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2017 AFC South Season Preview: Indianapolis Colts

Matt Weston continues his preview of the AFC South with the Indianapolis Colts.

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Detroit Lions v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts are the worst team in the AFC South this year. They have the least talented roster because of Ryan Grigson’s “Madden 2010 “scouting, and they have the worst coaching staff in the division, depending on how you feel about Doug Marrone. The thing is, it hasn’t mattered all that much because they employ Andrew Luck. That gigantic, book-reading oaf is a top ten quarterback who has dragged a bad roster that runs a scheme that doesn’t fit his skill set for the last three seasons. Luck has erased management’s mistakes. He transcends the scheme he plays in. He makes everyone around him better.

The problem for Indy this year is that Luck hasn’t thrown a football yet this preseason. He had shoulder surgery in the offseason to repair an injury he sustained against the Titans in 2015. It was his decision to get his labrum corrected, and now he is set to miss Week One because he decided to live a less painful life.

The Colts have said they won’t place Luck on the PUP list, but no one knows when he’s going to play. The only guess is that it’s somewhere between Weeks Two and Five. During that spat of time, the Colts are playing the Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, and the San Francisco 49ers. That’s a manageable schedule for a team that has a viable backup quarterback and talent surrounding him. The Colts have Scott Tolzien, an offense that Luck lifts up to above average, and a completely rebuilt defense.

Last season, the Colts finished 12th in offensive DVOA. The passing game was the result of Luck being absurd and lots of throws to T.Y. Hilton. The running game was one of the best at the league at smashing the ball up the middle. For the offense to succeed, Luck has to be so, so, so, SO good.

The biggest thorn that Luck has to prune and prick when on the field is his offensive line. The interior pass blocking is usually okay. Ryan Kelly is great at helping the guards out. He’s a natural lateral mover and can easily shift from helping with defensive tackles to picking up ‘A’ gap blitzers. The guards have issues on their own at times with leaning and lunging, but overall that part of the line is solid. The problems come from the exterior.

On the outside, the Colts employed Anthony Castonzo at left tackle and a combination of Joe Haeg and Joe Reitz on the right side. Castonzo is as average as it gets on the left side. He’s a good mover, but he doesn’t have the upper body strength to ever really control a block. On the other side, both tackles last season had the strength but didn’t have the feet to hang on the outside. Outside linebackers and defensive ends constantly provided pressure by running around them, or ripping past their outside shoulder, and then bullrushed through once the tackles overextend to stop the speed rush.

When Luck is playing against teams with a terrifying and brain scarring exterior pass rush, this is the usual. Castonzo is square at the point of attack, but his punch brings nothing. He places his hands on the defender. He doesn’t punch. Tamba Hali is able to quickly knock his hands off, and rip under to get free. On the right side, Reitz gets beat to the point of attack. He isn’t square, and he makes contact with his shoulders turned. Dee Ford stretches an arm out to take advantage of this angle. Luck is sandwiched from both ends.

Sometimes it leads to sacks, and occasionally it leads to turnovers, like this one created by Von Miller that led to Luck calling Cam Newton after the game to share newfound empathy.

Paddling through all a life lived like this has taken its toll on Luck. He’s 27 and looks 35 because of the bruises and detonations he’s suffered thanks to his offensive line. Carapaces can only protect so much. During his career, Luck been knocked down 122 times (1st) in 2012, 115 times (1st) in 2013, 115 times (1st) in 2014), 59 times (N/A) in 2015, and 126 times (2nd) in 2016. Some of it is on him. He holds onto the ball longer than he should to wait for deeper routes to open up. He sees open receivers later than you would expect. Yet throughout his career, he has never received competent pass protection from his tackles.

Luck has survived, despite being hit so many times and being pressured on 33.3% of his dropbacks last season (31st). He’s “sneakily athletic,” great at stepping away from pressure and dumping the ball off and picking when to run for first downs. If you want to know why Indy’s run DVOA is as good as it is and the discrepancy between their sack and pressure rate, it’s because of Luck’s scrambling ability.

Luck isn’t only quick. He’s an ogre. Tacklers bounce off of him like magnets with the same polarity. His strength is why he’s able to sit in the pocket as long as he does, throw rockets in the face of free blitzers, and turn sacks into first downs through the air.

On this play, Luck steps up in the pocket away from a seething Demarcus Ware. This brings him right to a free blitzing linebacker. He spins away from the sack then looks to throw downfield. Nothing is open. He pulls the ball in and picks up the first.

Not every scramble and escape from the rush is successful. Too often Luck doesn’t just go down and live to play again. He always looks to fight through the abuse and prevent negative plays. Knockdowns and interceptions arise. Frankly, Luck has been lucky he hasn’t thrown more interceptions than he has.

This year isn’t going to look much different than previous ones on the Colts’ offensive line. Scott Tolzien and Luck are going to have to fight through pressure. Indianapolis didn’t add much of anything to their offensive line this year. Reitz retired. Haeg is moving to left guard. Ryan Kelly is out for eight weeks with a bone defect in his foot, whatever that means; Brian Schwenke will take his place. Jack Mewhort will start at right guard when healthy. Sadly for Indy, last year’s third round pick La’Raven Clark was benched and former UDFA/practice squad battlefighter Jeremy Vujnovich is expected to start at right tackle.

