The offensive line is the engine behind an offense. The quarterback is the driver and the skill players are the oil, brakes and any other relevant secondary parts. You can have Lewis Hamilton driving a F1 car, but if that car has the engine of a 1998 Ford Fiesta, then even he cannot go very far. It’s a similar story in the NFL. You can have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, with some great receivers and an all-time great running back, but without a good offensive line, you won’t be able to show up week after week or in the big games. The offensive line has let the Colts down many times in the Andrew Luck era, but the Week 1 Lions game was easily one of their strongest performances with Luck under center. The Week 2 matchup against the Broncos was a different story.
In the Lions game, the Colts were able to take shots down the field, get Andrew Luck plenty of time to throw and even gain 4.2 yards per carry with Frank Gore in the backfield with a 5.3 average in the 2nd half. What made the difference? Why were they better? The Colts had 3 returning starters from last season, and last season they had trouble stopping a nose bleed so how could this unit get so much better? Firstly, they had much more stability between the tackles, specifically at the center spot. According to Pro Football Focus, Jack Mewhort (left guard), Ryan Kelly (center) and Denzelle Good (right guard) all had average or above average games. With two linemen (Kelly and Good) starting for the first time in their careers, average or above average is great! It’s also worth noting that Jack Mewhort played the game on a bad knee. The Lions defensive front is nothing to sneeze at. Ezekiel Ansah and Haloti Ngata are two ferocious defenders who will challenge any offensive line. This was an impressive debut performance from the big boys.
The Broncos game was a bad one for the Colts offensive line. While they held their own at times, the ferocious front 7 of the Broncos had their way for most of the game. Von Miller handily beat Joe Reitz on many snaps, Castonzo had many bad snaps and Denzelle Good was beat a few times inside. It’s worth noting that while poor offensive game-planning and a bad day from Andrew Luck is what sunk the Colts, the offensive line did not help out. Achieving more of a balance (running the ball more) and getting more protectors (tight end chipping or bringing in an extra offensive lineman in the game) would have helped the entire offense. Nevertheless, Von Miller’s strip sack at the end of the game sealed the victory for the Broncos and Joe Reitz is to blame for that.
In the Broncos game, Luck was pressured on 56% of his dropbacks, according to the Pro Football Focus. Luck was horrendous under pressure in that game as well, and the pressure from the Broncos lead to turnovers that went for touchdowns.
Of course the Broncos have a much better defense than the Lions and it doesn’t help that the Colts played the Lions at home and the Broncos on the road, but the point still remains; if the offensive line is strong, the offense will be able to perform.
The best offenses in Colts history featured the best offensive lines in their history. Why did the Colts have a top 5 offense every year between 2003 and 2007 seasons? That’s because of a consistently strong offensive line group. Jeff Saturday was the starting center for all five of those years. Tarik Glenn was the starting left tackle for four of those five years. Ryan Diem was the starting right tackle for all 5 years. Jake Scott was the starting right guard for 4 of those 5 years. A few players (Demulling, Lilja and Gandy) started at the left guard spot during those 5 years. It was essentially the same guys year in and year out. These guys had a level of chemistry and comfort with each other that was unmatched by any offensive line unit in the NFL. That’s why the Colts had one of the best offenses in the NFL during that period.
Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were all there in 2002, but the Colts only had the 17th best offense in the NFL (according to points for). Their offense hit another level between 2003 and 2007 not just because of increased production from their quarterback and skill players, but because their offensive line unit got stronger. The Colts were loaded at quarterback and their skill positions in 2008, but a weak offensive line caused the Colts to drop outside the top 10 in terms of points for. It is not a coincidence; when the offensive line lacks, the offense suffers.
Switching back to 2016, Andrew Luck had, on paper, one of the greatest games of his career against the Lions and I believe the offensive line deserves a lot of credit for that. According to Pro Football Focus, out of all the quarterbacks in the NFL in Week 1, Luck was given the third most amount of time in the pocket. They were able to keep him upright and he was able to make the proper reads down the field. Luck needs to get the ball out quicker, but if the offensive line gives him time like they did in the Lions, he can survive holding onto the ball for 3 seconds!
I believe this Colts team is like the team from 2002. While many of the longterm skill pieces were in place, the offensive line was going through a transition phase and there were growing pains. We’re now seeing that this unit is going to have some growing pains and some issues throughout the season against stout defensive fronts, but this looks like a strong unit for the long run. If the Colts can keep this offensive line unit together and keep the same or a similar offensive system in place, then the offense will be able to be consistently strong over the next several years, like they were in the mid-2000’s.