A Closer Look at the Colts Offensive Line

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts offensive line has been terrible this year, but with some shuffling in the lineup recently, it is showing improvement. Still, the position needs to be addressed in the offseason - again.

The easiest statement to write on this site would be the statement: "the Colts offensive line has been bad this year."  You'd really get no argument on that.

And that's because it is true - this Colts offensive line hasn't been very good.  According to ESPN and NFL statistics, the Colts have allowed 98 quarterback hits - the third highest total in the NFL.  Factor in total pressures and the number is much, much higher.  The fact that Andrew Luck has only taken 30 sacks (the 6th fewest amount in the NFL) is remarkable and a testament to the brilliance of Andrew Luck, as it shows several things:

  1. Andrew Luck gets rid of the ball quickly.  It's still not as quick as some would like, but I would also caution that with the realization that Colts fans just got done watching Peyton Manning for 13 years - a guy with perhaps the quickest release in football.  Sure, there's still room to improve in terms of Luck getting the ball out faster, but that doesn't mean it is bad by any means.  In fact, it is quite good.
  2. Andrew Luck isn't afraid to take a hit.  If needed, he will stand in until the last second before he throws the ball, making for a better opportunity on the throw (usually - not always) but at the same time taking a hit.  Luck isn't afraid to take a hit when needed (or even when it's not needed...).
  3. Andrew Luck avoids pressure extremely well.  For a second year quarterback (or anyone, really), Luck's pocket presence is incredible.   He breaks quite a few tackles in the pocket and makes guys miss quite a bit.  He senses the pressure really well.
Despite Luck's impressive abilities when it comes to avoiding sacks, the fact still remains that the Colts offensive line has been bad.  Entering the offseason and the 2013 season, the first and foremost mandate from owner Jim Irsay on down to general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano was to protect the quarterback.  It was clear that nobody was happy with the way the Colts' line performed in 2012.  Grigson got a pass for the line failures last year because of how his hands were tied with the salary cap and he still managed to put together a team that went 11-5 and made the playoffs.  Several of the offensive linemen - namely starters Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn, and Winston Justice - were brought in by Grigson in his first offseason running the team and they looked like nothing more than stop-gap players to hold things over until the Colts had more money to spend and another draft to utilize - both of which the Colts had in 2013.  It was understood by many Colts fans that the rebuild was still happening, and while we all noticed the failures of those three linemen (mainly the failures of Satele and McGlynn), we also didn't blame Grigson for them because we understood that he had done a tremendous job with little and that he would address those concerns in the next offseason, when he actually had money to use.

And he certainly addressed the areas of need.  The problem is that he addressed them poorly, and the result has been another terrible year for the Colts offensive line - and this year, Ryan Grigson is to blame.

He let Justice walk in free agency.  But the two worst linemen from 2012  (Satele and McGlynn)?  Not only did he retain them on the roster, but he left them as starters.  And he also traded away backup center A.Q. Shipley to the Baltimore Ravens, and while Shipley wasn't a great player by any means he certainly outplayed Satele in 2012.

The moves he did make were to bring in guard Donald Thomas and tackle Gosder Cherilus in free agency, plus he drafted guard Hugh Thornton and center Khaled Holmes.  He also re-signed tackle Jeff Linkenbach to a one-year deal.  There is no denying that Ryan Grigson addressed the offensive line this offseason - he brought in four new players, plus re-signed another.  The problem is that he didn't address it well enough, and that has come back to hurt the Colts.

Thomas played well in the game and a quarter he played before being injured and placed on injured reserve.  Cherilus has played well this season at right tackle, too, and has started every game.  The other tackle spot is filled by Anthony Castonzo, the team's first round pick in 2011 and a guy who has been very dependable and has started every game as well.  But from the very start of the season, it was Samson Satele starting at center and Mike McGlynn starting at right guard.  The popular saying goes that "a unit is only as strong as it's weakest link," and for the Colts offensive line, the two weakest links remained.  Initially, I tried telling myself that Grigson deserved a pass because Thornton and Holmes both missed training camp and that delayed their development - perhaps they both would have been starting on the line had they been healthy, I reasoned.  But I quickly realized that it really didn't matter - counting on two rookies, drafted in the third and fourth rounds, wasn't really going to work either.  Ryan Grigson himself talked this offseason about how he didn't like the idea of starting rookie offensive linemen.  Honestly, they weren't going to be the answer - not this year at least.

It hasn't helped matters that Hugh Thornton had to step in week two for the injured Donald Thomas at left guard (though Thornton is better at right guard, supposedly and hopefully), but Thornton has been terrible.  He has fit right in with Satele and McGlynn on the interior of the line, and it is only because of those other two that he was still the third best lineman in the starting lineup.  And then Khaled Holmes?  No matter how bad Satele plays or how much time he misses with injury, Holmes isn't playing and probably won't this season.

Ryan Grigson deserves blame for failing to address the two biggest needs along the offensive line (and perhaps the two biggest needs on the team) well enough.  He addressed them, but he addressed them poorly.  I think that might even be worse.

