Over the last two weeks, the Indianapolis Colts have struggled as a football team. Sure, coming back in the second half again a decimated Texans squad was inspiring and fun to watch, but being in that position at all was entirely unnecessary. In the last four halves of football, Indianapolis has looked like a team that has lost its identity and is unsure of what new face it should put on itself.
The reasons the Colts are struggling are numerous, and for fans most certainly frustrating. But fans need to be careful not to become overwhelmed by the emotions that are caused when the Colts look terrible, as they did at home against Saint Louis, and need to rationally take a look at what is causing their team to struggle.
There is no denying that the Colts offensive line is in shambles. Losing a veteran player like Donald Thomas — who GM Ryan Grigson brought in via free agency — is the kind of thing that can have a lasting impact on an offensive line. Understand that losing Thomas and gaining rookie Hugh Thornton does not mean a one-for-one trade has happened. Thornton doesn't look to be a huge problem for the offensive line in terms of his individual assignments but he is NOT a verteran NFL offensive lineman who is capable of leading this group and his required place at LG means that when players like McGlynn or Satele get hurt, a less capable player has to step in and fill the RG spot.
Of course Samson Satele has been extremely inconsistent, and more often bad. McGlynn has looked good at center, doing what is required of NFL centers by calling out adjustments and ensuring everyone is on the same page. He is Saturday-esque in this nature and that kind of ability is absolutely NOT OPTIONAL for good centers at this level. Why the coaching staff has not accepted this reality and placed him at center is not entirely known but the observation is hard to ignore watching tape. That McGlynn also struggles at RG makes the reason for the move even more apparent.
Recently, partially due to the complete lack of the Colts to establish a running game (partially because they've stopped calling them after getting into big scoring holes), left tackle Anthony Castonzo's weaknesses against speed rushers have been exposed. While this is a frustrating thing to watch, Castonzo is not a "bad" tackle in the NFL. Most teams have the luxury of helping their tackles against the league's best pass rushers with other offensive players. The guy who would be in place right now to fill that role? Dwayne Allen. Out for the year.
The loss of tight end Dwayne Allen to start the 2013 campaign could be the biggest blow to Indy's offense, and that includes losing Reggie Wayne. No other offensive player on the Colts, other than Andrew Luck, has a more dynamic impact on the offense. Allen blocks as well or better than most of the offensive linemen on the team, he has excellent hands, great size, is a miss-match against any defensive position, and is strong enough to be a goal line and third down juggernaut. His absence is felt every day and makes running the offense immensely more difficult and complex.
Compounding the offensive line woes and the loss of Allen is an insistence on the part of the Colts coaching staff, namely Pep Hamilton, to telegraph his plays. People want to bash the daylights out of the Trent Richardson trade, just as they did years ago when Donald Brown struggled to get anything going in the running game, but like then the reason Richardson has been so woefully ineffective has MUCH LESS to do with his abilities and much more to do with the fact that he gets drilled immediately after the handoff on the majority of his plays.
Fans will point to Donald Brown's success running the football and generating offense and say, "but Brett it's clear thar that Richardson is a bust and Brown is better, how can't you see that?" The answer is simple. Brown is being used right, for the first time in his career. He is catching passes in space, running through open lanes on trap plays, and is benefitting from the very complaint I made earlier regarding the very vanilla offensive play-calling that telegraphs what the offense is going to do. When Brown gets the ball, it's a surprise to just about everyone — including people watching the game. And he and the offensive line use this element and Brown's fanastic speed and surprising balance and strength, to punish opponents who have been lulled to sleep by the predictable. By the way, one other name that is a reason for Brown's success in this facade is Richardson — whose presence on the field forces defenses to think run and absence leaves them back on their heals.
Now before we consider what Indianapolis could do to help their offensive struggles it's also absolutely crucial to realize that losing a player like Reggie Wayne is a crushing blow to any team. Wayne is a team leader on the field, is a wise and savvy veteran who can punish defensive weaknesses in his sleep. He has rare hands and reliability when the team needs offensive production and is the tried and true number on receiving option on the team in clutch and third down situations. Losing a player with that kind of impact hurts A LOT.
Now we know where we stand offensively. Our offensive line is a struggling group that has been inconcistent and has struggled through injury. Our two biggest weapons on offense — Allen and Wayne — are out for the year and that has a huge impact on how our offense will need to create yards moving forward. Our running game is stalling and our "big name" trade acquisitions Trent Richardson is getting blown up immediately after touching the football or at the line of scrimmage is the vast majority of his carries. Our offensive coordinator plays who is often either a stubborn offensive game plan or one that telegraphs his intentions so much that it makes opposing defensive players and coordinators jobs' much easier.
If we as fans and if the team accepts these realities we have a starting point of where we can turn things around.
1) Stop telegraphing plays. The element of surprise and a little bit of unpredictable will go a long way in loosening up opposing defenses and getting some big plays from players and in ways that Indy has not in a long time. The run game cannot be predicated on "smash mouth" "power running" when there is very little smashing going on by your offensive line and it clearly lacks power. Run when they don't exect, in a way they don't expect, and with people they don't expect. Misdirection plays, designed cut backs, pitches, delays, and more screen plays can be a huge boon to getting this area of the game going.
2) Consider removing the fullback and getting your playmaking running back on the field more often. Why not get Trent Richardson and Donald Brown on the field together more? Who would a defense target then? Maybe a read option style game with both running backs crossing the quarterback with Luck handing the ball off to the running back with the best chance for success can create a defensive problem. If your offensive weapons are dropping, you need more offensive weapons on the field at one time. Brown has been a weapon. Get him on the field. Create confusion for the defense. Give them something to think about.
3) Improve playcalling in general. On a third and long, handing the ball off to your fullback is asinine. I get it, this is not predictable or telegraphing. After all, WHO DOES THAT? But the reason it isn't done is because very few — if any — fullbacks in the NFL have a realistic chance of rumbling for 10 yards through the heart of a defense. If you want to continue using Havili in an effective way, he is much better as a security valve releasing and catching a pass for 3-5 yards than as a 3rd and 10 rusher.
4) Let Andrew Luck run the ball more. Look, I understand that he is the present and long-term future of the franchise. I get that putting him in harm's way is undesirable. But I also get it that HE IS IN HARM'S WAY BEHIND THE OFFENSIVE LINE. Anyone who is immensely more confident that Luck is less likely to get hurt in the middle of the meat grinder that occurs behind the Colts offense line in the pocket is seeing something I'm not.
This teams NEEDS offensive production and needs offensive weapons. Luck has one of the best young arms in the league but he is also extremely smart and an incredible athlete. If the defense wants to drop back and smother his passing options and try to play "take away," let Luck punish them. He can generate yards and DICTATE to defenses that they have to honor his presence on the field and rushing ability or get smacked in the face with it. Get one part of the offense going and the team will open up another part.
The reality is that the Colts offense is going to have to become more creative to find success. The style of offense Pep Hamilton wants to run is not the type of offense his players are able to run. There is still a TON of talent on the Colts offense that can be utilized to generate points and remain competitive against anyone in the league. Figuring out how to best utilize that talent and get it on the football field in ways that give the offensve the competitive advantage is the key.
Injuries hurt but they're a part of the game. The Colts aren't nearly as bad as they looked against Saint Louis and it's probably not time to start calling for anyone's head just yet. But it is key that those who are in charge of the Colts do what it takes to figure out how to make the most of what they are putting on the field. This is still a very good football team. It is time for some smart changes to make the good translate to the football field.