There is reason to be concerned that the savvy veteran, a between-the-tackles runner, will have many of the same issues recent Colts runners have had. Of course, with Andrew Luck under center, it might not matter
The Colts are this year’s trendy Super Bowl pick. The logic behind it: in Andrew Luck’s first season, Indy reached the Wild-Card round; in his second, the Divisional Round; last year, his third season, the AFC Championship. The conference title game loser usually makes for a popular Super Bowl pick the next year anyway. The Colts only furthered this supposition over the offseason by making a handful of “win now” signings: pass rusher Trent Cole, wide receiver Andre Johnson and, most notably, running back Frank Gore.
Gore is expected to bring balance to an offense that last season, in five different games, threw the ball on more than 70% of its snaps. Most of these pass-heavy outings were against playoff caliber teams: the Broncos in Week 1; the Steelers in Week 8; the Patriots in Week 11; the Cowboys in Week 16. And in all three playoff contests the Colts were incredibly pass-heavy. Granted, in several of these games the Colts fell behind early and had to throw. But overall, there were too many instances when they relied solely on Luck. That’s a lot of risk to take with a franchise quarterback.
Gore, 32, still has some fuel left, but how much difference can the veteran make? That’s not a leading or rhetorical question, but an actual one. Sure, he will be better than Trent Richardson. But that can be said about almost anyone with two fully functioning legs. How will Gore redefine Indy’s rushing attack? Think about his strengths: vision, power, balance, short-area body control, patience and an understanding of how to fit through small interior cracks. All of these things are at least somewhat dependent on the blocking in front of him. And in San Francisco, Gore often exhibited these traits when there was a fullback or tight end in the blocking equation.
The Colts aren’t equipped to play this way. For one, there’s no fullback on the roster. Tight end Coby Fleener is very finesse. Dwayne Allen is a quality on-the-move blocker, though the fact that he’s shed a little over 10 pounds might points to an expanded role in the passing game (where he’d be an upgrade over the mistake-prone Fleener.) Along the O-line, left tackle Anthony Castonzo is athletic on the perimeter, but Gore is not a perimeter runner. At right tackle, 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort, a guard last year, should be a step up over the released Gosder Cherilus, but that will show primarily in pass protection. At 6-6, 310, Mewhort might not have the drive-blocking power of the 325-pound Cherilus. On the inside of this Colts front line, it’s the same old story: a bunch of middling athletes with recent histories of injury or inconsistency, likely to all play one another’s positions at various points. If Gore were a fleet, shifty runner who could regularly create his own space, the outlook for Indy’s running game might be different. But stylistically, he’s just a slightly better version of what this team has already had.
Maybe that’s enough, though. Or, maybe it ultimately won’t matter. There’s a belief that, because Pep Hamilton oversaw a run-based offense at Stanford, the 40-year-old offensive coordinator wants to employ an old-school approach in the NFL. But Hamilton is a confident, innovative schemer with (like any coach) high aspirations. And his quarterback happens to be on course to being one of the all-time greats.
The closest thing Luck has to a weakness is mild inconsistencies with ball placement and decision-making. And usually, he’s extraordinarily acute in these realms. No quarterback is asked to take on a higher degree of difficulty than Luck. (It will be interesting to see if his aggressiveness augments or declines as he becomes smarter in the pre-snap phase.) Luck’s pocket movement and ability to keep his eyes downfield are unbelievable. This usually offsets the pass protection woes of the Colts’ athletically limited front five.
The thinking is that the arrival of Gore, and therefore of more balance from the ground game, will ease the burden on the soon-to-be 26-year-old quarterback who, everyone agrees, takes too many hits. But the supremely gifted passer now has a receiving corps that’s almost on his plane of talent. T.Y. Hilton is coming off a 1,345-yard season and has learned to exert his lethal combination of speed and quickness from both the slot and outside. If Hilton becomes a little more reliable on contested balls along the sideline, he can be a top-five wide receiver.
Alongside Hilton is second-year pro Donte Moncrief, a fluid downfield mover who was highly productive out of various “trips” receiver combinations late last season. The 6-2, 220-pounder has a chance to be a perennial 1,000-yard wideout. Joining the two speedsters is an even speedier speedster in first-round rookie Phillip Dorsett. Imagine how far back safeties will play when these three are on the field together. You think Hamilton, who did a tremendous job leveraging his receivers’ speed through downfield route combinations a year ago, won’t use his track star trio to benefit Fleener, Allen and sagacious newcomer Andre Johnson?
Even with Gore now in the backfield, Hamilton simply faces too much temptation to throw the ball. That’s not a bad thing. Let’s remember, the Colts were one game from the Super Bowl last season. And, like deflated footballs, a poor rushing performance did not have any bearing on the outcome of their 45-7 loss at New England. This team has ridden a less-talented passing attack to great heights before.
And so if the Colts are your pick, base it on the simple logic that we began with: they’ve reached the Wild-Card, Divisional and then Conference Championship rounds over the last three seasons. Their next natural step is Super Bowl 50. Luck’s greatness alone legitimizes this logic. There’s no shame in betting on the continued improvements of the game’s best young quarterback.
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Colts Nickel Package
1. One of Gore’s hidden strengths is his pass protection, which is extolled around the league. But at 32 and needing his snaps limited, it might make sense to replace him on third downs. The question is: Who would come in? The Colts had an excellent pass protector in Dan Herron, but he suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason finale and was on the wrong end of the recent roster trimming (he’s currently on injured reserve). Top backup Vick Ballard hasn’t been healthy in years and sixth-round rookie Josh Robinson missed time recently with a concussion.
2. It’s amazing the Colts racked up 41 sacks in 2014 with Robert Mathis sidelined by a torn Achilles. Credit head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky with scheming ways to bring heat via creative blitz packages. With 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner having so far developed into nothing more than a good edge-setter, the Colts’ pass rush for most of last season did not have any outside explosiveness. A spark finally came down the stretch, in fifth-round rookie Jonathan Newsome. Newsome will play opposite low-to-the-ground veteran Trent Cole and incumbent Erik Walden early on, and all three will work in a rotation with Mathis once he returns in October. Mathis’s physical capacity is very much TBD. Achilles injuries are hard enough to bounce back from for any player, let alone for a 34-year-old whose game is predicated on a quick first step. That said, there will be more electricity in Indy’s pass rush, and we’ve already seen that the coaching staff knows how to manufacture pressure through design.
3. Pagano and Manusky can manufacture pressure because they have two excellent perimeter cornerbacks in Vontae Davis and Greg Toler (who is currently “week-to-week” with a neck injury). Plus, slot man Darius Butler finally started playing up to his abilities about a year-and-a-half ago. There’s been talk of having Davis, arguably the game’s best downfield one-on-one defender, travel with opposing No. 1 receivers this year. He’s certainly talented enough for that, but the Colts may want to be careful about fixing something that’s not broken. With Butler and Toler back (eventually), plus the arrival of third-round rookie D’Joun Smith, there’s enough cornerbacking depth for the defense to come out favorably in most matchup scenarios even if the same players are always playing the same spots. Position familiarity becomes even more important considering how many of the Colts’ man-to-man concepts derive from an initial Quarters coverage look.
Where the Colts aren’t solid in man coverage is when their safeties and, especially, linebackers get isolated—something that happens often when offenses align in 3 x 1 sets against a defense that plays nickel, not dime. Linebackers Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson are good space-oriented run defenders, but both have struggled badly at times against tight end and running back option routes.
4. A lack of depth at every position save for cornerback means the Colts defense will very likely have to rely on mid-round rookies this season. Up front, it’d be third-round end Henry Anderson or fifth-round nose tackle David Parry. At linebacker, sixth-rounder Amarlo Herrera was just one spot behind top backup Nate Irving, though the trade for Sio Moore changes that. Moore should crack the starting lineup at some point—the question is, as an inside linebacker (where he’s best suited) or outside backer (where the Colts are weaker)? At safety, fourth-rounder Clayton Geathers might eventually push the somewhat bland journeyman Dwight Lowery.
5. We haven’t covered special teams in any of these previews because, frankly, there’s so much personnel turnover on the “third side of the ball” and not enough time to study it on film during the regular season. So any analysis here would be, at best, regurgitated platitudes. But anyone who follows the NFL knows, the Colts have two of the best legs in the game in kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee. This affords Pagano a lot more freedom when making in-game decisions pertaining to field position. Just something to keep in mind.