The Indianapolis Colts experienced an offensive resurgence in 2018 under new Head Coach Frank Reich. A large part of that was the return of star quarterback Andrew Luck but the offensive line was also a huge factor. That offensive line was led by rookie first round pick Quenton Nelson.
Nelson started the year slow as he faced a murderous row of defensive lineman in Geno Atkins, Jonathan Allen, and Fletcher Cox to start the season. As the season continued, he quickly became one of the best lineman in football. The rookie 6th overall pick was named to the Pro Bowl and named a first team All-Pro in his first professional season.
Today, we will look back at some of the strong points of Nelson’s game and highlight one area he needs to improve in his second season.
Pulling is a vital part of Frank Reich’s offense. It is essential for linemen move efficiently at the snap to get into their designated pull lane. It is also key for linemen to identify their assignment before the running back reaches the hole. Nelson is excellent in this area and was often primarily responsible when the Colts run game had dominant games or drives.
The following play is perhaps the most memorable on Nelson’s rookie season. Early in the first quarter against the Jaguars, he pulled across the formation as the lead blocker along with Mark Glowinski. Nelson originally keys the nickel corner but Glowinski takes care of him, allowing Nelson to get verticle. He shifts his focus inside and levels safety Barry Church who was no match for Nelson’s brute strength.
The next clip demonstrates a staple play for the Colts’ running game. Nelson is asked to seal the edge on the inside trap, while tackle Braden Smith crashes down on the defensive tackle. Nelson gets to his spot quickly and engages defensive end Shaq Lawson. Lawson attempts to set a hard edge by initiating contact but Nelson was having none of it. He shielded the inside and drives Lawson away. Nelson finishes by putting Lawson on the ground as Marlon Mack is barely tripped up in the hole, missing a potential big gain.
Nelson also pulled short side of the field when asked. Here, he is tasked with blocking one of the better defensive ends in football, Jadeveon Clowney. Nelson meets Clowney on the edge and drives him completely out of the play. Clowney is a huge, athletic beast of a player and Nelson not only drives him out of the hole but continues driving him well after the play is past him.
Second Level Blocking
These plays may look similar but they highlight Nelson’s ability to get to the second level as a run blocker. A major part of being a great run blocker is the ability to handle the primary assignment early and climb to the second level to get a body on linebackers and safeties. It takes rare athleticism to do this and Nelson has it. He will often win early in plays and once he is in the second level, he dominates smaller defenders to create big lanes for his running backs.
In our first clip, Nelson and Glowinski create a huge hole for Mack up the middle. Against Buffalo, the Colts knew they had to get to the second level to eliminate the Bills’ athletic linebackers to be effective running the ball. Nelson does that by taking a perfect angle on Matt Milano and driving him completely out of the play. As a result, Mack gets a nice gain.
Our next clip features a big block on rookie standout Leighton Vander Esch of the Cowboys. This is a designed sweep to Nelson’s side and he asked to get the second level to cut off one of the more athletic linebackers in football. He gets a great jump and gets his hands on Vander Esch early. Vander Esch wisely tried to keep separation from Nelson by extending his arm. Nelson counters by punching down, causing Vander Esch to lose his balance. Nelson finishing by putting him into the ground and entirely out of the play.
Our next clip displays Nelson’s athleticism. He pulls around the short side as the lead blocker on a Jordan Wilkins sweep. Nelson doesn’t have a defender to block for most of the run but continues moving up field until he is at the third level of the defense. Former All-Pro safety Kevin Byard tries to break up the running lane but Nelson effortlessly tosses the former All-Pro yards out of bounds and Wilkins is able to walk in for a would be touchdown (play was called back for a penalty).
We will turn our focus to in-line blocking and highlight Nelson’s quick hips and elite strength, which lead to blocks that most lineman cannot make.
“Reach blocks” are perhaps the toughest block for NFL lineman to consistently make. Almost every defender in football is a top level athlete so it is difficult to reach across the face of a defender and take them out of a play. Nelson makes it look easy on this play.
He crosses the face of the defensive tackle lined up in front of Ryan Kelly and is able to flip his hips quickly to shield off big cutback lane. Nyheim Hines doesn’t see the hole but this is a phenomenal block by Nelson.
The following clip is rare, as Nelson is initially driven back a few yards. He quickly recovers and flip his hips to make it much harder for the defender to get to the ball carrier. He re-anchors and drives the defender up field as Nyheim Hines creates a solid gain for himself.
Mean Streak + His Signature Move
Nelson is a nasty, nasty offensive lineman and lets defenders know it on every play. Very little analysis is needed on these plays so enjoy watching a lineman bury and humiliate defenders.
Nelson works all the way across the field to toss Raiders’ safety Karl Joseph a couple yards as the play ends. Nothing can prevent him from finding someone to hit on every play.
Nelson gets to the second level and tosses Kiko Alonso to the ground. He then crawls all over him.
Even away from the ball Nelson makes defenders pay. Here, he punches down on the arms of his defensive lineman and puts him on the ground as the play ends.
Negatives— Pass Blocking Technique
I’d like to preface this by saying that Nelson is a very good pass blocker. He allowed only two sacks and 24 pressures while playing 1,261 snaps. That is pretty impressive for a rookie.
To take the next step into the elite, upper echelon status of guard play, Nelson needs to clean up his technique. He gets his hands a bit too far outside when striking defenders and lunges way too much. Aggressiveness is great but it leads to getting off-balance in pass protection. He was also grabby at times in pass protection and he finished the year with 11 penalties.
The first clip shows Nelson lunging too much. He has a good set and keeps his hands lined up inside. He gets into trouble when he gets impatient and lunges for Henry Anderson. Anderson strikes back and since Nelson is off balance, he is able to get up field. Nelson recovers well but he needs to clean this up in the future.
Our next play shows Nelson struggle with hand placement. His hands are way too far outside of defensive lineman Chris Jones’ pads and as a result, Jones is able to stack and shed Nelson’s block and nearly works up field for a pressure. Nelson wins a lot of these reps due to brute strength and athleticism but his losses are often due to poor hand placement. Once he cleans these areas, he will be hard to beat in pass protection.
Quenton Nelson is really really good at football. He is an excellent athlete and his ability to block at the second level is insane. Add in that he is an absolute bully on every play and you have an elite run blocker. In fact, he may be the best run blocking guard in the NFL after only a season of experience.
He is also very good as a pass blocker. To become elite, Nelson will need to clean up his technique and limit his habit at being overly aggressive.
Overall, Nelson’s future is very bright. He is perhaps a top 5 guard with room to grow. There is every reason to believe that he is going to be very good for a very long time for the Colts.