During the 2014 offseason, Colts Authority is making a concentrated effort to have a complex understanding of as many of the players on the roster as possible. It’s all a part of the Colts Authority Charting Project, an intentional effort to chart as many statistical and strategical details about the team as we can. In that vein, we have several film-review series going thoughout the next few months. You can see all of the 2014 film review pieces at the CA Charting Project page.
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On January 16th, five days after the playoff loss to the Patriots, the Colts signed former Bears guard Lance Louis. The move didn’t draw much attention until March, when the Indy Star’s Stephen Holder, among others, wrote that Ryan Grigson had praised Louis and predicted he would contend for a starting spot.
Louis, a 7th-round pick in 2009, developed into a starter for the Bears, then tore his ACL in November 2012. He signed with the Dolphins in 2013, but they cut him before the season and he wound up sitting out the whole year.
A return to his previous level of play is far from a sure thing, but to get an idea of what that level might look like if everything goes well, I charted four of Louis’s 2012 games. I picked games that represented some of his best and worst work and a couple in the middle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required): week 1 vs. the Colts (1.6 overall grade), week 2 at Green Bay (3.4), week 8 vs. Carolina (0.8) and week 10 vs. Houston (-3.0). Overall, PFF gave him a -1.8 grade, including 5.7 in pass blocking and -8.0 in run blocking.
DISCLAIMER: Grading offensive line play is inevitably subjective, since it’s impossible to know assignments and coaching directions. These scores are based on whether the lineman appeared to succeed in his assignments, based on his apparent targets and how the plays developed. I assign all blocks a grade of ‘+’ (good block), ‘-’ (bad block) or ‘/’ (not involved, usually meaning the lineman couldn’t find anyone to block); ‘/’ plays are not scored. See here for an explanation of my system and terminology.
Here are the results from those four games:
And here’s how Louis’s numbers stack up with the guards who saw time for the Colts last year:
The first thing that jumps out is Louis’s pass blocking. His worst game of the four was a 34-for-37 performance against J.J. Watt and the Texans, in which Watt toasted him a couple times. Louis’s 92% total in that game would have been higher than any Colts guard’s overall pass-blocking percentage last year except the tragically underused Joe Reitz (#FreeJoe). Louis’ total pass-blocking percentage across those four games is even better than Reitz’ overall number, and his pass blocks per hit and sack dwarf the numbers of most of the other guards (Reitz and Xavier Nixon did not give up a sack). He gave up pressures a bit more frequently than Reitz and Nixon, but again, he was miles better than most of the standard crew.
Louis showed the power to anchor against bigger defensive lineman, the quickness to slide laterally and the awareness to react to stunts, all of which were sorely lacking among last year’s guards. I particularly enjoyed his work on stunts. On this play against the Panthers, he waits until the last possible instant, when he is sure right tackle Gabe Carimi (who often needs lots of help, from what I’ve seen of him) has a grip on his man before letting him go and switching over to the stunting lineman:
Louis is playing with fire a bit in leaving the switch that late, but he shows excellent quickness in his hands and feet to make it work.
Watt gave Louis some problems, but he gives everyone problems. Louis won his fair share of one-on-one battles with Watt, including this play, on which he stands him up long enough to allow Jason Campbell to get a pass off and get a helping hand from center Roberto Garza:
In the running game, Louis wasn’t great, but compared to the parade of ineptitude the 2013 Colts trotted out at guard (so long, McGlynn and Linkenbach), he was more than adequate. His 71% would trail only Donald Thomas, who played a game and a couple series before going down for the season.
Louis’s athleticism was usually his biggest advantage in run blocking. Watch his body on this play, where he pulls to the right:
As Louis sizes up the incoming DB, safety Jerron McMillan, he’s expecting him to come straight on. But McMillan takes a hard step into the backfield. Louis is able to adjust on the move and still get an effective block on him. That is not easy for a 300+-lb. man to do (see: McGlynn, Mike). Louis is (or was before his injury) a rare athlete in the mold of Reitz, capable of making body adjustments many guards can’t dream of. In the Stephen Holder piece I linked to above, Ryan Grigson says Louis ran a 4.72 40 after college. He doesn’t play quite that fast, but he can certainly move well for a man his size.
And yet, like Reitz, at times Louis looked strangely unsure of himself. This came up a lot when he was pulling. He went a respectable 12-of-18 (67%) on pull blocks, but he sometimes got ahead of his feet and lunged, as on this whiffed block on Antoine Bethea:
(Quick aside: how weird is it that of the two guys in that circle, Lance Louis is a Colt and Antoine Bethea is not?)
At other times, like on this pull block against McMillan, I found myself wishing Louis would just lower his shoulder and blow the guy up instead of leaning into him:
Louis is listed at 303 lbs., McMillan at 203. When a guy has a 100-lb. advantage and hits a safety head-on like that, there’s no excuse for not knocking him on his butt.
On the other hand, sometimes Louis took on guys who were just as big as he was (or even bigger) and did, in fact, knock them on their butts, like on this play with 320-lb. Panthers nose tackle Ron Edwards:
The power and athleticism are both there, but Louis can be a tad inconsistent in applying them.
Louis has a couple other warts. He isn’t great at cut blocks:
And he sometimes drifts a bit looking for something to do, particularly on zone run plays.
But he also does a lot of excellent, helpful things, such as bowling A.J. Hawk over without so much as looking at him on this play:
And blocking with his ass on this play so that he can keep an eye out for trouble elsewhere:
And reaching over to send another guy’s man sprawling when he doesn’t have anything to do:
Louis reminds me of Hugh Thornton in a lot of ways, only with more understanding of what’s going on around him. He’s not quite as aggressive as Thornton, but he’s always eager to help and he has enough power and quickness to make up for his shortcomings in technique. If Thornton develops like he should, he might well end up looking a lot like 2012 Lance Louis. And that’s not a terrible thing.
In general, I’m bullish on Louis, and I love the minimal investment in a player with enough talent to help. But before we all get carried away and anoint him the savior of the Colts’ offensive line, keep in mind that PFF gave him some frighteningly bad scores in 2011: -28.0 overall, -16.7 pass blocking, -10.1 run blocking. Those figures would make Samson Satele blush. In Louis’s defense, though, most of his struggles came when he was pressed into duty at right tackle, which is not his natural position.
I also worry about Louis’s knee. He’s a year and a half removed from his injury, but he relies heavily on athleticism. If he’s even half a step slower than he used to be, he’ll be far less effective.
All that said, if Louis is fully healed and can play like he did in 2012, he absolutely deserves to start and will absolutely be an upgrade over Thornton, who could use some time as the sixth lineman to learn the ins and outs of the NFL. If Louis reaches – or even approaches – the level he showed in the four games I charted, he’ll be the Colts’ best pass-blocking interior lineman and one of their best run blockers. Thornton, McGlynn and Linkenbach didn’t set a high bar last year, and Louis is by no means a Pro Bowler, but progress is progress.