In the wake of the Colts 21-41 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, there have been a lot of questions raised about the Colts, some valid: did someone actually think this offensive line was good, where is the Colts pass rush, and why does Chuck Pagano ever punt? And there were some less valid questions raised, for example: did the Colts make a mistake by drafting Andrew Luck.
For me, after some thought and discussion about the game with Colts fans and bloggers, one question emerged as the most immediate, pressing concern: does Bruce Arians' play calling display a lack of understanding of his offensive personnel?
No one who watched yesterday's game came away with any confidence in the ability of the Colts offensive line to protect Andrew Luck: he was sacked 3 times, hit 5, and hurried countless others, yet based on his play-calling, one senses Bruce Arians believes he was blessed with one of the best OLs in the league.
The first glaring issue was the Colts total lack of pass/run balance. While the final totals (45 pass attempts, 50 total drop-backs and 13 designed runs) were clearly skewed by the blowout nature of yesterday's game, a look at the 1st half stats shows us that even while the Colts were still "in the game", the lack of balance was a prevailing theme. Removing the Colts final drive of the 1st half, which started with less than a minute left, we find that the Colts ran 20 plays: 15 pass plays (2 resulting in scrambles) vs 5 runs.
Make no mistake about it: today's NFL is a quarterback, passing-game-driven league, and no one is a bigger fan of passing offenses than myself. That said, there are benefits to having offensive balance. First, Luck is a young quarterback, and while he appears to have the calmness and poise of a veteran, there's nothing wrong with helping him settle in with a few hand-offs. More importantly, the threat of the run keeps the defense honest, they can't just key in on defending the pass and rushing the quarterback, and should help set up some big plays via play-action as the game goes along.
The next issue with Arians' play-calling were the plays themselves. The Bears defensive line, with no threat of the running game or play-action to slow them down, was getting up-field on almost every play. If the offensive line is unable to block and if the running game is unable to keep them honest, Arians had the option to punish the Bears' defense by taking advantage of their aggressiveness. He could have done this via draws, screens (TE, RB, or WR), or misdirection plays. Instead, Arians opted to longer developing pass plays which only played into the Bears hands.
Everyone remembers the 2010 Colts offense: bubble screen after predictable bubble screen. And while no one wants to relive those days, it was a smart game plan with a noble purpose: keep the defense off your franchise quarterback. The 2010 Colts understood the situation: the offensive line was so bad that being a dynamic, down-field offense was a pipe dream. They adjusted their game plan to match the skill and talent they did have, and put their players in the best position to succeed.
The final issue with Arians strategy on Sunday was his use of formations. Of the Colts 20 1st half (pre-final-drive) stats, 8 came from the shotgun formation. This, by itself, is not a high number. Some Manning offenses, by comparison, would use the shotgun a majority of the time (the 2010 Colts used the shotgun formation 60% of the time). What was concerning, however, was Arians lack of creativity from the shotgun formation.
First, of those 8 snaps, 3 came with either no RB (2) or no TE (1) in the formation. These two formations basically telegraph to the defense, "we aren't going to run the ball on this play," which allows the defensive line to not have to think about the running game, their backside contain, or any of their other responsibilities, they simply focus on getting to the quarterback. The rest of the Colts shotgun personnel consisted of 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB, and with Fleener in at TE, this further removed the threat of the run.
The second, and far more important issue with Arians deployment of the shotgun, was that of those 8 snaps, they ran the ball only once. Contrast that with the previously mentioned 2010 Colts offense who employed the shotgun 60% of the time: 29% of that offenses running plays were out of the shotgun. The point? While the shotgun is primarily a passing formation, you must run from it if you hope to keep the defense off-balance.
Now, trust me, I understand, looking at one half of one game is a ridiculously small sample size. Arians is working with a young group of players, and just as they are learning, he too is having to learn and adjust to the talent and skill around him. But Sunday's game plan seemed to follow the same basic game plans put forth by Arians in the preseason, and if he didn't learn the deficiencies of his offense then (especially the OL), one has to wonder what he needs to see before he does have a firm grasp of the situation.
