On the second play from scrimmage between the Colts and Texans in the first wild-card game of the NFL playoffs, J.J. Watt swam jumbo tackle Joe Haeg and floated into the backfield, where he tripped up a defenseless, twirling Marlon Mack two yards behind the line.
Watt waved his hands and shook his head, as if too say this is too easy. The crashing ends, which bolster one of the most efficient defensive units in football, can be maddening for a drop-back passer who, in the past, has had a tendency to hold the ball for too long (Colts QB Andrew Luck has vastly improved on that bad habit in 2018, and is ninth in snap-to-throw time among qualified passers in the NFL).
But on this night, it was a rarity. That tackle was Houston’s only for a loss. For the whole game. Luck wasn’t sacked once.
On the following play, a third-and-12, Luck, who passed for 222 yards and two touchdowns, dropped back into a pocket that was more wide open than the balcony on a hotel suite with an ocean view. He was able to sit calmly for a beat as his best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, worked his way around cornerback Jonathan Joseph and emerged in open space to catch the first down.
COLTS 21, TEXANS 7: COMPLETE BOX SCORE
Whether it’s a five-second horror film featuring Quenton Nelson legally wrestling one of the best defensive players in the league to the ground, or the beautiful, walled synchronicity of an entire side of their line during a short yardage touchdown run, the Colts have a way of making offensive line play must-see viewing.
The complementary system installed by Frank Reich, combined with an infusion of high-end talent on their offensive line, has undoubtedly been the story of Indianapolis’ 2018 season. It is foreign territory for Luck, who watched Mack rush for 148 yards on 24 carries on Saturday as the Colts beat the Texans 21–7. Every snap has an escape hatch. Against Houston, they used Houston’s strength on defense as a pivot point on which to rotate their run direction and style.
Perhaps it was because of the unit’s penchant for being paper-thin in the past that makes what we’re seeing now seem almost poetic. The contrast between something historically bad and something even passable or average is praised widely in the NFL. But this is something different. Nelson should make legitimate noise in the discussion for rookie of the year, even though he won’t.
Reich’s quarterback-friendly offense should receive praise from the Coach of the Year crowd for not only shortening Luck’s reads, but for putting the offensive line in positions to win more blocks—even though it won’t. As enamored as we’re about to get about this team over the coming years, not enough attention will be paid to what has happened up front and how, even if the story begins and ends there.
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