Evaluating the Line: Will the Offensive Line be Effective in 2011?

After the 2010 season, the Colts' biggest weakness was unquestionably the offensive line. While the defensive backfield was a mess, it was largely due to injury, but the offensive line struggled even while healthy.

Many of the Colts' problems last year could be directly attributed to the lack of talent on the offensive line. Although Jeff Saturday is a great man, leader, and player, the offensive line is made up of five men, and was horrendous last season in every phase of the game.

While the Colts have never been, and never will be, a power rushing team, they still need to have an effective rushing attack in order to truly reach their potential as a Peyton Manning-led squad. But, in 2010, the Colts ran for 3.8 yards per carry, tied for 25th in the league. And while the YPC is bad, what I'm really concerned about is the lack of confidence in the run game. Manning had a record number of attempts in 2010, largely due to the lack of support from the rushing attack.

The lack of a decent OL also is preventing the running backs from developing, as they get hit in the backfield, and have very few holes to run through. This doesn't allow them to show their vision during games, or even develop it.

The offensive line's struggles also hampered the passing game, led by All-Universe QB Peyton Manning. While the numbers say that the Colts had a great year protecting the passer, only totaling 16 sacks and 47 QB hits (good for 1st and 2nd in the league, respectively), that was largely due to Peyton Manning's pocket presence, and ability to get the ball out of the pocket.

Anybody who watched the Colts last year knew this, as it was fairly obvious. Those pass protection issues led to problems with turnovers as well, as Manning had 17 interceptions on the season, including 11 in a three game stretch, all losses. He also had his lowest yards per attempt since his rookie year, as his time in the pocket was severely limited.

But, in the off-season, the Colts looked to address those needs, drafting offensive linemen Anthony Castonzo and Benjamin Ijalana in the first two rounds of the draft. In terms of 2010 players, the Colts let Charlie Johnson walk in free agency, as he signed with the Minnesota Vikings, and will likely be their starting left tackle (suckers).

Ryan Diem, on the other hand, was reportedly asked to either restructure his deal, or be cut. While it was rumored that Diem was not willing to take less, it later was reported that he had either restructured his old deal, or signed a new, one-year deal, taking less cap space in the 2011 season.

So, will those changes produce better results for the 2011 Colts? The offensive linemen at camp consist of: LT Jeff Linkenbach, LG Jacques McClendon, C Jeff Saturday, RG Mike Pollak, RT Ryan Diem, LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Joe Reitz, C/G Jamey Richard, RG Kyle DeVan, RT Ben Ijalana, LT Michael Toudeze, LG James Williams, C Jake Kirkpatrick, RG Jamie Thomas, RT Casey Bender, and RG Mike Tepper.

Of course, half of these people won't be in Indianapolis once September 11 rolls around. My guess on who makes the roster? I'd say Linkenbach, McClendon, Saturday, Pollak, Diem, Castonzo, DeVan, Ijalana, Kirkpatrick, and Reitz.

While Richard has been on the roster for the last three years, news out of camp is that the Colts really like Kirkpatrick, and Richard was awful while starting in 2010.

For the starters, I'd say Link, McClendon, Saturday, Pollak, and Diem to start, while Castonzo and Ijalana coming into the mix a few weeks into the season. Will this rotation be better than 2010's rotation of CJ, Jamey Richard, Saturday, Pollak, Diem, DeVan, and Linkenbach?

In my opinion, yes. It has to be, barring injury. In 2010, Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem were the starting tackles for the entire season, save a few games due to nagging injuries. Let me be very clear on my opinion here: While I love Charlie Johnson as a person, someone who works hard and did everything the Colts asked of him, I do not think he was good, decent, or even serviceable as left tackle.

Johnson could go into any spot on the line and not be absolutely terrible. That was his strength. Heck, he may have even been an average or above average guard.

But the only reason that he worked as a stopgap for the Colts in 2010 was because of Peyton Manning's pocket presence. He was below average at pass protection, and just plain bad at run blocking. Personally, I'm glad the Colts didn't retain him. Not for $10.5 million over 3 years. It wouldn't be worth it for a utility offensive linemen. If CJ goes on to start at LT for the Vikings, and excel, then I will certainly eat my words. But, I seriously doubt that happens. I think Minnesota got fooled by the “protected Manning's blindside, and Manning had the league's lowest number of sacks” line.

Ryan Diem was also an eyesore at right tackle. He was usually the game's most frequent offender in terms of quarterback pressures allowed, and also had a good number of false starts. He was, however, a much better run blocker than Charlie Johnson. Still, he definitely was not worth his old contract, I would have been angry had he not been cut. But, for less money and for his veteran presence, his restructuring made sense. While he shouldn't be the main option at RT for the Colt (although I'm comfortable with him starting for the first few games), if he switches to guard (as has been rumored), then he would be a viable option for a starter.

With the two tackles being replaced, by Anthony Castonzo and Benjamin Ijalana, the line will be much better (as long as they progress at a decent pace). Even if Linkenbach and Diem have to start for a few games, the Colts will be okay. I was actually fairly impressed with Linkenbach last season when he started for Johnson at LT, and wouldn't be too scared if Castonzo needed extra time to get situated.

As far as the guards are concerned, I think Mike Pollak was better than advertised last year. As I've been watching game film, Pollak has been (at least, in the first two games) the second best linemen behind Saturday. Pollak was one of the better run blockers, if not the best, and was decent in pass protection as well.

The left guard at the beginning of the season was Jamey Richard, an experiment that was a total flop as Richard could neither plow ahead for rush yards, or protect the pocket well on passing downs. Eventually, Kyle DeVan would become the starting guard, and was serviceable for the Colts, but they could definitely use an improvement, to improve the run game. I would be very comfortable with a starting lineup of Castonzo, McClendon (or Diem), Saturday, Pollak, and Ijalana. That would greatly improve the running game, and If Castonzo and Ijalana are even halfway decent in pass protection, they'll be a major upgrade from Diem and Charlie Johnson.

Basically, the only way I see this OL being any worse than last years is if the rookies develop much slower than expected, or there are injury problems. If it's substantially better than 2010, Peyton Manning, the RB crew, and the Indianapolis Colts are going to have a special year.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.

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