Luck doesn’t only have to make up for the deficiencies of his offensive line. He has to overcome the shortcomings of his skill position teammates as well. The Colts’ receivers have problems breaking man coverage. Aside from T.Y. Hilton, the receiving corps either lacks athleticism or route-running subtlety. Donte Moncrief has stuck around through injuries because of box outs and great ball placement from Luck. Phillip Dorsett makes one cut and goes; he doesn’t understand the nuances of the position.

Luck doesn’t get easy throws created from his receivers often enough. Hilton being spectacular, or bunched formations with flat routes to the outside and delayed pick plays, are the usual instances when Luck gets an easy shot to move the ball. The rest requires either perfect ball placement or Luck to manufacture his own receivers open.

This is a simple slant route to Moncrief. There isn’t any separation here. The defensive back is on Moncrief’s back. Luck places the ball perfectly where only Moncrief can snag it.

This is a second and six when Indy opted to spread things out. Luck is all by himself in the backfield with Trips Right. Kansas City is running Cover One with a safety deep.

Dwayne Allen, running a deep dig route, is the only receiver with any semblance of separation. Both outside receivers are stuck. Phillip Dorsett is trounced to the ground. To keep the safety away, Luck looks right and pump fakes to pull him up the field.

Luck steps up in the pocket and hits Allen in stride once the safety inches towards the end zone.

Of course the pocket Luck is playing through is a mosh pit of angsty bodies.

Pass plays are created in the pocket. When the pass blocking is excellent, the receivers aren’t always able to shake coverage. Indy’s quarterback will maneuver around the pocket to create angles to open his receivers.

Against Kansas City, nothing is open downfield. Their linebackers are playing a soft underneath zone. Scanning and unable to find anything open, Luck hangs right. Erik Swoope follows his movement and cuts the same direction. This separates Swoope from the inside linebacker and takes advantage of the hole opened up by Frank Gore leaking out of the backfield. If Luck stays still and Swoope doesn’t follow, the throw is opened to be knock down by the inside linebacker at that angle.

These results in the passing game can’t be replicated with Scott Tolzien. Since Luck was drafted, the team has a offensive DVOA of 1.44% with him—12.06% pass, -4.04% run. Without Luck, these same stats drop to -24.57%, -11.94%, and -36.01%.

Luck is the reason the Colts have won football games. Without him, this offense is a disaster. There are few quarterbacks in the league that can do what he can. There isn’t a backup in the world who can make these absurd throws, play with the pressure he plays with, and get his receivers open like Luck does.

Running the ball up the middle was the one thing the Colts did well that Luck didn’t have a direct impact on. Last season, Indy ranked first in adjusted line yards on runs up the middle with 5.32 and averaged 4.42 yards a carry in the same direction (5th). Leading back Frank Gore ran the ball in this direction 157 times, picking up 688 of his 1,025 rushing yards, along with two touchdowns and 32 first downs.

The run game worked because Indy’s offensive line is really great at moving the line of scrimmage. Making one-on-one down blocks and driving double teams, they turned defensive lines into hair-covered furniture.

With one tight end right and out of the shotgun, the Colts are running an inside zone play right here. In the process they are getting a strong ‘Ace’ between Haeg (#73) and Kelly (#78) and a wide double between Reitz (#76) and Jack Doyle (#84) while the rest of the line has man-on-man blocks.

Kelly has some of the best footwork you’ll see at the center position. He is able to get outside shoulder placement while still hitting the nose tackle square because of his feet. This gives Haeg perfect position to take over the block and still get hip to hip. Kelly’s ability to set up blocks for the guards and get to the second level is the main reason why Indy was great at running the the ball up the middle last season.

The ‘Ace’ comes out perfectly. They’re together and driving.

When the linebacker fills the hole, Kelly is able to peel off easily. Haeg has the defensive tackle with his back away from the ball. The one-on-one blocks came out well. The only issue is Reitz is unable to get to the safety. He’s swallowed up by Denzelle Good’s (#71) destruction. When Robert Turbin gets the hand-off, he has a split to zip through.

Indy’s run game is far from perfect, though. As seen here, aside from Kelly, they don’t block the second level well. They stick onto the first for too long and lack the natural quickness to cover up faster players.

The Colts’ fastest back was Robert Turbin. Frank Gore can’t run around the edges at his age. He’s fine as he’s currently used. He knows where to attack the defense, his legs are always moving, he falls forward, and he picks up everything the offensive line provides for him. You just can’t expect Gore to cut outside with any success. Everything is limited between the tackles with him. It’s going to be integral for the rushing game this season that rookie running back Marlon Mack is able to steal carries from Gore and provide something on runs to and outside the tackles.

