A week ago, the Indianapolis Colts beat the Houston Texans on the road, 27-20, with 40-year-old backup Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Those 27 points would have been enough to win in 12 of the 14 games played last weekend.
When the Colts stunk up the joint against the Jets in Week 2, the pitch forks were sure to come out, especially with Andrew Luck taking a bunch of nasty hits and ultimately getting injured. The national sorrow for the super-talented QB who got hit too much rained down on the Colts offensive line.
The problem with that singular line of blame-bombing is the QB is a huge part of the protection, and his errors can -- and often do -- get him hit.
Remember that infamous quote from head coach Chuck Pagano in the aftermath of his team's 20-7 loss to the Jets in Week 2? The one that seemingly threw his offensive line and the general manager who signed them under the proverbial bus: "[It's] been the case for three years now, has it not?" Pagano said. "[Luck] should be more comfortable dealing with it."
The problem with fanning the fire with this notion of an offensive line that can't block is that the game film of that Jets performance shows Luck bears a significant portion of the blame. With the Colts making changes at three of five offensive line positions since that 0-2 start, and employing much smarter passing game during Hasselbeck's relief appearance, this huge Patriots Sunday night game will be an opportunity to see if Luck learned the errors of his ways during the time away from the game.
If he makes the same mistakes in reading pressure, missing hot reads, and pressing the ball downfield into no-win situations when better options exist, it won't matter who is blocking. Luck's decisions with the football will be the far & away key to whether or not Indianapolis can compete with New England.
LUCK MUST PROTECT HIS O-LINE, TOO
One quick sidebar before we dive into the tape.
During the hand-wringing in Luck's absence, this notion of the Colts not investing enough in the people charged with protecting the Colts star quarterback was a popular song. That may be the perception, but the reality is Luck will step on the field this Sunday with an offensive line not markedly different in terms of initial investment than the other top QBs or top offenses in the NFL get. Criticism for not acquiring or developing the right offensive lineman may be warranted, but based upon the overall average round of entry into the NFL, the Colts initial investment is very normal for their offensive line relative to others. In fact, it's the same as Green Bay and more than New England and Atlanta (see below).
NO CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER
The Jets peppered Luck with a steady amount of creative defensive pressures, keeping the QB guessing -- and Luck didn't handle it very well at all. The Patriots historically don't rely much on pressure packages and blitzing, but after watching Luck's struggles, the idea of mixing them in situationally has to be tempting after watching his struggles.
The example below shows a defensive back (circled in green) caught sneaking down to the line of scrimmage before the snap. With the linebackers hugging over center, the likelihood of an upcoming overload pressure where the ball would need to come out immediately was near-certain. Luck chose not to audible out of the situation where a quick-passing option would have torched the defense.
Instead, Luck kept his eyes and back to the defensive back's pressure side, staring down a two-man downfield route combination that had no chance of working before the blitz would arrive. The play ended in a predictable interception and the narrative of Luck being "under pressure" would encourage phony notions of offensive line problems that really weren't the root cause on this particular play. In the unlikely event the Patriots telegraph a pre-snap pressure like this, Luck's decision of whether or not to audible or find a hot or short-field option will tell the story of whether or not he keeps giving the ball away to defenses.
It's impossible to know from the outside to what degree Luck has license to change the plays called by Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton by audibling to a more favorable look. Whichever of the two bears the brunt of that responsibility, if there's no low or hot element in the route patterns near the core of the formation on Sunday night, the Patriots will feast.
DON'T FORCE THE ISSUE
Luck's faith in his talented arm is well documented. And we all know he went to Stanford and is a very bright guy. But that doesn't mean bright guys can't engage in dumb football. Throwing at Darrelle Revis is usually not advisable, but a quarterback with Luck's ability will still try to fit it in against even the best defensive backs.
But when he tries to do so when Revis has safety help over the top and there are better options in the flat, the decision to throw it where he did is an undoubtedly inadvisable (below).
Predictably, this ended in another interception for Luck. And as was the theme for many of his problems on that day, the line's blocking performance had nothing to do with this critical mistake.
SLOW AND STEADY
When it's all said and done, Luck has the field smarts and ability to do the right thing -- there's plenty of that on tape as well. In that same game against the Jets, Luck hit WR Phillip Dorsett over the ball as the Jets sent another 5-man pressure. Instead of eye-balling the deep elements of the pass pattern, Luck kept his eyes low and found Dorsett streaking across the formation in the vacancy the pressure created (below).
This was an example of smart football by Luck. And the kind of play design that found a greater role in Colts game plans when Hasselbeck held the wheel.
Obviously Luck is the future of the Colts franchise, so pointing out his flaws isn't kindling for a phony quarterback-controversy. But the fact is, he hasn't performed well enough for his team to win, so a public scapegoating of an offensive line that wasn't playing well themselves gave him cover that his play didn't deserve.
There will be no cover Sunday night.
What Luck must do with this new opportunity is learn from what Hasselbeck did in the last two weeks. If he doesn't, there are several blowout losses against past Patriots teams to tell you exactly how this thing will go.
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