Why is the Offensive Line Playing so Poorly?

Just after the bye week, I did an article showing that the Colts offensive line had improved over last season. If you didn’t read it, or don’t remember it, I strongly suggest you do so now, before reading this piece. I’ll refer heavily to it and to certain ways to measure the play of offensive linemen.  I’m not going to go back and explain all the stats here.  If you want to know what a certain stat measures or how it is calculated, please refer to the original piece.

Since then, the line has been terrible, culminating in a dismal performance Sunday night against the Chargers.  Manning got hit frequently and had no time to go downfield, and the run game just isn’t working.

The question is: why?

There are several theories, but first let’s see if the numbers support the claim.

Sack Rate

Sake rate Rank
2008 2.8% 1
2009 3.1% 1
2010 (1-6) 3.3% 2
2010 (7-11) 3.0%

By sack rate, the line has actually been a little bit better.  However, that doesn’t mean much.  Sack rate typically tells more about the QB than the line.  Let’s check against other numbers:

YPA

YPA
2008 7.2
2009 7.9
2010 (1-6) 7.5
2010 (7-11) 6.2

Wow.  That’s a precipitous drop in yards per attempt.  Manning simply is not having any success throwing downfield.

QB Hits

I can’t parse out how many hits per game came against Manning and how many were against Painter in 2009 (2008 data is unavailable).  On the whole for 2009, Colts QBs were hit once ever 13.7 times. Through 6 games this year, Manning was hit 20 times.  That’s a rate of 1 hit every 12.6 attempts.  Over the past five weeks, Manning has been hit 17 times.  That’s a rate of once every 13.6 attempts.  Manning is getting hit less now than he was earlier in the season, and at roughly the same rate as last season.

Long passes

Unfortunately, I didn’t note the volume of deep passes after week 6, just the ranking.  Through 6 games, Manning was 4th in 40 yard passes and ‘in the top 10′ of 20 yard passes.  Now, those ranks have plummeted.  Indy now ranks 20th in 20 yard passing plays and 15th in 40 yard passing plays.

Yards per Carry

YPC
2008 3.4
2009 3.5
2010 (1-6) 3.7
2010 (7-11) 3.3

So the yards per carry is down a little over the first six games, and down from the terrible years of 2008 and 2009.

Stuff rate

Stuff Rate Rank
2008 21% 27
2009 22% 27
2010 (1-6) 16% 6
2010 total 16% 7

I can’t break down the exact rate just over the past five weeks (not without a lot more work), but the stuff rate seems to be basically the same as it has been.

ALY

ALY Rank
2008 3.99 23
2009 3.93 25
2010 (week 1-6) 4.24 10
2010 total 3.89 18

Again, I can’t separate the run stats for just the last five games, but in that time the season average has gone to a lot better than last year to a little worse. That means that over the past 6 games especially, the numbers have been atrocious.  Let’s see where the line has gotten worse.

Directional running

Left end Left Tackle Middle Right Tackle Right End
2008 4.84 3.94 4.08 4.23 2.66
2009 2.63 3.96 4.39 3.92 3.94
2010 (week 1-6) 3.61 5.04 3.91 3.75 5.08
2010 (total) 2.97 5.08 3.49 4.04 4.60

Charlie Johnson’s numbers continue to free fall, but the Colts have had more trouble running up the middle as well.  That seems like a pretty big dip (remember that final number is an average that includes the first 6 games).  It’s interesting to see the numbers to the ends drop so much.  It’s almost as if there used to be different tight ends there than there are now.  Huh.

Rushing DVOA

Rushing DVOA Rank
2008 -6.7% 27
2009 -2.5% 20
2010 (weeks 1-6) 6.7% 9
2010 overall -1.5% 20

Again, I can’t give you the isolated number for the past 5 games, but it’s pretty clear that the run game has completely disappeared. 

Conclusion:  The pass protection appears similar, but the run game has completely fallen off.  Let’s look at possible causes:

1.  The Colts offensive line coaching is poor

This is kind of a soup dejour explanation.  Lots of people have been quick to point a finger at offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars.  Frankly, if the line had been playing poorly all year, the criticism would be warranted.  The pass protection numbers (which admittedly aren’t perfect) are absolutely in line with last season, except for yard per attempt.  Frankly, I think there is a more obvious and better explanation for the drop in pass and run production than just blaming the coaching on the offensive line.

