One of the most highly contested position groups for the Indianapolis Colts is the offensive line. Quarterback Andrew Luck has been under duress far too much during his young career and he is without a doubt the most important piece of the team’s chances to succeed.
After numerous signings and attempts to fix the offensive line primarily through free agency, former General Manager Ryan Grigson finally got serious about addressing the problem in the 2016 NFL Draft. He drafted four offensive linemen and three of those offensive linemen were starting by the end of the year.
Still, questions remain. No one other than Ryan Kelly has proven himself to be a reliable starter and the answer long-term. Second-year players Joe Haeg and Le’Raven Clark are the clear front-runners for the starting spots so it makes sense to take a look at each player and see where they best fit.
We continue our analysis with our first segment on hybrid lineman Joe Haeg, who played at both right tackle and right guard throughout the year. Since we’re following our look at Le’Raven Clark, we will analyze Haeg’s skills at guard first.
One of Haeg’s strongest attributes is his mobility, which is particularly useful in a zone blocking scheme. He is able to pass off the defensive lineman to Clark and quickly recognize the stunt by Mack. He mirrors well and stuffs Mack, leaving Luck a clean pocket to make an easy throw to Hilton down the field.
Similarly, here Haeg pass off the lineman and moves quickly to get a body on the stunting end. He has the quickness and balance to use the player’s momentum to keep him running down the line and not up the field in Luck’s face.
This athleticism is what makes him a solid piece at multiple positions along the line. Additionally, the way he hands off blocks quickly shows that he is a solid technician.
Haeg uses the same quickness and technical skill set to set combo blocks in the running game. He does what he needs to do to quickly get to the next level and keep the inside linebacker from getting to the cut back lane.
Again, he is quick to get to the second level in this screen play and find a man to get a body on to allow Gore the room to gain another 10-15 yards after he makes the first tackler miss.
This play displays that Haeg does have the ability to get a body on a defensive lineman one-on-one and stuff any movement into the backfield. One important thing to note here is that he comes out of his stance and initiates contact with the defender. This is going to be key for Haeg on the interior because the next clips will show what happens when he does not.
Those who have concerns about Haeg’s strength as an interior lineman need look no further than plays like this. When his job is to simply “hold the line” and does not require him to be on the move, he will get bullied. Look back up at the play before this and you’ll see him fire out of his stance and do fine neutralizing a larger interior defensive lineman.
Here, when Kelly leaves Haeg to finish off the block himself, he is quickly on skates and gets shoved right into Luck. On the one hand, it’s fair to say that Kelly left him too soon. On the other hand, I have 5 clips in three games where this occurs.
Once again, if Kelly doesn’t choose to help on Haeg’s side, he fails to stop penetration.
ZONE BLOCKING NOTE: In a zone blocking scheme each lineman has a choice, based upon where the defensive lineman across from them is lined up, as to who they will block or where they will assist. The guard on each side of Kelly MUST be able to keep the defender from penetrating one-on-one on plays like this one because Kelly can’t help on both sides at once — and Haeg clearly struggles here.
If you read my previous story on Le’Raven Clark, I mentioned that I got the impression that the pressure coming from the right side of the line in the last three games appeared to be more often the result of Haeg than Clark. I feel like my second look solidifies that opinion.
Outside of plays where Haeg is blown into the backfield, he also made a mental mistake from time-to-time. On this play, Haeg should have blocked the defensive lineman that lined up on his right shoulder.
ZONE BLOCKING NOTE 2: Continuing from the concept above, we know Haeg should have blocked this defender because no lineman was directly across from him or off of his left shoulder. In fact, the next defensive lineman to his inside was on Kelly’s left shoulder, on the left side of the offensive line.
On the other hand, Clark had a defensive lineman lined up on his right shoulder and has to choose to help Haeg inside, or block the defensive lineman on his right shoulder who is inside of Doyle. This is a no-brainer for Clark — you help the tight end when the guard inside of you has a one-on-one opportunity with the guy on your inside shoulder.
As it turns out, the defensive end went wide and into Doyle, which left Clark to keep his head on a swivel to help Doyle if needed. Haeg, who should have picked up the lineman who went right into his gap let him blow right by for the sack.
Additionally, after the compliments I gave Haeg for his combo blocks earlier in my analysis, this is an example where he did not pass off the initial block quick enough and let Mack get a big hit on Luck.
To be clear, I had 11 clips of Haeg on combo blocks. On 10 of those 11 he was successful. The reason this clip is important is because of the next clip.
This, my friends, is mayhem. When Harrison pulls (and I’m not convinced that he should have) the interior linemen scramble to figure out how they’re supposed to block. The outside linebacker stunts right up the middle and gets into Luck’s face. This is either on Harrison for pulling when he shouldn’t have, Kelly for not passing off his block and seeing the stunt, or both.
I show this clip less of an indictment of Haeg, who does quite well here, but more as an example of what I saw quite a bit on the game film. Pressure almost always came up the middle. The tackles were less often the issue. Additionally, outside of Harrison who I think was abjectly awful at left guard, I think the biggest problem had to do with communication.
The reason this is important is because 1) when Mewhort went down and Haeg moved inside, there was not a lot of continuity for the group inside and 2) this is the first year this group has worked with Philbin and the zone blocking scheme. I can forgive young offensive linemen making mental errors once in awhile. Veteran offensive linemen, even really good ones, make mental errors once in awhile. I think it is fair to expect that some of these issues will benefit from first-year players gaining experience and all of the linemen having another full off-season to focus on getting Philbin’s scheme down.
What I conclude about Haeg as a guard is that he is better suited as a quality backup. There are some things he does that would make any offensive line coach drool. You wish you could get all of your players (Kelly on the last play) to be so aware of what is going on along the line to pass off blocks and get a body on more than one defender the way he does. You wish all of your linemen were mobile enough to get to the second level and patient enough to find an angle and get a body on players on screen plays or in the run game.
What is hard to “coach” is the ability to handle large interior defensive linemen one-on-one. It’s harder to teach someone to have a stiffer back and stronger legs to anchor. That takes work in the weight room and requires that the player has a body that can put on the muscle and weight in the places he needs to do so. I’m not sure trying to do so with Haeg will get the most out of what he is naturally good at doing on a football field.
There is one last thing I will mention that could help Haeg overcome his lack of raw strength. As I noted early in this analysis, if he explodes off of the line and initiates contact with the defender he does not get brutally run over in the way he does when he tries simply to anchor. Maybe he can make an adjustment, working with Philbin, to modify how he attacks defenders on those plays and mitigate his primary weakness if he does need to start at guard.