Andrew Luck Set to Have Best Season of His Career in Spite of Pep Hamilton

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2014

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Not for the first time, Andrew Luck has done something unique.

The Indianapolis Colts' starting quarterback is the only player in NFL history to throw for at least 370 yards, complete at least 70 percent of his passes, throw for four touchdowns and have just one total turnover in back-to-back games, according to Los Angeles Times writer Sam Farmer.

Those two games came against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 4 after Luck threw for just 172 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2.

During and after the Eagles game, there was a huge amount of criticism directed toward Colts' offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton for his play-calling. Luck threw the ball 34 times that night, but 13 of those attempts came within the final 18 minutes of the game, and Trent Richardson combined with Ahmad Bradshaw for 34 rushing attempts.

It would be very easy to suggest that Hamilton has changed his approach ever since.

Luck attempted 80 passes over the past two games and put up record numbers. Hamilton must be doing something right, no? If you simply make judgments based on results alone, the answer to that question is yes.

However, you'd be ignoring the nuance of what is actually happening on the field.

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Hamilton's play-calling wasn't the protagonist for change. Instead, it was Luck's talent overriding the quality of the opposition.

The biggest flaw in Hamilton's play-calling isn't simply that he runs the ball too often but that he runs the ball too much on early downs. Early downs determine how the offense builds its production; it determines what the defense expects in different situations.

On 31 1st-and-10 plays against the Titans, Hamilton called 20 running plays with Luck on the field.

Those 20 running plays averaged 2.9 yards per carry (not considering one play that was negated by penalty). Only one of those plays went for a loss, but 13 went for three or fewer yards. Ten of those runs went for two yards or less.

When the Colts passed the ball on 1st-and-10 in typical dropback situations that gave Luck multiple options—i.e. not screen plays where the receiver was predetermined—the offense gained at least seven yards on six of 10 plays. On two of the plays that didn't result in seven yards, receivers dropped accurate passes.

One of those drops could have potentially been a touchdown and would have at least been a huge reception.

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The Colts came out in the pistol formation, a formation that should be prominent in the Indianapolis offense. Luck is still in position to make a quick throw or read the defense at the snap, while the three receivers outside with one offset fullback and a running back makes for a balanced alignment.

The Titans defense reacts by spacing out its front but keeping all 11 players within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

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Luck runs a quick play action to Richardson before turning to survey the field. His eyes naturally move to the right side initially before coming around to locate T.Y. Hilton running down the seam. Luck is very quick to recognize Hilton and lets the ball go without wasted movement.

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Hilton waits on the ball to arrive, which it does, but by waiting for it instead of reaching back for it, Hilton allowed the defender working underneath to put him off. Even though the ball reaches Hilton in a spot where he should make a comfortable catch, his concentration appeared to be broken.

The ball bounced off his hands and negated an accurate throw from Luck. The ball traveled at least 37 yards past the line of scrimmage, but Hilton's momentum alone would have carried him toward a 40-yard gain.

Running on first down is supposed to set the offense up in a situation where the threat of both the run and pass exists on second down. That's not what the Colts running game was doing, but Hamilton continued to call running plays to put Luck in undesirable situations.

The Colts faced 22 2nd-and-7-plus or 3rd-and-5-plus plays in this game when Luck was on the field. On 13 of those plays, Luck converted for a first down. Luck's 59 percent success rate on these kinds of plays is almost double the league average for last season, according to Football Outsiders (subscription required).

Last season, teams converted 30.6 percent of passing plays on 2nd-and-7-plus or 3rd/4th-and-5-plus. Luck had one other play when he threw for 14 yards on 2nd-and-17 and just four incompletions. One of those incompletions was tipped at the line, one was purposely thrown away and one was a perfect pass down the field that was negated by obvious defensive pass interference that went uncalled.

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Voluntarily putting your quarterback in these situations on a regular basis without playing to the strengths of your offense is poor decision-making. In these situations, defenses can comfortably blitz and get more creative with their coverages.

On this 3rd-and-6 play, the Titans blitz Luck after initially showing no pressure before the snap.

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Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton is known for his creativity when blitzing. On this play, he initially lines his defense up with two defensive linemen on the field and three linebackers with six defensive backs. Both defensive linemen rush the passer, with both linebackers attacking the center of the offensive line between them.

A safety comes off the edge, meaning the one remaining linebacker who was initially threatening to rush the passer dropped into coverage. This confuses the Colts' pass protection, meaning there is a free rusher attacking Luck's blind side when he reaches the top of his drop.

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Luck never sees the defender coming, but he feels his presence as he closes on him. The quarterback relies on his athleticism to push off his back foot and move sideways in the pocket. As he is moving forward, the defender dives low on his body while he begins his throwing motion.

Despite throwing with a defender hanging off him, Luck locates Reggie Wayne past the first-down marker with a catchable pass.

Luck's athleticism aids his work in the pocket, but it's his eye discipline and footwork that really makes him so effective in these situations. During the second half of this game, he repeatedly showed off his ability to make throws down the field against pressure.

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On 2nd-and-9 here, the Colts spread the field with three receivers, one tight end and a running back next to Luck in the shotgun. The Titans are threatening pressure off both edges, with another defensive back in position to blitz from the slot because he is in press coverage with his eyes in the backfield.

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The Titans rush off of both edges, sending five defenders after the quarterback initially. When the running back stays in to block, a sixth defender begins to move toward the pocket. Luck keeps his eyes downfield, but the routes being run all take time to develop down the field.

Luck has no choice but to hold on to the ball and trust his pass protection as he waits for a receiver to come free.

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Even after holding the ball as the pocket closes on him, Luck still needs to lead his receiver across the field because he hasn't created much separation. The quarterback's pass is slightly high but is thrown on time to a spot where Hilton can get it and fall forward for a first down.

Consistently being put in these situations stretches your skill set.

You can't simply make short throws or get rid of the ball quickly to talented receivers who will make plays for you. The quarterback is forced to show off athleticism, pocket presence, poise, awareness and accuracy. Luck repeatedly showed off these aspects of his skill set throughout this game.

The only reason Hamilton's offense was so effective in this game is because of Luck's skill set. Even though he had two very questionable throws/decisions, Luck carried the offense from tough situations throughout the game. Hamilton doesn't deserve credit for that.

By continuously giving the ball to Richardson and Bradshaw, Hamilton was doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. That is literally Albert Einstein's definition of insanity.

In spite of Hamilton's presence, the third-year starter is on pace for 56 total touchdowns, 16 total turnovers and 5,220 yards while completing 70 percent of his passes this season. Those numbers should be well within his grasp, but even if he doesn't achieve them, he could still enjoy the most impressive season of his career.


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