2.  Small sample size/schedule

We are dealing with impossibly small sample sizes here.  Maybe the Colts just played a lot tougher or easier schedule in one half of the season.  Let’s check:

1st Half:

Run DVOA Pass DVOA Total D DVOA
Hou -2.9 45.9 24.2
Den 2.0 23.4 23.4
Jax 2.3 38.6 21.3
NYG -4.1 -20.1 -12.9
KC -9.1 14.0 4.5
Wash 2.5 17.3 10.9

Well, we might be on to something.  Indy played the three worst defenses in the NFL in their first 6 games.  Only one team (NYG) was better than 20th.

2nd Half

Run DVOA Pass DVOA Total D DVOA
Hou -2.9 45.9 24.2
Cin 5.3 2.1 3.6
Phi -6.1 4.3 -0.2
NE 3.3 26.8 17.0
SD -11.6 -7.5 -13.8

Well, it’s not exactly a murderers row either.  The Chargers have an excellent defense (the best Indy has played this year), and just a shade ahead of the Giants.  Indy got Houston in both halves.  KC and Cincy are pretty similar.  New England is pretty terrible and the Eagles are a touch above average, but better than say Washington or Denver.

So it’s possible that the Colts offense struggled a little more in the second half because some of the defenses were a little tougher.  It doesn’t seem like it would be enough to account for the dramatic drop in production in the passing game.

3. The Linkenbach Factor

The Colts switched from Mike Pollak to Jeff Linkenbach at right guard for the last 4 games.  My eyes tell me that he’s been terrible.  I do note that the Colts’ ‘up the middle’ numbers have fallen off dramatically since the bye (though that includes one came played by Pollak).  I’m certainly not willing to go so far as to say that Linkenbach has single handedly destroyed the Colts’ offense, but there’s no evidence he’s helped it at all either.

4. Injuries

Now we get down to it.  The Colts yards per attempt have suddenly plummeted?  Do you think it might have something to do with injuries to Clark and Collie?  The play of Tamme has born out what we said at the time:  the Colts can replicate the production of Clark, but not his affect on the opposing defense. In addition, losing Collie at the same time has been devastating.  We saw on Sunday that Blair White lacks the foot speed to out run coverage up the seam.  Teams are doubling Wayne, and Garcon by himself has not been consistent.  Of course, even then I’m being generous since even Blair White missed some time.

There isn’t much evidence that the pass blocking is any worse now than it was in the first half of the season.  The only number to drop is YPA, and when you lose two of your top 3 pass catchers, you would expect YPA to drop pretty sharply.  Clark and Collie were among the league leaders in receptions at the time they went down.

When it comes to blocking the Colts have switched out Clark for Tamme and Eldrige for Gijon Robinson.  I was crediting Eldridge with helping the run blocking before, so it’s only natural to note that he’s played sparing the past five weeks with a rib injury.  These switches are bound to have consequences. The Colts ALY to both ends have dropped a ton since Eldridge went down with an injury.

As for the run game, the Colts have gone from Addai/Brown/Hart to uh…Brown/Javarris James.  James in particular has not been good.  Yes, he scored some touchdowns, but his yards per carry stands 2.0.  Why should anyone be surprised that the Colts run game has suffered without their number one back? Oh by the way, Addai is the Colts’ best blocking back as well.

This answer won’t be popular, but it’s true.

People want to blame someone.  They want to blame the coaching. They want to blame Polian.  Moreover, someone will say, “I don’t believe stats! I trust my eyes!”.  As any defense attorney will tell you, your eyes lie.  In a win, no one notices the line. In a loss, everyone does.  The Colts are coming off a particularly bad game against one of the NFL’s best defenses.  Everyone thinks they see a trend or a pattern or that the line is worse than ever.  The line has been bad for three seasons now.  It’s not any worse than it has ever been. The only difference is that the Colts are losing more games now, so people are more upset about it.   Caldwell said as much today, but no one will want to hear it.

The truth is pretty simple.  The line is blocking about like it always has…crappily.  Manning’s YPA has dropped because of the players he lost in the passing game.  The run game has suffered in part because of a poor switch at right guard, but mostly because Indy has lost two talented runners.  Why have the Colts seen their ALY drop on runs around the ends?  They lost their new blocking tight end. 

There is no one to blame. There is no massive failure.

There are just more injuries than any team could ever hope to deal with.

My guess is that as you see the Colts play some bad defenses in the next month, and as Indy gets players healthy, the offense will rebound.

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