In a game that saw the Colts fall behind in the first half due to a bad snap on their own goal line and a fumble forced by J.J. Watt on a strip sack, it isn’t surprising to see Indianapolis run a pass heavy offensive attack for much of the afternoon. There were 62 passing attempts and 65 passing drop backs as Andrew Luck scrambled on broken passing plays on 3 occasions.
To say that this is tasking your offensive line with a challenge would be an understatement. It was quite clear for the Texans that getting to Andrew Luck was the primary assignment and they were able to spend much of the day with their speed lineup in the game to throw numerous looks at a banged up Colts offensive line.
The good news is that allowing 4 sacks on 65 passing attempts isn’t awful and that one Jadeveon Clowney speed rush landing against Le’Raven Clark and two J.J. Watt sacks against Denzelle Good isn’t stunning either. Those sacks came in the first half, with the final one in overtime. Unfortunately for the Colts, in their bid for an AFC South win, the sack in OT came at about as bad a time as it could. Unfortunately for rookie Quenton Nelson, the sack came through him.
We will break down 9 of the 65 passing drop backs today with an emphasis primarily on Nelson’s biggest signs of struggle. We have three plays displaying some of the positive attributes we’ve seen before. The 56 other passing snaps saw Nelson either win, not allow a pressure or did not see his assignment have a meaningful influence on the play.
While we will get to the Jadeveon Clowney (#90) sack that put the Colts into a difficult position in overtime, I spent my initial viewing of the film looking for examples of Clowney isolating Quenton Nelson (#56). There were only two examples in the entire game. This play occurred in the first quarter.
Clowney stunts to the inside on this play, as he will in overtime, and gets a powerful running start into Nelson. Nelson is thrown backward but manages to anchor and keep his hips between Clowney and the pocket. He releases the block quick enough to not get called for a holding penalty as Luck escaped to his right.
It is reasonable to note that Nelson’s ability to take Clowney’s best shot and keep his anchor is impressive. It is reasonable to say that overall he did what he needed to do to keep pressure away from Luck. It is also reasonable to say that Clowney tested him in their first face-to-face on field meeting.
Over an hour later, in overtime, this is Clowney’s second stunt into Nelson’s face. This time, Nelson is too committed to Whitney Mercilus (#59) and is sluggish in passing him off to Le’Raven Clark. He has only one leg in the dirt when Clowney chucks him and is unable to anchor. Once he loses at initial contact the play is essentially over.
Credit Houston’s defense for coming back to something that worked when they needed it most. Nelson had been dealing primarily with Mercilus and interior defensive linemen all day and got caught off-balance by one of the more powerful pass rushers in the NFL.
There were other snaps where Nelson had some difficulty maintaining his block. Here he is beat to his inside shoulder. His initial zone step left, which is mirrored by Ryan Kelly to his inside, was window-dressing to sell the play-action to Nyheim Hines. Unfortunately for Nelson, it took him directly out of position for Mercilus and allowed pressure in Luck’s face.
This was a quick release play-action passing concept so there isn’t a hit on Luck here but it is an example of a play where pressure comes through his gap.
One attribute we’ve been able to identify in Nelson’s game is that he struggles with lateral movement in space. He comes to his right to get in front of nose tackle Brandon Dunn (#92) but ends up on an island. He has to commit so hard to his right to get into position that he realizes he is vulnerable to a move left. Dunn jukes to that side and gets Nelson to recover. By the time Nelson realizes that Dunn’s move is false, it is too late and he comes into Luck’s face.
Whether this had an impact on Luck’s throw being a little high to Eric Ebron isn’t entirely clear. Dunn still doesn’t get a QB hit but he certainly is in a position to impact the play.
This is another example of Nelson not immediately engaging with a defender. If he is standing alone in space with Mercilus in front of him, he will get eaten alive by lateral moves. He does well to keep his balance initially but the club rip move to Nelson’s left leaves him exposed. Mercilus has a lane between Nelson and Clark to the quarterback and Luck has to get rid of the pass under pressure — his pass is inaccurate and is behind Chester Rogers.
The final play that shows Nelson in a difficult position is in the middle of a lot of traffic on the left side of the offensive line. He initially blocks Mercilus but is off-balance when he passes the block off to Le’Raven Clark. Duke Ejiofor takes advantage of the opportunity to chuck Nelson while he is off balance and gets a hit on Luck after he releases the pass — a completion to T.Y. Hilton on the right sideline.
It is also worth noting that this is another Jadeveon Clowney stunt. This time it is into the A gap and goes through Ryan Kelly. Kelly is also well out of position and gets beat badly but the stunt takes so long to develop that Luck gets his pass away.
While this isn’t the best piece of film in the world it does demonstrate that Nelson did spend a good portion of his day finding ways to help other offensive linemen. One of my favorite attributes about Nelson is his vision and that he stays busy looking for someone to block. There were multiple plays that could be used as an example but this is one of the habits he has that will make him a good offensive lineman for a long time.
While I included each play where Nelson struggled against Texans pass rushers, he also had plenty of plays where he shut them down. This is an example of Mercilus making the mistake of getting directly into Nelson’s chest. Squaring up Nelson means losing, for pretty much anyone.
There were also examples of Nelson punishing defenders and finishing blocks, consistent with his reputation. The official lost his mind and called Nelson for holding on this play — he ought to be embarrassed and potentially relieved of his NFL officiating responsibilities moving forward for this garbage — but this is how you want any offensive linemen to block.
Nelson takes Angelo Blackson’s best shot outside and has no problem shutting down his spin move. Blackson is then left to try to “arm wrestle” Nelson with his hands up in his shoulder pads. He ends up running his feet underneath himself and surrendering his base. Nelson then serves up a pancake for his teammates.
Nelson 1 - Blackson 0 - Officials - blew it.
This is arguably Nelson’s weakest overall performance as a pass blocker this season. I still think that his win percentages make him a very strong guard and that he has certainly shown of the talent it will take to become the Pro Bowl caliber player everyone thinks he can be, but there are some habits he needs to break. It is also clear that dealing with NFL athletes who are more agile and faster than the players he regularly faced in college is sometimes a challenge for him.
While the Texans defensive line isn’t quite as stacked as some of the other teams Nelson has faced this season, Jadeveon Clowney is unlike any other pass rusher he has seen this year. He is arguably the most dominant and well-rounded edge rusher he has faced all season. He still has some learning to do but 59 neutral or positive plays out of 65 total passing drop backs isn’t anything to be overly upset about.