Before ya get all frothy, this isn't some hot-take Andrew Luck slam piece -- we don't do that at FBF. He's been a pro throughout his team's early season struggles, never blaming the offensive line publicly. But his coach's and many media have bent over backwards to pin the Colts offensive problems on everyone but the organization's leader. The nameless, faceless "o-line" is easier to blame than the talented QB. Must be them, right?
The reality is it's complicated. The quarterback is the most important part of pass protection. And if the Colts are going to make a competitive game of this weekend's emotional contest with the New England Patriots, dumbed-down, blame-shifting solutions like "gotta protect Luck better!" won't fly.
Simply put: Andrew Luck can (and needs to) play better.
A week ago, the Indianapolis Colts beat the Houston Texans on the road 27-20 with 40-year old backup Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback for the injured Luck. The 27 points the Colts scored would have been sufficient to win in 12 of the 14 games played last weekend.
When the Colts stunk up the joint against the New York Jets the fingers of blame were sure to come out, especially with the beloved Luck taking a bunch of nasty hits and ultimately getting injured. The national sorrow for the super-talented QB who got hit too much rained down on the Colts offensive line. They are going to get Luck killed or something!
As was the theme for many of [Luck's] problems against the Jets, the line's blocking performance had nothing to do with his mistakes.
The problem with that singular line of blame-bombing is the QB controls the outcome of the protection--his own errors can (and often do) get him hit. Peyton Manning isn't one of the least hit QBs in the NFL over the last 15 years because he's had the best pass protection. He controls whether or not he gets hit by getting rid of the football.
Remember that infamous quote from Colt head coach Chuck Pagano in the aftermath of his team's 20-7 loss to the New York Jets in Week 2? Pagano seemingly threw his offensive line and the general manager who signed them under the proverbial bus, "[It's] been the case for three years now, has it not?" Pagano said. "[Luck] should be more comfortable dealing with it."
The problem with flaming this notion of a poor-blocking offensive line is the game film of that Jets performance shows Luck bears a significant portion of the blame. With the Colts making changes at three of five positions on the offensive line since, and employing much more quick (smart) passing game during Hasselbeck's sub work, Sunday night will be an opportunity to see if Luck learned from his time off.
If he makes the same mistakes in reading pressure, missing hot reads, and pressing the ball downfield into no-win situations when better options exist, it won't matter who is blocking. Luck's decisions with the football will be the far & away key to whether or not Indianapolis can compete with New England.
One quick sidebar before we dive into the tape...
During the hand-wringing in Luck's absence, this notion of the Colts not investing enough in the people charged with protecting the Colts star QB was a popular song. That may be the perception, but the reality is Luck steps on the field this Sunday with an offensive line not markedly different in terms of initial investment than the other top QBs or top offenses in the NFL. Criticism for not acquiring or developing the right offensive lineman may be warranted, but based upon the overall average round of entry into the NFL, the Colts initial investment of talent is very normal for their offensive line relative to others (below). In fact, it's the same as Green Bay and more than New England and Atlanta (see below).
In other words, the Colts have invested at a similar rate to their competition in offensive line talent and should have more than enough to win...unless of course they just acquired the wrong people.
No Christmas In October
The Jets played Luck with a steady amount of creative defensive pressures, keeping the QB guessing. And Luck didn't handle it very well at all. The Patriots historically don't rely heavily on pressure packages and blitzing, but after watching Luck's struggles, the idea of mixing them in occasionally situationally has to be tempting after watching his struggles.
The example below shows a defensive back (circled in green) caught sneaking down to the line of scrimmage before the snap. With the linebackers hugging over center, the likelihood of an upcoming overload pressure where the ball would need to come out immediately was near-certain. Luck chose not to audible out of the situation where a quick-passing option would have torched the defensive look.
Instead, Luck kept his eyes and back to the DB pressure side, staring down a two-man downfield route combination that had no chance of working before the blitz would arrive. The play ended in a predictable interception and the broadcast shots of Luck being "under pressure" would encourage phony notions of o-line problems that really weren't the root cause on this particular play. In the unlikely event the Patriots telegraph a pre-snap pressure like this, Luck's decision of whether or not to audible or find a hot or short-field option will tell the story of whether or not he keeps giving the ball away to defenses.
It's impossible to know from the outside to what degree Andrew Luck has license to change the plays called by Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton by audibling to a more favorable look. Without knowing who bears the brunt of that responsibility, it's true nonetheless: if there's no low or hot element in the route patterns near the core of the formation on Sunday night, the Patriots will feast.
Luck's faith in his talented arm is well documented. And we all know he went to Stanford and is a very bright guy. But that doesn't mean bright guys can't engage in dumb football. Throwing at NYJ cornerback Darrelle Revis is usually not advisable, but a QB with Luck's ability will still try to fit it in against even the best defensive backs. But when he tries to do so when Revis has safety help over the top and there are better option in the flats, the decision to throw it where he did is an undoubtedly stupid one (below).
Predictably, this ended in another interception for Luck. And as was the theme for many of his problems on that day, the line's blocking performance had nothing to do with this critical mistake.
Patriots defenders certainly hope this is the Luck that returns on Sunday night. If that's the case, it won't matter who's playing offensive line.
When it's all said and done, Luck has the field smarts and ability to do the right thing -- there's plenty of that on tape as well. In that same game against the Jets, Luck hit WR Phillip Dorsett over the ball as the Jets sent another 5-man pressure. Instead of eye-balling the deep elements of the pass pattern, Luck kept his eyes low and found Dorsett streaking across the formation in the vacancy the pressure created (below).
This was an example of smart football by Luck. And the kind of play design that found a greater role in Colts gameplans when Matt Hasselbeck held the wheel.
Obviously Luck is the future of the Colts franchise, so pointing out his errors isn't kindling for a phony QB-controversy. But the fact is, he hasn't performed well enough for his team to win, so a public scapegoating of an offensive line that wasn't playing well themselves gave him cover that his play didn't deserve.
There will be no cover Sunday night.
What Luck must do with this new opportunity is learn from what Matt did in the last two weeks and adapt it to his own game. If he doesn't, there are several blowout losses against past Patriots teams to tell you exactly how this thing will go...
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