It's unlikely that the Colts will win the division or make the playoffs this year, and their main goal and focus should be the development of their young offensive talent, specifically the new face of their franchise, Andrew Luck. For now, it appears as if the offensive line will be providing Luck with little, if any, assistance along the way. In that case, it falls on Bruce Arians to adjust his game plan in such a way as to both protect Luck and put the rest of the offense in a position to succeed. His ability to do so will affect the success of the Colts for the next 15 years as much as the next 15 games.
Special thanks to Jacob Crocker for helping me with the stats, both from yesterday's game and from the 2010 season
"did someone actually think this offensive line was good"
If I recall, at least one author on this site - I honestly don't remember which - spent most of the off season talking about how the line didn't need any more work and that they'd be better than in previous years.
I don't remember anyone writing that, but whoever wrote that was probably in the same mindspace that most of the rest of us were. Many of our opinions were along the lines of "anyone but Diem" and "anyone but Pollak". To a degree, that also extended to Link and Reitz, although it was less deserved in their cases; they at least were executing to the best of their abilities, and their abilities actually were somewhat average most times. Anyway, most of us figured "Anyone but 'X'", and few imagined that things could go downhill from there.
Well... as we all know, things went downhill from there.
As messed up as this is, I honestly think we found a guard worse than Pollak. Pollak at least had some flashes of competency; Olsen.... <i>yeech</i>. Thinking back, tt was those plays where Pollak either got overwhelmed (how does a guy that big get pushed backwards that often anyway?) or screwed up in some other way that got many of us so aggravated. That right there is why a lot of us said "Nah, it couldn't get any worse".
Diem's case was a bit different: To us, it was watching someone we all considered over-the-hill trying his damndest to stay relevant. The simple fact is that he was indeed in decline and did indeed get beat, but again, few of us imagined that things could get worse. Hence all our jokes about traffic cones for right tackle. That was clearly our mistake; things did indeed get worse than Diem. He actually showed that he was still at a far higher level last year than some other tackles (specifically, one guy named "Justice"), despite his decline.
Too many of us thought that just changing out people would work. We know now that that wouldn't be the case. You need to actually have a fundamental level of competence there. So it takes more than just discarding players from "Polian's regime". It takes upgrading. And that's something the front office was simply not able to do because cap restraints and basic unavailability (you can't work magic when you're choices are restricted by pocketbook and limited in numbers to begin with).
Anyway... sure, some of us thought that the line would automatically get better just because we had different personnel. Even I thought it was possible they'd improve in some isolated tasks. Guess we all know now.
You can bet we'll all be paying very, VERY close attention to the upcoming draft prospects along the line.
Lots of concerns expressed about Arians...
My question is simple, where these concerns there when he coached #18 in Indy all those years ago?
The one thing I keep thinking is that Chicago's 4 man rush might have been the perfect strategy against the Colts this season. Luck is not yet reading defenses as quickly as the top guys in the league, and he is still hesitant to use the simple check down receiver for 4-8 yards play in and play out. The cover 2 works particularly well against teams that want to try to force the ball downfield, and Luck is still wanting to stick to his primary targets more than his dump off guys. This could actually help him perform better when teams send 5-6 guys.
But the O-line still needs to be able to give him at least 2 seconds to set his feet and throw confidently.
Can any of us hope and wish that Jake Long doesn't sign an extension with the Dolphins and opts for FA, whereby, the Colts snatch him up? If only wishes came true.
@AaronHuston He'll go for the money and for a team on the up, not the Dolphins. Our targets for next offseason should include Long, Ryan Clady, and Duane Brown. All three would make our O-line, solid, if not one of the better ones in the league.
It has been a long time since the Colts had an O line that intimidated anyone. The re-treads are not worthy of the weapons they are charged with protecting and blocking for. I know o line play is overrated but this is the beginning the middle and the end of the problem. Besides that, the rookies besides Luck are taking their sweet time. I think the O might be dumbed-down for the new guys. All this play design you question might look a little different if the line could do its job
@naptown_ninja That answer doesn't work for me. If your offense has to be dumbed-down for your rookies (or incoming personnel, your system is not a very good one. The NFL has huge turnover every year, and so you need to have a system that works with simplicity.
