For NFL offenses, it all starts up front. Running the ball and protecting the passer requires an efficient offensive line with an attitude to block.
Since 2018, the Indianapolis Colts have had it. However, 2022 has proven to be a volatile whirlwind full of position-swapping. Now that we’ve covered the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, let’s start breaking down the offensive line for the Colts, which was considered by many to be elite until now.
Currently, Pro Football Focus has the Colts' offensive line at 29th overall in pass-blocking efficiency and 27th at run-block efficiency. Right out of the gate, this is startling to anyone who saw their top-10 caliber ranks in the preseason.
As of now in Week 12, the Colts are tied with the Chicago Bears as the NFL's worst in sacks allowed at 40, per StatMuse.com. On paper, the context as to why quarterback Matt Ryan has to get rid of the ball so quickly becomes visible. Pair this with no blocking for star running back Jonathan Taylor, and you have a recipe for disaster, leading to the second-worst scoring offense in the league at a lowly 15.7 points per game.
Lastly, there is a $42 million tag on this offensive line, which is the fourth-highest in the entire NFL and a whopping 20% of the Colts' cap space.
Let’s examine the line from left to right with rookie Bernhard Raimann.
Bernhard Raimann | Left Tackle
The rookie out of Central Michigan has now played seven games through the regular season and ranks third on the team overall in blocking efficiency (61.5) behind only Braden Smith (70.6) and Quenton Nelson (69.5), per PFF. Not only that, but Raimann is, shockingly enough, first overall in run-blocking efficiency (73.0); a sizeable distance from the next-best, Nelson (67.1).
However, a huge knock on Raimann has been his seven penalties, which he’ll look to improve. He is a rookie, so he will have to learn from his mistakes — it’s expected — but the blocking machine Quenton Nelson doesn’t have the excuse.
Quenton Nelson | Left Guard
The former sixth-overall draft pick was selected by Indianapolis out of Notre Dame in 2018. In each of his previous four seasons, Nelson has been a Pro-Bowler and an All-Pro (First-Team in first three seasons). Essentially, he’s been arguably the best guard in the NFL since he was drafted.
However, it’s not the case this year, as with a rookie to his left, he has had to account for more. PFF has Nelson second on the team in overall blocking efficiency behind Smith, but also second in the pass and run blocking efficiency, so he has still been a very solid piece.
Out of the five starters, Nelson has allowed the fewest sacks with only 2 on 462 snaps (tied with Smith for the most on the team). Nelson hasn’t been the issue out of the 3 top dogs, but center Ryan Kelly has regressed in his performance, and it shows in his numbers.
Ryan Kelly | Center
Picked in the first round of the 2016 draft out of the University of Alabama, Kelly was thrust into the starting role immediately. He was a nice addition right off the bat but officially took off with Nelson and Smith added to the squad, Kelly hitting his stride with three straight Pro Bowl nominations (2019-2021).
This season, however, has shown a shell of Kelly. He is fourth on the team behind Raimann at overall blocking (61.3), fifth in run blocking behind second-year man Will Fries, and hasn’t been the trench general he was over the previous three seasons.
This hasn’t helped the new right guard for the team, Fries, but has proven he is ready to learn and push to become greater.
Will Fries | Right Guard
Drafted in the seventh round in 2021 out of Penn State, Fries was a tackle, but was converted to right guard and now has three starts under his belt. However, Week 10 against the Las Vegas Raiders is where he showed true grit, helping propel Taylor to a massive game on the ground.
In 2022, Fries struggled in his short 144 snaps overall, allowing 9 hurries on the quarterback and an overall efficiency grade of 49.8 (only in front of backup linemen Danny Pinter's 46.7 and Matt Pryor's 42.4). With former star center Jeff Saturday coaching the Colts, we’ll see if Fries can climb the improvement ladder.
We will now end with the most efficient blocker in 2022 for the Colts, Smith.
Braden Smith | Right Tackle
Drafted in the second round of 2018 out of Auburn, Smith was a 13-game starter as a rookie and only kept the position of right tackle thereon.
One knock on him is that he'd had no Pro Bowl or All-Pro nods, but he’s still been a staple of the right side for five years.
Smith has played in all 11 games in 2022 and is first on the team in overall blocking efficiency (70.6) and pass blocking efficiency (76.0), but has allowed 4 sacks and 10 total QB pressures.
Smith will need to continue to be an anchor for the Colts to have any chance of success to finish the last six games.
The offensive line was the biggest deal for the Colts and has been since 2018. Have they finally hit a regression? Is it an issue with the constant swaps and lack of consistency? Is it a combination of both? Who knows?
What is known without any ambiguity is that the Colts' protection hasn’t just been lackluster, it’s led to one of the most predictable offenses in the entire league.
Every team knows the line is struggling, that Taylor is the biggest threat, and that Ryan cannot move out of a pocket quickly enough. Will the Colts be able to turn around and keep the Pittsburgh Steelers from putting on pressure? We will see on Monday.