Still, despite all the failures and shortcomings of both the offensive line and of Ryan Grigson, the unit has actually shown promise and upside in the past two weeks.  Why? Mainly an injury to Samson Satele and some coaching moves by Chuck Pagano.  The Colts have used a different offensive line combination in each of the last three weeks, bringing their total combinations of starting offensive linemen to six on the season.  Using the starters from the Colts' official press releases and taking the sacks allowed and QB hits allowed statistics from ESPN's box scores, here is a table of the Colts' starting offensive line by game this year:

Game LT LG C RG RT Sacks Allowed QB Hits Allowed
OAK Anthony Castonzo Donald Thomas Samson Satele Mike McGlynn Gosder Cherilus 4 8
MIA Castonzo Thomas Satele McGlynn Cherilus 3 10
@ SF * Castonzo Hugh Thornton Mike McGlynn Jeff Linkenbach Cherilus 1 7
@ JAX Castonzo Thornton McGlynn Linkenbach Cherilus 2 10
SEA Castonzo Thornton Samson Satele Mike McGlynn Cherilus 2 5
@ SD Castonzo Thornton Satele McGlynn Cherilus 1 4
DEN Castonzo Thornton Satele McGlynn Cherilus 2 8
@ HOU Castonzo Thornton Satele McGlynn Cherilus 4 11
STL Castonzo Thornton Satele McGlynn Cherilus 3 7
@ TEN ** Castonzo Thornton Satele McGlynn Cherilus 1 4
@ ARI Castonzo Thornton Satele McGlynn Cherilus 1 8
TEN Castonzo Thornton Satele Jeff Linkenbach Cherilus 5 8
@ CIN Castonzo Joe Reitz Satele Mike McGlynn Cherilus 0 4
HOU Castonzo Hugh Thornton Mike McGlynn Joe Reitz Cherilus 1 4

* Joe Reitz is also listed as having started this game, listed as starting at guard.  The Colts used six offensive linemen in this situation.

** Interestingly, offensive lineman Jeff Linkenbach was listed as starting this game at tight end.

Now, understandably, this table leaves out a lot.  It's just data, and there's plenty of room where analysis is needed to filter out the details.  This chart doesn't factor in the playing time each player received - for instance, in the most recent week against the Houston Texans, Joe Reitz is listed as the staring right guard but he went out early with a concussion and Xavier Nixon filled in, playing 87% of the offensive snaps.  A similar situation took place in week two with Donald Thomas starting but Hugh Thornton seeing more playing time.  Additionally, the sack and QB hits stat has a lot of variables to it, such as the fact that some of the sacks are on Luck and some of the sacks were allowed by linemen not listed as starters.  This chart also looks solely at the pass protection and not the run protection, which is also the focus and theme of this article, thus the reason for the focus on the pass protection.

The line has actually been improving and recently has been much, much better.  Why has that been?  Well, for starters, the starters have been different.  Joe Reitz was inserted into the starting lineup, and last week Mike McGlynn shifted over to center, filling in for the injured Samson Satele.  Earlier in the season when McGlynn was at center for two games, the line seemed to be better, and that was the case again last week.  McGlynn is bad at guard but he is better at center - still not great, but much better than Satele and much better than McGlynn is at guard.  Also, last week Xavier Nixon played well while filling in for Reitz, who left the game early after suffering a concussion.  Jeff Linkenbach - who is also hurt - played well at guard too recently.

Chuck Pagano deserves some credit, here - he's making moves.  For the first part of the season, he only made moves when injury made them necessary - despite the fact that McGlynn and Satele were both playing terrible.  Recently, he hasn't been afraid to make moves - he benched McGlynn in the second Titans game (though the guard was back in the starting lineup a week later due to injury).  We'll see if he does the same to Satele whenever the center returns.

Last week, Pagano said that no one would lose their job due to injury:

"Nobody, I don't think since we've been here, nobody's ever really lost their job because of injury, if that's what you're asking me. So if a guy gets injured and somebody else goes in, when he's healthy, he gets his job back."

But this week, when asked if Mike McGlynn would continue to start at center even when Samson Satele returns, Pagano simply said:

"we'll do what's best for the team and what gives us the best opportunity to win the game."

That would be starting McGlynn - but at the same time, Pagano's hand might be limited by injuries.  Wednesday, guards Hugh Thornton, Joe Reitz, and Jeff Linkenbach all didn't practice and center Samson Satele was limited.  If the Colts are without those three guards but have Satele, Pagano might have to play McGlynn at guard out of need (along with Xavier Nixon).

Either way, what we've seen from the offensive line is this: they're improving.  It's hard to get worse than what they were earlier, but at least they haven't stayed there.  The past two weeks, the line has protected Andrew Luck well.  It would be huge if they continued to do so.  We've also seen that Chuck Pagano is improving, too, and that he is learning.  He's making adjustments trying to see what works, regardless of who the players are.  He's making moves that he thinks is best for the team, and the result has been improvement (in more areas than just the offensive line, too).  And lastly, we've seen that Ryan Grigson failed this past offseason in his efforts at improving the offensive line.  Talent-wise, this line just isn't very good, and when your best interior offensive line might be best when Joe Reitz, Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach (two Bill Polian holdovers who were border-line roster guys and a guy Grigson brought in at a different position) - well, it's not good.  Pagano is doing what he can with this line, but the real improvement will come this offseason - and it's up to Grigson to make sure that happens.

For the second straight season, the Colts will enter the offseason with the offensive line as their biggest concern.  But at least for the time being, the line is holding their own and improving despite quite a bit of shuffling.

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