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Colts’ terrific offensive line performance on Sunday was a team effort

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest takeaways from the Colts’ huge win on Sunday over the Vikings was the fact that the offensive line actually played really well.

Coming into the game, there was absolutely no reason to think that would be the case. The Colts were without several linemen and would be starting three rookies up front. One of those rookies would be Le’Raven Clark, who had only played a handful of snaps all season after being drafted as a project player. Heck, earlier in the year the Colts had been more comfortable starting seventh round center Austin Blythe at guard instead of starting third round tackle Le’Raven Clark at tackle in week four. Add to that the fact that the Colts have had trouble all year protecting the quarterback, and it didn’t add up to a promising game. Furthermore, the Vikings boast one of the NFL’s top pass rushes, as they entered Sunday’s game fourth in sacks and second in quarterback hits.

So when Chuck Pagano on Friday said of his offensive line, “They’re up for the challenge. Yeah, hell yeah. They’re going to play great,” most people saw it as just more of the usual drivel from the coach’s mouth.

But then on Sunday, they actually proved it: the Colts were indeed up for the challenge! They allowed just two quarterback hits on 29 dropbacks, and they didn’t allow a sack. It was just the ninth time in 84 games under Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano that the Colts didn’t allow a sack in a game (including playoffs), and it was just the second time they allowed two or less hits. In fact, it was the first time that the line allowed two hits (or less) with no sacks in this regime. Against a good pass rushing defense. With three rookies starting up front. Go figure, right? They also ran the ball very well, as they rushed for 161 yards and two scores while averaging four yards per carry.

The Colts deserve massive credit for the performance of the offensive line, and it was a true team effort.

Obviously, the players deserve the most credit. The combination of Anthony Castonzo (left tackle), Jonotthan Harrison (left guard), Ryan Kelly (center), Joe Haeg (right guard), and Le’Raven Clark (right tackle) did a good job in both run and pass protection. They only gave up two hits and no sacks, and according to Pro Football Focus they allowed pressure on just 10 of Luck’s 29 dropbacks (34.5%). Also according to PFF, nearly half of the Colts’ rushing yards came before contact, while only one lineman (Harrison) received a run blocking grade below 70 by PFF.

In particular, the right side of the line deserves a lot of credit, as that was where the combination of three rookies were. The play of Le’Raven Clark should especially be noticed, as he exceeded any realistic expectations in Sunday’s game. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he did well enough to not be a liability and proved capable as a starter. He received a game ball after the performance, and it was well-deserved considering the circumstances and expectations. Let’s hold off on saying he should immediately become the long-term right tackle, but without a doubt it was a good debut that exceeded expectations.

Along those lines, offensive line coach Joe Philbin deserves a lot of credit. The line has still been a struggle this year, but we’ve seen gradual improvement and we’ve seen some players developing. Ryan Kelly has been a very reliable starter since day one, while Joe Haeg has started at three different spots this year. Haeg has had an up and down rookie season, but hopefully as he gets settled into one spot he’ll continue to build on that potential. And then there’s Le’Raven Clark, who was drafted as a project player, has been inactive in most games this year, and had only played a few snaps entering Sunday. For him to even be a serviceable starting right tackle is a huge win for Joe Philbin and this staff. This was always going to be a work in progress, and nobody should have expected the line to be great in one year with so many rookies. But there’s reason for (cautious) optimism moving forward with a few of these players, and the job Philbin has done with some of the rookies should definitely be commended.

Another coach also deserves credit for Sunday’s performance, and that’s offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Chuck Pagano acknowledged on Friday that the playcalling would have to change because of the injuries to the offensive line, and Chud responded by calling one of his finest games as the Colts’ coordinator. He mixed up the run and pass well and the offense had a nice balance, but perhaps more importantly for this discussion, he ran a quicker passing offense that worked wonders. It’s something that has been a talking point all year, as some people have complained that Andrew Luck holds the football too long while others have rightly realized that a big reason why he does is the offensive scheme. Longer developing plays take longer to develop (shocking!), thus Luck will need to hold on to the ball longer. So on Sunday, Chud ran an offense that for the most part was a quicker passing game that got the ball out of Luck’s hands faster. Not only did it work with Luck’s passing game (he was very effective), it helped protect Luck as well.

In order to provide a complete picture of the protection on Sunday, we have to mention Luck as a part of it as well. One of the quarterback’s best abilities is his skill at moving around the pocket and evading pressure, and he did that on a handful of plays on Sunday that put those skills on full display. Luck is very good at avoiding pressure, and on Sunday he was 9-of-10 for 112 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 146.7 when under pressure (per PFF). No line is ever going to have a completely perfect game in which they allow absoltuely no pressure, so we must also recognize and credit Luck’s ability to avoid that pressure when it came.

Sunday’s game was a terrific example of how the players and coaches all came together to protect Andrew Luck and open up holes in the run game. It was a driving force in Indy’s very impressive offensive output, one that carried them to a huge 34-6 win over the Vikings. The unit is still very much a work in progress, but Sunday’s game was a very nice stepping stone.