Putting the line front and center
Let's just cut to the chase: The Colts will only go as far as their offensive line will allow quarterback Andrew Luck to take them.
Of course, this has been said in each of the previous four seasons. How'd that go? Luck was the most hit quarterback in the NFL during that time with 375, despite missing nine games last year with a lacerated kidney and abdominal tear. And the running game, which is used to keep defenses honest and alleviate pressure on the quarterback, had the sixth-worst per-carry average during that time (3.89 yards).
In Indianapolis, they believe 2016 will be different because of the changes up front. "I don't think that there's any doubt that we will improve on the offensive line, so I don't even see that as a factor," says offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
The Colts are optimistic about their line for a couple of reasons, the chief being the arrival of former Dolphins coach and Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin; he takes over for Joe Gilbert, who is now the assistant line coach. Philbin may have had his issues running the show in Miami (he had a 24--28 record in three-plus seasons before being fired last October), but he is widely viewed as one of the finest teachers of offensive line play in the NFL.
Philbin coached the unit through the college ranks and received a master's-level education under Iowa's Kirk Ferentz from 1999 to 2002. Then Philbin worked with the Green Bay line for four seasons, and even after the Packers promoted him to coordinator in '07, he continued to have a heavy hand with that group.
Says Chudzinski, "He has a great way and rapport with the guys. We started emphasizing fundamentals and techniques with them from the very beginning, and Joe is an outstanding teacher in that way."
It helps that general manager Ryan Grigson finally threw some resources at the unit. One year after not drafting a lineman until the seventh round (Denzelle Good of Division II Mars Hill), Grigson selected four, including first-round center Ryan Kelly. Despite missing some training camp with a left-shoulder injury, the 6'4", 313-pound Kelly, a unanimous All-America last year at Alabama, has been everything the Colts hoped for. "He's a guy that just fits immediately," Chudzinski says. "It's not too big for him. He's made the adjustment really well."
Indianapolis feels solid and settled with left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Jack Mewhort and Kelly. It appears Joe Reitz, who started 14 games last year, has locked down the right tackle position. Fourth-year player Hugh Thornton, who has missed practice time with a right-foot injury, and Good are battling it out at right guard. Once that position is settled, the Colts can begin the important work, which includes opening bigger running holes for 33-year-old Frank Gore (career-low 3.7 yards per carry last season, his first in Indianapolis) and fifth-year back Robert Turbin, imported from Dallas. Doing that will require coming together as a unit.
"The thing that we all know is that you can't build a great offensive line overnight," says Chudzinski. "The best ones are those that have been together for a long time. They know and understand how each other works, the things they don't even need to say to each other. There's a chemistry that develops. That's ultimately the goal, to have that type of group. And it will take some time."
The Colts don't have much time if they're going to keep Luck healthy and compete with the best teams in the AFC.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
The idea of a blitz, if it doesn't create a sack, is to force the quarterback to throw the ball early. When that happens, corners need to be up in receivers' faces, or those quick passes will be easy completions. Coach Chuck Pagano, who excelled at manufacturing pressure through blitzes when he was a coordinator in Baltimore, hired former Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino during the off-season to serve as his DC in Indy. This should mean more blitzing, but only if cornerback Vontae Davis(left) stays healthy. It is hard to call the 5'11", 207-pound Davis a true shutdown artist because he doesn't travel with receivers when they motion into the slot, and he prefers to stay on the defense's righthand side. But he's very close to that status, and he will be essential to a pressure defense. Few corners are as physical and tight in their coverage as the eighth-year pro.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 8--8
2015 Record: 8--8
SEPT. 11 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atDEN
SEPT. 25 vs.SD
OCT. 2 atJAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 vs.CHI [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 atHOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atTEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 vs.KC
NOV. 6 atGB
NOV. 20 vs.TEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 24 vs.PIT
DEC. 5 atNYJ
DEC. 11 vs.HOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 atMIN
DEC. 24 atOAK
JAN. 1 vs.JAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER