Andrew Luck May Be Back, But Can the Indianapolis Defense Keep Up? 10 Thoughts on the 2018 Colts

New head coach Frank Reich is ready to bring Luck back up to speed, but even if the QB snaps back to his previous star form, will the defense be good enough to make a contender?
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With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Indianapolis Colts, who finished 4–12 in 2017.

1. There is really one thing first-time head coach Frank Reich needed to tell Colts owner Jim Irsay and GM Chris Ballard before he was hired: Andrew Luck is one of the NFL’s most unique quarterback talents in history, and I just spent the last two years coaching the quarterback who is most similar to him.

Carson Wentz had an MVP-caliber 2017 season because of his mastery on extended plays and deeper dropbacks—things that made Luck so special early in his career. The league had never seen a young QB so adept at prolonging plays from within the pocket the way Luck did, but that high-risk style leaves a QB open to hits. Now after 18 months recovering from a temperamental shoulder injury, Luck can no longer subject himself to so many. He must get the ball out quicker.

Reich is poised to install a system for Luck that is similar to the one that he helped install for Wentz in 2016 when he was a rookie and the Eagles eased him in with three- and five-step timing throws. Luck is fine with quick throws that often require a high football IQ, since they’re dependent on presnap reads. The question is whether he’s disciplined enough to consistently play on this dink-and-dunk schedule. He became great by regularly extending plays. To become great again, he must now extend them judiciously.

2. After the draft, it appeared the Colts wouldn’t ask Luck to play more quickly. Spending the sixth overall pick on lauded guard Quenton Nelson and the No. 37 pick on guard/tackle Braden Smith suggested they were fortifying an interior OL that could give Luck more time to throw. Yours truly was critical of their draft for this, since these moves came at the expense of addressing numerous defensive inadequacies. But after going back through my Colts 2018 film notes in whole, I more greatly appreciate the desperation for offensive-line help. Maybe the upgrades will indeed lead to Luck extending plays, but we won’t know until September. If it does, we can debate the wisdom of that. But what we CAN’T debate—even though I misguidedly tried to after the draft—is the necessity of those O-line upgrades.

3. A big question is whether Indianapolis’s offensive line can be effective and diverse enough to create the schematically boundless rushing attack that Reich helped coach in Philadelphia. The Colts have an intriguing running back to headline that attack in second-year man Marlon Mack. His agility and turbo power keep defensive coordinators up at night. Late in his ’17 rookie year, Mack also showed hints of now-departed mentor Frank Gore’s sense for setting up and hugging blocks.

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4. Behind T.Y. Hilton, the Colts are frighteningly thin at wide receiver. Expect a lot of two-tight end packages, with ex-Lion Eric Ebron as a pass-catcher and Jack Doyle as a Swiss Army Knife near the line of scrimmage. The challenge will be working around Ebron’s shoddy run-blocking.

5. Hilton is one of football’s five most electrifying deep threats, but he’s not a true No. 1 receiver for one reason: he struggles against press coverage. To overcome this, he must be helped by the scheme. While Antonio Brown and receivers of that ilk align anywhere in a formation, including on an island out wide, Hilton often has to go inside the painted field numbers or go in motion—tactics that make corners play with a cushion.

6. If Luck stays healthy into October, it would behoove a team to offer the Colts a second-round pick for backup QB Jacoby Brissett. The big, mobile and strong-armed 24-year-old has star potential. Yes, Brissett must become a more consistent thrower, but it’s worth betting htat he can if given a chance to operate in a familiar offense (under Reich, he’s learning his third system in 12 months). Brissett is signed through 2019 at the insanely low price of $915,000. A QB-needy team should make the trade, anoint him the starter and, hopefully, be prepared to at least franchise-tag him in 2020.

7. There’s really no point in analyzing this unknown, untalented Colts defense too deeply. New coordinator Matt Eberflus, who comes over from Dallas, will likely toy with his personnel packages through Christmas. The only surefire nickel contributor is second-year free safety Malik Hooker—and “surefire” is generous, considering a knee injury has so far limited him to seven NFL games.

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8. You would have a strong case arguing that defensive end Jabaal Sheard is a quality nickel player, but in a technical sense, it might not be a winning case. There maybe isn’t a better pure run-defending 4–3 end than Sheard, but he is not a true edge bender. His pressure is generated on schemed tactics like stunts, twists and disguised blitzes. He’ll probably stay in for most passing downs in 2018. The Colts, however, should hope he doesn’t, as that would mean 2017 third-round end Tarell Basham and ’18 second-round end Kemoko Turay blossomed.

9. You’ll see a lot of stunts, twists and defensive-line slants from Indianapolis this season. Eberflus believes such tactics can compensate for when your front four lacks talent.

10. Eberflus also believes in tweaking traditional coverages. Most recently he’s coached in Rod Marinelli’s classic 4-3 scheme, and there, Eberflus often wrinkled a few of his defensive backs’ assignments to texturize seemingly basic Cover 3 zones. He did it with a young secondary in Dallas, but will he try it with a young secondary here? In Indy Eberflus does not have a middle-field stabilizer in Sean Lee.

BOTTOM LINE: Even if Luck immediately regains his form, there are too many holes on defense for the Colts to claim an AFC South division that’s stronger than when they were last capable of winning it.

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