Did 'Good' Andrew Luck Only Last a Single Week?
A week ago, "good" Andrew Luck was undoubtedly back. He was one of the best quarterbacks of the week by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform. Luck ranked fourth by Passing NEP per drop back after the season’s opening week, and everything was right with the world.
Then the Denver Broncos came and destroyed everything that was loved about the Indianapolis Colts offense. The 2016 Colts looked a lot like the 2015 version, and much of that was due to forcing a bad day out of Luck. Only two starting quarterbacks had a worse Week 2 than Luck on a per drop back basis: Jameis Winston and Jay Cutler.
Through the first two weeks of the season, Luck ranks 21st in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks, a similar place to where he finished last season. And to bring the 2015 memories back already, Luck sat out practice on Wednesday because of a sore shoulder. There’s no worry he’s going to miss the game on Sunday, but Luck is no stranger to going out on the field at less than 100 percent.
With the surrounding circumstances slowing creeping towards what we saw last season, can we really be sure if "good" Andrew Luck is back? And if he is, can he last?
Signs of Hope
It’s hard to call what Luck did against Denver good, but there were some positive signs in an otherwise ugly loss to the defending champs. One such play was early in the third quarter on and 2nd-and-7 near midfield. Like many other snaps during the game, Luck gets pressured from the outside, but he’s able to maneuver in the pocket, set his feet, and fire a strike downfield to Phillip Dorsett. It was Indianapolis’s only completed deep pass of the game because, on other attempts, Luck either didn’t get time for the play to develop or the receivers just weren’t getting open against Denver’s secondary.
Hitting these plays are essential to the Colts passing game because they're very much a vertical offense. Indianapolis is going to have to connect on more of them with Dorsett, especially now that Donte Moncrief is expected to miss a few weeks with shoulder injury.
Then there are the plays Luck is able to make when he’s not constantly under duress. Take his touchdown pass to Moncrief against the Detroit Lions in Week 1, for example. Moncrief runs an inside slant from the outside with T.Y. Hilton running a natural pick to the outside from the slot. Luck looks for the first window to get the ball to Moncrief, but he’s covered by Glover Quin. Luck waits and resets, then gets the ball to Moncrief as he crosses behind Quin in the next open window for the touchdown. This is incredible patience for a quarterback, and a sign of "good" Andrew Luck.
Can It Last?
Luck’s production is at the mercy of his offensive line. Since he was a rookie, the Colts have tried to figure out a way to protect their quarterback, but they’ve yet to find the right solution. Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, the Colts have already been the third-most pressured offense in the league, being pressured on 20.4 percent of pass plays. That’s not a stat the Colts want to be near the league leaders in.
The protection problems were evident against Denver. It also wasn’t just that the Colts failed to block, it was how they were failing. Indianapolis was leaving the tackles on their own against two of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league -- DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.
On the second of Luck’s five sacks against the Broncos, the Colts have five blockers against four Denver rushers. But the guards and center stay in the middle against the two defensive tackles and both ends are left alone on the tackles. Ware gets credit with the sack, but it doesn’t really matter because Miller was getting the same penetration from the other side. The two converge on the quarterback before the offense has a chance to make a play.
On the strip sack from Miller that put the game away, he was again one-on-one with right tackle Joe Reitz. Miller lines up outside the tight end and Dwayne Allen is not asked to chip Miller off the line before going into his route. Miller is wide enough that Reitz barely gets a hand on him before he’s knocking the ball out of Luck’s hand.
In this game, Luck did have a 21-yard run on 3rd-and-20 early in the third quarter, which is a good sign. Early in Luck’s career, he was one of the smartest scramblers in the league with a high Success Rate on his rare runs. Over the past few years, though, Luck has been more apt to try to make a play with his arm instead of taking the yards given on the ground.
The Colts won’t see a dominant pass rush like Denver’s until they play the Houston Texans in Week 6, but all three of Indianapolis’s next opponents are in the top half of pressure rate through the season’s first two weeks. How the line holds up will likely play a big part in determining whether the offense looks more like Week 1 or Week 2.
We’ve already seen that Andrew Luck can be great again, but to what extent might rely on how good his teammates can allow him to be.