Questioning Colts OC Bruce Arians: does he Understand his Offensive Personnel?

In the wake of the Colts 21-41 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, there have been a lot of questions raised about the Colts, some valid: did someone actually think this offensive line was good, where is the Colts pass rush, and why does Chuck Pagano ever punt? And there were some less valid questions raised, for example: did the Colts make a mistake by drafting Andrew Luck.

For me, after some thought and discussion about the game with Colts fans and bloggers, one question emerged as the most immediate, pressing concern: does Bruce Arians’ play calling display a lack of understanding of his offensive personnel?

No one who watched yesterday’s game came away with any confidence in the ability of the Colts offensive line to protect Andrew Luck: he was sacked 3 times, hit 5, and hurried countless others, yet based on his play-calling, one senses Bruce Arians believes he was blessed with one of the best OLs in the league.

The first glaring issue was the Colts total lack of pass/run balance. While the final totals (45 pass attempts, 50 total drop-backs and 13 designed runs) were clearly skewed by the blowout nature of yesterday’s game, a look at the 1st half stats shows us that even while the Colts were still “in the game”, the lack of balance was a prevailing theme. Removing the Colts final drive of the 1st half, which started with less than a minute left, we find that the Colts ran 20 plays: 15 pass plays (2 resulting in scrambles) vs 5 runs.

Make no mistake about it: today’s NFL is a quarterback, passing-game-driven league, and no one is a bigger fan of passing offenses than myself. That said, there are benefits to having offensive balance. First, Luck is a young quarterback, and while he appears to have the calmness and poise of a veteran, there’s nothing wrong with helping him settle in with a few hand-offs. More importantly, the threat of the run keeps the defense honest, they can’t just key in on defending the pass and rushing the quarterback, and should help set up some big plays via play-action as the game goes along.

The next issue with Arians’ play-calling were the plays themselves. The Bears defensive line, with no threat of the running game or play-action to slow them down, was getting up-field on almost every play. If the offensive line is unable to block and if the running game is unable to keep them honest, Arians had the option to punish the Bears’ defense by taking advantage of their aggressiveness. He could have done this via draws, screens (TE, RB, or WR), or misdirection plays. Instead, Arians opted to longer developing pass plays which only played into the Bears hands.

Everyone remembers the 2010 Colts offense: bubble screen after predictable bubble screen. And while no one wants to relive those days, it was a smart game plan with a noble purpose: keep the defense off your franchise quarterback. The 2010 Colts understood the situation: the offensive line was so bad that being a dynamic, down-field offense was a pipe dream. They adjusted their game plan to match the skill and talent they did have, and put their players in the best position to succeed.

The final issue with Arians strategy on Sunday was his use of formations. Of the Colts 20 1st half (pre-final-drive) stats, 8 came from the shotgun formation. This, by itself, is not a high number. Some Manning offenses, by comparison, would use the shotgun a majority of the time (the 2010 Colts used the shotgun formation 60% of the time). What was concerning, however, was Arians lack of creativity from the shotgun formation.

First, of those 8 snaps, 3 came with either no RB (2) or no TE (1) in the formation. These two formations basically telegraph to the defense, “we aren’t going to run the ball on this play,” which allows the defensive line to not have to think about the running game, their backside contain, or any of their other responsibilities, they simply focus on getting to the quarterback. The rest of the Colts shotgun personnel consisted of 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB, and with Fleener in at TE, this further removed the threat of the run.

The second, and far more important issue with Arians deployment of the shotgun, was that of those 8 snaps, they ran the ball only once. Contrast that with the previously mentioned 2010 Colts offense who employed the shotgun 60% of the time: 29% of that offenses running plays were out of the shotgun.  The point? While the shotgun is primarily a passing formation, you must run from it if you hope to keep the defense off-balance.

Now, trust me, I understand, looking at one half of one game is a ridiculously small sample size. Arians is working with a young group of players, and just as they are learning, he too is having to learn and adjust to the talent and skill around him. But Sunday’s game plan seemed to follow the same basic game plans put forth by Arians in the preseason, and if he didn’t learn the deficiencies of his offense then (especially the OL), one has to wonder what he needs to see before he does have a firm grasp of the situation.

It’s unlikely that the Colts will win the division or make the playoffs this year, and their main goal and focus should be the development of their young offensive talent, specifically the new face of their franchise, Andrew Luck. For now, it appears as if the offensive line will be providing Luck with little, if any, assistance along the way. In that case, it falls on Bruce Arians to adjust his game plan in such a way as to both protect Luck and put the rest of the offense in a position to succeed. His ability to do so will affect the success of the Colts for the next 15 years as much as the next 15 games.

Special thanks to Jacob Crocker for helping me with the stats, both from yesterday’s game and from the 2010 season