an asset.

If the Colts had more players like him, they may not have a great line, but it would be much better than it is.

Yes, there's the occasional wooden delivery, but overall Castonzo is more solution than problem. The Colts don't have a line without him. He's the one guy on the roster to keep and build around.

Maybe he shouldn't have such a starring role, but he's an asset, no question.

The Colts have had 11 different players play on the offensive line this season.

Some guys look the part, but you have to question their capability.

Joe Reitz is the Randy Couture of the Indianapolis Colts. He's a beast of a man, but a disaster at right guard.

It's hard to argue with a guard who is 6'7", 320 lbs, but Reitz has been uneven at best. He struggles in both run and pass blocking.

The last thing you'd ever want to do is give this guy a chance to do a scene by himself. The results would be predictably disastrous.

Against Houston, Reitz cost the Colts four points with a devastating holding penalty negating a touchdown pass.

The Colts could switch out any number of giants to play left guard and get roughly the same production. The have already started three different players there this season.

When it comes time to replace Reitz, Indy would be better serviced focusing on guys who can play instead of guys who are big.

The Colts have fielded eight different starting combinations along the offensive line.

The center position is vital to making the whole mix work on an offensive line.

To that end, the Colts' biggest free-agent splash of the offseason came from the signing of their own personal Jason Statham in Samson Satele.

Like Statham, Satele has some credible work on his resume, but fits better as part of an ensemble than as the cornerstone.

Satele is a good run blocker, and the Colts have been successful on short yardage runs up the middle. The problem he has is allowing pressure inside.

The single greatest threat to quarterback production is not the edge rush, but the attack that comes up front. Satele has not been strong at keeping those rushers out of Luck's grill.

He's also battled injuries, opening the door for the Mickey Rourke of the crew, A.Q. Shipley. Shipley has had half as many snaps at center as Satele, but has been much more effective at blunting the pass rush in Luck's face.

Like Rourke, he appears to have some real talent, and you are never sorry about the time he appears on screen.

Both of these players are likely to stick around for the 2013 sequel, but you'd certainly like to find a way to work the better player into the lineup more often.

Pro Football Focus gives a positive overall grade to just two Indianapolis linemen (Castonzo and Shipley).

Right guard has been manned by the Colts' version of Dolph Lundgren all year.

Mike McGlynn has been a disaster at guard, and Watt put his limitations on full display.

Easily the worst lineman the Colts have, he's unquestionably the worst run and worst pass blocker in the lineup.

Against Houston, Watt drove him back consistently, picking up a sack on this particular play. In the shot, you can see McGlynn already has one leg off the ground as Watt has shoved him off balance before taking down Luck.

Lundgren is mostly famous due to institutional memory from Rocky IV, and McGlynn is on the Colts because Colts general manager Ryan Grigson remembered him from his days in Philly.

Fond memories aren't a strong foundation for good line play, however, and the faster the Colts replace McGlynn, the better.

He's the most expendable of the expendables.

Luck is on pace to absorb 42 sacks. That would be second-most in Colts' history.

Winston Justice was another Philly import in the offseason. Much like Bruce Willis, it often feels like he's in the wrong place, just tossed randomly into the pot.

Justice isn't entirely without ability, but he plays more like a stop-gap rather than a solution. It's almost as if someone said, "We need a warm body to play right tackle. Uh, how about Winston Justice? We know him!"

Justice is a spare part meant to fill a hole and is certainly not a long-term fix.

He's been limited by injuries, but has given up several big sacks, and the Colts are less effective running to his side.

His injuries have meant Jeff Linkenbach has had to fill in at tackle.

Against Houston, Linkenbach would have done a better job blocking Watt if he had just taken off his jersey and thrown it at the marauding lineman. At least that way he could have impaired Watt's vision.

Linkenbach is a good kid just trying to fight his way through an NFL career, and that's admirable, but he's not the kind of player you build a line out of.

His resistance to Watt was comparable to the appearance Arnold Schwarzenegger made in The Expendables: token.

Between Linkenbach and McGlynn, Watt had his way with the Colts, forcing three sacks, a fumble and generally destroying everything in his path.

There's no fix coming in 2012. The Colts have to play Watt at least one more time, and there's no sign they'll do any better against him with the next try. The Colts didn't fail schematically, they simply don't have the talent to keep him in check.

Winning the AFC South in the years to come will mean beating Houston, and beating Houston will mean slowing Watt. Justice is better than Linkenbach, and his return could help, but the upgrade isn't dramatic.

Unless they plan on using knives and explosives, that's a tall order for this rag-tag crew.

The good news is that despite a patchwork line that is short on raw talent even when healthy, the Colts are still likely to win double-digit games.

Indy has shown that you don't need a top-shelf line to win consistently. Their best line in recent memory was the 2011 unit, and that team won just two games.

Building an elite offensive line doesn't need to be a priority for Grigson. Luck has already shown the ability to thrive behind a bad line, but things have deteriorated as the season has worn on. It's one thing to have a bad line. It's another to have one of the worst in football.

Looking ahead, the Colts need to replace at least three-fifths of their starters along the front. Even league-average blocking would be more than sufficient to help the offense advance to the next level. Indy doesn't need to invest high picks or big dollars into revamping the unit. It just needs to find guys slightly better and significantly healthier.

Still, improvements must be made, because while the big guys up front may be expendable, Andrew Luck isn't.


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