You could make an argument against the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line as the most improved unit in football this season, but you better be pretty good at arguing. Indianapolis ranks 12th in offensive DVOA, 10th in yards per drive, and sixth in points per drive. Much of that success can be pinned on the big guys up front.
The easy thing to say is how big a deal the addition of Quenton Nelson, the sixth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, has been. That is true, but not nearly the whole story. Indianapolis has been great just about everywhere on the line both in run and pass blocking.
There were attempts to put pieces in place as offensive line investments — left tackle Anthony Castonzo was a first-round pick all the way back in 2011 and center Ryan Kelly was a first-rounder in 2016 — but the rest of the pieces didn’t fall into place until this past year, made with an effort made into improving the line. Nelson, the consensus top offensive line prospect in the draft, was taken in the first round and Auburn’s Braden Smith was taken as the Colts’ second second-round pick, the first of three from the trade with the New York Jets, the pick after Indianapolis used their first second-round pick on Darius Leonard, who has already become one of the league’s most impactful linebackers. Smith was drafted as a guard but got time at tackle due to a myriad of injuries during training camp and has settled on the outside throughout the season. Only one of the Colts’ five starters along the line really came by accident — right guard Mark Glowinski was a waiver claim from the Seattle Seahawks in December of last year.
A heavy investment in the offensive line was a necessity for this team and pass blocking, specifically, was a huge hole that needed to be fixed. During Andrew Luck’s entire career, the Colts have struggled to put a line in front of him that was even competent in pass protection. That is no longer the case. Per ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, Indianapolis has the No. 1 guard (Nelson), No. 3 center (Kelly), and No. 6 tackle (Anthony Castonzo). Sports Info Solutions charting data has the Colts with the fourth-lowest pressure rate allowed.
Since Luck’s rookie year, he had been one of the most hit quarterbacks in the league. Some of that was his own doing — Luck has admitted that he liked getting hit early in games to get him in a groove. Part of that mentality played into a shoulder injury that caused Luck to miss all of 2017, but that hasn’t been a concern this season between a quicker time to throw — Luck averages 2.63 seconds to throw per Next Gen Stats, down from 2.88 in 2016 — and a better line in front of him, Luck has gone from one of the most hit quarterbacks in the league to well above league average. He also leads the league in sack rate at just 2.3 percent.
Andrew Luck Hits
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What this has allowed is a confidence in the offensive line that has not been present in the Luck era. That gives the opportunity for the offense to create big plays down the field. Indianapolis no longer runs the Bruce Arians vertical attack, and they only rank 29th in big play rate, but the Colts still take some shots when they get the chance.
On this play against Houston in Week 14, the Colts are spread out leaving just the five offensive linemen to protect Luck. The o-line here is a bit short-handed. Kelly was out, so Evan Boehm (67) was in at center and Glowinski was injured earlier in the game, which caused Josh Andrews (63) to fill in. With a weakened interior of the line, the Colts asked a lot of their tackles. On this play, that ask was one-on-one blocks against J.J. Watt on one side and Jadeveon Clowney on the other. At no other time in the Luck era would the Colts have the confidence in the tackles to execute those blocks and if they did, there was a high probability they would be wrong.
But Castonzo and Smith hold their blocks on the outside and Houston only rushes three, which doesn’t really matter because all three interior linemen could have taken on more defenders. Luck was under no pressure and found T.Y. Hilton open deep down the field.
Having the trust and ability to hold up one-on-one opens up more possibilities against a standard four-man rush. On this play against the Buffalo Bills — 12th in pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions and fifth in Pass Rush Win Rate per ESPN — Buffalo sent four and the Colts pick the play up well. That allows Nelson, without a man, to move from help with Kelly up the middle to running over Jerry Hughes (55), who was rushing against Castonzo. With no threat of a rush, Luck was able to look downfield then find an open outlet to Marlon Mack, who ran 29 yards for a touchdown.
The Colts individually have the players who can hold up in pass protection and also the communication across the line to help each other out. Against Dallas last week, the Cowboys sent a five-man rush with a stunt in the interior. Defensive tackle Tyronne Crawford looped from Nelson’s outside shoulder around to out of right guard Joe Haeg’s (73). Again with the tackles taking on the edge rushers one-on-one, the the interior lineman had little problem passing off the three rushers up the middle. Watch the transition when Crawford loops — Nelson immediately slides over to Cauron Reid (93), Kelly slides to linebacker Jaylon Smith (54), and Haeg released to get just enough of Crawford on the stunt.
This line has also been a monster in the running game. Per Football Outsiders, the Colts rank sixth in Adjusted Line Yards, which divides credit between the line and running backs depending on the length of a given run. The line’s ability to create holes allows for a rotation of backs — Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins to be successful. Opening those holes is important for this Colts team because the running backs haven’t been able to consistently create on their own. The backs are sixth in second level yards (runs from 5-10 yards) but just 22nd in open field yards (runs of 10 yards or more). Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines have not been the type of runners to break tackles and gain more yards than they’ve been given this season.
The below chart plots running backs with at least 100 touches and their broken tackles this season. Both Hines and Mack are in the lower portion (blue dots), under expectations given their touches.
Mack, though, can take advantage of the holes given as one of the better downhill runners in the league. Next Gen Stats ranks Mack fifth among qualified running backs in Efficiency, which measures the number of total yards run per yard gained. The Colts used this downhill game to gash the Cowboys and a defensive line that ranks sixth in Adjusted Line Yards on the ground last week for 178 yards.
Early in the game, the Colts had the ball inside the Dallas 10 yard-line. At the snap, Nelson took Antwuan Woods (99), pushed him back and used him as a pick against safety Jeff Heath (38), who was being blocked by wide receiver Dontrelle Inman (15). Ryan Kelly got straight to the second level to take out linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55). Mack took the opening down to the 1 and scored three plays later.
In the third quarter, the Colts faced a first-and-10 from the Dallas 27. Kelly again immediately went to the second level to take out Jaylon Smith (54) and this time he was joined by Anthony Castonzo, who pulled from left tackle to take out Vander Esch. Those two blocks opened up a lane for a 21-yard run.
On the next play, the Colts ran two double teams from the interior. Haeg and Kelly took on Woods, while Castonzo and Nelson took on Reid. The key there is that Castonzo/Nelson double team took on another player when they used Reid to also take out Vander Esch. Mack had a hole for a 6-yard touchdown.
Right now there is really no weakness on the Indianapolis offensive line, especially when healthy, which they should be in Week 15. With the amount of investments put into the unit, that was the plan and to this point, it worked.