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Can the Colts be an elite passing team with Tony Ugoh at LT?

The right foot injury suffered by Charlie Johnson yesterday has me a bit stressed. With no news yet on it's severity, it could be anything from a little tweak or bruise that'll be fine next week to a season ending Lisfranc Fracture (a.k.a. the injury that killed the Colts 2007 season). It seems like a safe bet that if CJ is to miss any extended amount of time Tony Ugoh would return to left tackle. Ugoh started each of the 4 games CJ sat out last year.

Two of those games were weeks 16 and 17 so they don't give us a great feel for how Ugoh at LT would effect the Colts 1st team O. The other two games both came against the Tennessee Titans. Encouragingly neither game saw Peyton Manning take a sack, but the 2009 editions of both Kyle Vanden-Bosch and the Titans Pass D can't be considered tough tests for an elite passing O. Vanden-Bosch struggled to just 3 sacks in a full 16 game season starting at RE, his lowest total since 2004 when he was a backup in Arizona. On the whole the Titans against the pass with FO rating both their pass rush and their overall pass D 26th in the league.

Still, zero sacks over two games against a team that recorded 32 in their other 14 is a good sign. In those two games Peyton Manning completed 74% of his passes for 7.14 yards per attempt. The Titans other 14 opponents averaged 65.8% completion and 6.80 yards per attempt. With Peyton Manning at QB the Colts passing game completed 68.0% of it's passes for 7.87 yards per attempt in their remaining games.

Completion percent up 10% with YPA down a yard is a pretty dramatic effect (though not necessarily a negative one), but it's far more likely due to the Titans Cover-2 scheme than who was playing LT. The stats to note would be the Colts burning the Titans pass D significantly worse than most did. At least against a bottom feeding pass D, Tony Ugoh protecting the blindside didn't prevent the Colts from passing the ball very effectively.

Weeks 16 and 17 will be even harder to draw any useful conclusions from, but I'll take a shot.

Week 16 saw a solid pass rushing team get 2 sacks (both on Painter). The first being the play that's likely burned into your memory just as it is mine. Calvin Pace manhandling Tom Santi and forcing a fumble that the Jets recovered for the TD which put them in the lead. Pace came from the blindside, but we can only guess whether Ugoh was suppose to be helping the LG inside rather than Santi on the edge (video here for anyone who wants to guess). The 2nd sack came on a CB blitz from ex-Colt Donald Stickland in the closing seconds of the game.

With Manning in the game the Colts moved the ball through the air reasonably well completing 14/21 (66.7%) for 190 yards (9.14 per attempt). Efficiency quite similar to the playoff shredding of the Jets phenomenal pass D, 26/39 (66.7%) for 370 yards (9.67 per attempt).

Week 17 the only sack of the game came from Bills DT Kevin Williams splitting Ugoh and Pollak on a stunt and catching Painter by the shoestrings as he rolled away from the pressure (video). Peyton was an accurate, but dink/dunk 14/18 for 95 yards (with an open Jacob Tamme slipping in the snow resulting in a pick) before leaving the game.

So how big a concern is CJ's injury? I'd certainly love to have him, but I won't be the least bit tempted to write off the season if Tony Ugoh has to step back into the starting role. CJ has certainly earned the job, but the passing offense worked just fine with Tony Ugoh on the blindside.