- Frank Reich’s offense in Indianapolis is making sure that Luck’s time in the pocket is limited and that he’s getting the ball out early—in order to reduce the big hits and avoid injury.
In his first two seasons in the NFL, Andrew Luck put up passer ratings of 76.5 and 87.0 while leading mediocre Colts teams to 11-5 records both years—enough to be labeled a good, but not great, quarterback by many.
But inside the NFL, Luck was already being billed as perhaps the game’s best quarterback. It was only a matter of time before his stats would catch up to his extraordinary film. (Indeed, they did in Year Three, when Luck threw for 4,761 yards and led the league with 40 touchdown passes.)
Football people were gaga over Luck’s preternatural ability to extend the action. While many high-level quarterbacks extended plays by breaking them down and conjuring magic, Luck extended them through sheer protraction. Plays that were designed to attack in three or four seconds would be carried out by Luck for five or six seconds—without abandoning the play’s design! Late in the down, Luck would still be in the pocket, eyes downfield, working through his deepest progressions. No defense could hold up long enough.
But some worried that Luck couldn’t hold up either. A byproduct of extending plays, especially within structure, is that the quarterback absorbs more hits—Impactful hits, for that matter. Luck might make a brilliant throw with a defender bearing down, but he’d take a thundering body blow in the process. Most alarming was how often his arm and shoulder would be exposed on this contact.
As you know Luck eventually suffered a 20-month shoulder injury, leading many to question whether the quarterback could ever play again. Football people were asking a different question: if he does play again, will he play with the same style?
This topic was at the forefront of Indianapolis’s head coaching search—after Josh McDaniels’s spurning, the Colts eventually landed on Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. At training camp, I posed the question to Reich, as well as to Luck himself.
“Andrew absolutely can continue to extend plays,” Reich said. “His career is just getting started. I know he’s already accomplished a lot, but Tom Brady, Drew Brees, these guys are playing until they’re 40 years old. Andrew’s got a long way to go yet. He has elite athleticism for the position, so his ability to extend within the pocket, that’s still a big part of it.”
Luck, however, sounded a touch more pragmatic.
“I’d like to think I can continue to do it,” he said. “But I think it’d be foolish of me to not to adjust certain things about [extending plays]. It’s a part of my game that I don’t want to lose, but it’s about applying it in a more efficient, productive way.”
One reason Reich got the Colts job was he’d spent the last two years coaching Carson Wentz, the closest thing to a Luck clone. Prior to tearing his ACL, Wentz in 2017 was having an MVP campaign on the strength of his late-in-the-down playmaking. But it was Philly’s offense in Wentz’s 2016 rookie season that’s a more attractive fit for Luck post-shoulder injury. To simplify things for their young quarterback, the Eagles had employed a lot of spread formations and pre-snap bells and whistles. Post-snap, Wentz would drop back three or five steps and get the ball out. There’s only enough time for one or two reads, and more importantly, there’s not enough time for the pass rush to get home.
The Indianapolis offense had this dink-and-dunk texture in Week 1 against Cincinnati. Luck completed 73.6% of his passes (his career completion rate coming in was 59.2), averaging 5.4 intended air yards per attempt, which NextGen Stats cited as lower than every QB except Alex Smith and Derek Carr. On average, he got the ball out in 2.49 seconds. Thirty five times the Colts lined up in some sort of spread formation, including eight snaps with an empty backfield—a formation that demands the ball get out promptly. The offense also went shotgun 61 times, which positions a QB to throw quicker.
The challenge is to stay committed to this new approach. The Colts started right tackle/guard Joe Haeg in place of an injured Anthony Castonzo at left tackle. It’s easier to call quick-strike throws if you’re unsure that your left tackle will maintain his pass blocks. Will Reich get more aggressive with deeper dropbacks once Castonzo returns?
Another concern is Indy’s wide receivers also struggled when Cincy’s talented corners applied man coverage. If wideouts can’t win one-on-one in space, spread formations and quick throws can’t work. You can help receivers through scheme, though those ploys tend to result in more designer downfield plays, where routes have longer to unfold.
There’s also the question of how hard the Colts should commit to getting the ball out of Luck’s hands quickly. If extending plays is what makes him special, should they really sacrifice that in the name of precaution? It’s the same debate people have long had about dynamic running quarterbacks. What’s the point of protecting a QB if you’re not going to maximize his strengths? The rebuttal, of course, is what good are the strengths if a QB isn’t available?
This doesn’t have to be a binary decision. Reich’s job is to help Luck find that delicate balance between playing responsibly and aggressively. Luck has enough elite traits—presnap awareness, field vision, precision accuracy—to make it work. How he does will determine his and the Colts’ future.
Both defenses appear to be even better than this time last year, thanks in part to the acquisition of high-risk stud defensive tackles. The Jaguars traded for the Bills’ Marcell Dareus (and his expensive contract) last October and saw their run defense give up 40 fewer yards per game. The Vikings signed Sheldon Richardson to a one-year, $8 million deal in free agency. If not for off-field concerns, he would have garnered at least $25 million guaranteed over a long-term deal. Richardson had dominant stretches Sunday against San Francisco, showing the initial burst and redirect movement skills that made him so destructive as a Jet and Seahawk.
The second-year pro’s raw talent jumps off the screen. Not only is Mahomes shifty and spry, he has a fastball that seems to almost gain velocity as it flies. Kansas City’s offense will be great television in 2018. One concern from the Chiefs’ at L.A., however, was that Mahomes could be a tad indecisive when the defense changed up its looks. That’s to be expected with a young starter. Mahomes will have to deal with a lot more changed up looks this week against Pittsburgh.
CHICAGO’S MACK ATTACK
Let’s put the over/under for Khalil Mack’s sacks this season at 17.5. That might sound lofty—his career-high is 15.5, which he recorded as the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year—but in the same way Mack makes the Bears’ defense better, that defense also makes Mack better. No unit is stronger at subtly disguising its looks. Quarterbacks hate facing Chicago because they can’t trust what they initially see from the linebackers and safeties. The resulting QB indecision will give Mack more time to rush the passer—an advantage he never had in Oakland.
J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS
The Jets took the perfect approach with Sam Darnold on Monday night: a conservative, play-action-heavy passing game with a lot of designed QB movement. Those designs, which stem from the Jets’ outside zone running game, split the field in half for Darnold, giving him either/or reads. It also got him using his legs, where he’s very comfortable as a thrower. This is exactly how the Jets offense must play in 2018.
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