How many times did we see Luck have to point to exactly where a motioned player was supposed to end up (including Wayne on one play)? If your rookies don't have that figured out, stop putting people in motion! The brilliance of the Manning/Moore era was its simplicity. It allowed everyone, including practice squad guys, to know the whole playbook quickly thus allowing them to make an immediate impact.
Arian's has quickly become the coach I am most concerned about within this system.
@mattshedd I don't know that that the O is dumbed down for the new guys. It's just a thought. Arians has said that Luck was not the rookie he was worried about. I really think that the offense was blown up at the point of attack over and over again. No run game + no pass pro does not = bad scheme. It = bad line play.
BTW Peyton did PLENTY of screaming a rookies who ran the wrong route missed a blitzer. The simple thing about Manning/Moore was where to line up. After the snap it was anything but simple for the receivers.
(1) I know this is popular thought amongst national media types (never ones to over react after one game), but do any real Colts fans wish we had taken RGIII over Luck? (Not me, I still believe over the long haul Luck will be the much better player.)
(2) How the hell did the 2010 Colts make the playoffs and come a Blair White drop (Blair White!!!!!!) of winning a playoff game? (Hint: His first and last initials are "P" and "M', middle name "Freakin'".
@DougEngland In response to your first question: No.
RG3 benefited from a good supporting cast, weak opponent, and really good play-calling. Whereas Andrew Luck had none of those benefits. Of course, that won't stop national media trying to stir up a controversy / story.
There's a good analysis of the Redskins-Saints game over at Football Outsiders (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/any-given-sunday/2012/any-given-sunday-redskins-over-saints).
I always remembered the Steelers, in shotgun, putting Miller or Spaeth in teh backfiled quite often, or at least leaving one into block and go on a delayed release.
I don't mind the not running part, especially since it probably wouldn't be that successful.
I will be interested to see next week. They better but Allen or a RB at all times on Jared Allen. Kevin Williams could also destroy Seth Olsen (will Reitz be back?), but Allen is terrifying.
Arians has always been heavily pass first, and has shown little adaptability over the years. I'm really questioning getting him and not putting some resources into updating the line. THat better be one of the key tasks in offseason 2013. The one saving grace is the Bears are a good defense, but I have a feeling that even against the most flaccid of defenses the Colts will play the results will be somewhat similar.
While I thought there could be more quick passes, I actually have no problem with such an "unbalanced" pass to run ratio in and of itself. In general, balance doesn't actually mean much, and if you got a QB who can throw, I'm all for unleashing the guy. But even with that said, Greg does have a totally legitimate point about this game specifically: Perhaps some rushing would've kept the pass rush at bay a bit and kept Luck upright.
To be honest, though, I think some short passes - bubble screens, short dumps and screens to the running back after he chips on the way out, etc. - would be just as effective, but that's me. I'm only in favor of rushing to keep defenses "honest" when the offensive line is capable of dictating to the defense, and really, this offensive line is anything but. As woeful as the guards and right tackle are, I can see opponents keeping with the pass rush and still getting to where they can disrupt a rushing play if and when they need to. That's why I'm not really in favor of rushes with this interior line and right tackle: They suck. The faster the ball is to or past the line of scrimmage, the better for all involved, and a screen, short pass to the running back, or bubble screen out wide is faster and can be as effective, if not more so, as a rush given the Colts current personnel.
Now, if and when Indy gets some real guards, that all changes. You can do some honest rushing for honest yardage, and at that point your O-line can help force the opposing defense to play back a bit. But with Indy's guards, I don't see that right now. For now, the only advantage I see in rushing in that it would get the ball out of Luck's hands and into Browns, therefore Brown would take the abuse (sorry, Donald, but RBs are meant to take more abuse than QBs), but again, the same can be accomplished through the short pass, so that's what I'm in favor of.