Finally, the Colts’ secondary blockers don’t provide much of anything when they go to heavy personnel. A lot of their 22 personnel runs are ruined by tight ends, wide receivers lined up close to the line of scrimmage, and fullbacks who provide nothing, all while the offensive line runs through the first level.

Now in 2017, a successful run game is in question with Kelly’s injury. Schwenke is a starting center in the NFL, but there’s an enormous drop-off from top five to starting-caliber. Kelly makes the guards around him better. He’s the focal point of a scheme that needs him to move the first level and get to the inside linebacker. With him out, things aren’t going to be like they were last year. Not only is Indy going to start the year without Luck, but it’s expected their replacement quarterback will be helped by a lesser run game.

Defensively, crusty and corroded, that old rickety unit finally broke. Mediocre in past seasons, the defense constructed with expensive veteran free agents fell from 13th to 29th in DVOA. The average age of the defense from 2016 to 2013 was 28.0 (2nd), 28.6 (1st), 28.3 (1st), and 27.7 (4th) years. During this time, the Colts ranked 29th, 13th, 13th, and 16th in DVOA.

Old and busted, this defense wasn’t good at anything. They couldn’t rush the passer, ranking 13th in adjusted sack rate and 32nd in pressure rate. The fact that Erik Walden had 11 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, 13 hurries, and still isn’t signed says so much about the Colts’ pass rush. Slow at the linebacker position, they couldn’t cover running backs or tight ends, had a DVOA of 38.5% (31st) and 33.1% (31st) covering those positions, obliterated by short passes. They also had the worst run defense DVOA in the NFL, allowing 4.7 yards a carry, 1.42 adjusted line yards at the second level, and 4.83 adjusted line yards overall (31st).

From mediocre to abysmal, the defense fell, and Chris Ballard made the correct decision to completely rehaul this side of the ball. The Colts new mandal-rocking general manager released older, cap-sucking players like D’Qwell Jackson, Arthur Jones, and Kendall Langford, and then spent the offseason doing something similar to what Jacksonville did in 2016, minus the big name high dollar free agents. The Colts signed, deep breath, John Simon, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo, Margus Hunt, Al Woods, Sean Spence, Johnathan Hankins, and Darius Bush. They drafted Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson, Tarell Basham, Grover Stewart, Nate Hairston, and Anthony Walker Jr.. Vontae Davis may be the only Week One starter on this roster from last year’s team.

Colts 2017 Defensive Additions

Signed Position Years Total Amount (Million) Guaranteed (Million) Age
Signed Position Years Total Amount (Million) Guaranteed (Million) Age
John Simon OLB 3 $13.50 $5.50 27
Jabaal Sheared DE 3 $25.50 $12.75 26
Barkevious Mingo DE/OLB 1 $2.00 $0.50 26
Margus Hunt DE 2 $4.10 $0.50 30
Al Woods DT 2 $4.00 $1.25 30
Sean Spence ILB 1 $2.50 $0.75 27
Johnathan Hankins DT 3 $27.00 $14.50 25
Darius Butler CB 1 $3.00 $2.50 31
Drafted Position Round (Pick#) College
Malik Hooker S 1 (15) Ohio State
Quincy Wilson CB 2 (46) Florida
Tarell Basham DE 3 (80) Ohio
Grover Stewart DT 4 (144) Albany St
Nate Hairston CB 5 (158) Temple
Anthony Walker Jr ILB 5 (161) Northwestern

The Colts added an entire defense. I really liked what Ballard did this offseason. He signed a lot of players on their second contract, or brought in cheap, bargain bin players with specific skills. The only player guaranteed more than $5.5 million is Johnathan Hankins, who has and will continue to be a great run stopper. Everyone they signed is committed to Indy for a short time.

The defense is going to be better. The problem is the defense still won’t be very good. Aside from Malik Hooker, who is going to be Earl Thomas-like in coverage without the tackling ability, and Johnathan Hankins, the Colts didn’t add any real impact playmakers. The rest are a bunch of solid to nice signings. With this type of offseason, Ballard is building a foundation. He bought a bunch of scratch-offs, hoping that he hits on four of these. He wants to figure out what this defense excels at so he can fill in the rest next offseason.

It’s not a defense that can win games on its own. It’s not a running attack that can do that either. It’s not an offensive line that can protect the quarterback well enough to make things easy. It’s not teeming with skill players who make the quarterback better. The Colts are going to be terrible without Andrew Luck. Even when he does get back, whenever he gets back, they are going to have to gouge and rake to win games.

In a weird way, the Colts are rebuilding their second team. The failed previous iteration from previous seasons didn’t take full advantage of Luck’s rookie contract. Flush with cap space, Grigson used it incorrectly, building an old defense to pair with an offense lacking playmakers or an offensive line to protect Luck. Now with a new general manager and Luck on his second contract, Indy is building their next team under a different set of circumstances.

Even if everything is pointing to a miserable and psuedo-rebuild season, it’s still the Colts. They still have that horseshoe on their helmet. Things usually work out for the blue and white. It’s impossible for them not to hang around .500. If it was any other team, I’d expect five wins. Since it’s Indy, I’ll go with more.

Prediction: 7-9.