All this is a very minor difference of opinion though. It's almost nothing more than a shade of a difference, really, because I agree that the play calling didn't seem entirely appropriate. Yes, if the defense you're facing is being aggressive, make them pay by fooling them into overpursuits and being out of place. Yes, screens, misdirection plays, and draws where appropriate... those all should've been available and used. Don't tell me they don't have those in the playbook. Do at least some of that, and you got a good chance of giving Luck that extra heartbeat to thrown, or at least not get hit. Anyway, I definitely agree with Greg about the play calling. I just differ minutely over whether rushes or screens/dump offs would be better than carries, that's all.
@AJ_ to both you and @dmstorm22 : While I think there should have been more balance on the offense, I hope that it didn't come off as me wanting them to run the ball 50% of the time or anything. I agree with your points, I was just pointing out that Arians did not attempt to slow down the defensive pressure through play calling at all. One of those ways is running, the other way is screens. I was shocked at the lack of screens on Sunday.
@GregC @dmstorm22 Yeah, I think we basically agree on things. Especially Arians lack of awareness of the ineffectiveness of his team's pass protection. We both agree that he should've done *something* to blunt it. Like screens. Shovel passes. Quick dumps. I too don't understand why he didn't do that.
And no, I too don't want to make everyone else think that you meant literal "balance" i.e. 50-50 pass vs run. You simply meant a bit less lopsided in order to counter the pass rush, however it's done. All of us can get on board with that.
Really insightful observations, Greg. Even before half-time, only 5 running plays? That´s absurd. And for all the people who doubt Brown´s abilities, even then, is it better to have your running back stopped 2 yards away from scrimmage because the OL can´t stop opposing players from blowing up plays, or to have your rookie franchise QB sacked and hurried in less than 3 seconds because Satele and the guards can´t keep the middle of the pocket clean? Regarding screens, I know we lost Pierre, and Reggie is far too valuable to sacrifice him with some middle of the field missions, but I thought our TEs were really underutilized in the passing game yesterday (I´m loathe to call all their blocking a passing game, seeing how our WRs, save for Reggie, are at best middling performers). Luck systematically looked for Fleener on 12, 13 yards plays (or even longer), but surely with an OL this disastrous we can all agree there would be no shame in going for 7, 8 yards out thanks to your big athletic TE (Allen played? Really?). Overall, I´m really not overjoiced to remember why I wasn´t thrilled with Arians´ appointment. At the moment, I just haven´t seen any evidence he´s equipped to construct a smart, efficient offense.
One other thought, jury was out for me on Avery and still is. I think Collie would have helped #12 yesterday with better hot reads and getting open more quickly.
I was surprised by two things on offense. 1) The lack of quick hitting plays like slants, screens, draws, etc., in particular after halftime. 2) The lack of plays that got Luck out of the pocket. The Bears just pinned their ears back and rushed every down. Worse still, they wrecked our line mostly using four rushers.
Watching the runners get stuffed in the backfield as soon as they took the handoff made me wonder if we will ever be able to run the ball. Olsen was awful, Satele was terrible, these two get pushed into the backfield and consistently miss blocks. I don't care what play you call the O line has to be able to block to be successful and that isn't happening.
Thank you! This write up and some throat lozenges helped with some of the pain from yelling at the tv screen yesterday.
What is interesting is that Arians has been heavily scrutinized in Pittsburgh for his play-calling and scheme. Under his regime, Big Ben was consistently under pressure, and most of his big plays came after plays had broken down. While Arians cannot control a player like Ben, the critique that his passes take too long to develop and that he doesn't know how to protect his QB are concerning. This has a similar feel to a Martz in Chicago sort of vibe.
Great observation, Greg. I wonder whether anyone else (Pagano, Luck, Wayne...) observed the same thing and whether anyone will be able to influence Arians into changing some things. I say this under the assumption that Arians - who was apparently cursed by Steelers' fans - won't.
Great writeup! I, too, felt Luck was getting no help (outside of Wayne). I just couldn’t put my finger on it and you nailed it!