Andrew Luck’s 2015 season was a disaster. After an MVP-quality campaign and an AFC title game appearance the year before, Luck’s completion percentage plummeted six points, he hit career lows in yards per attempt, and he threw 12 interceptions in just seven games before a lacerated kidney forced him to miss the rest of the year. When he did play, Luck’s movement in the pocket was frenetic, and he was haphazard with the ball. Was it because of injuries? Was it the O-line? Or is Luck just not worth the hype?
One game into a new season and a few months after he became the highest-paid player in NFL history, we at least know the answer to the third question: Luck is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Against the Lions, the Colts’ franchise cornerstone completed 31 of 47 passes (66 percent) for 385 yards (8.2 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and no picks. He led two crucial fourth-quarter touchdown drives — one to tie it and one to take the lead. The Colts lost anyway thanks to junior varsity–level play by their defenders, but the silver lining for Indianapolis was finding out the old Andrew Luck is back.
Or, as Frank Gore put it, “He was motherfucking beast out there.”
The Colts defense’s lack of talent will be a major problem this year. (See: the Lions marching 50 yards in 33 seconds to set up the game-winning Matt Prater field goal with four seconds left.) But on the NFL’s opening weekend, the Indianapolis offense was in midseason form.
Unlike last year, the Colts figured out how to give Luck time to throw. Last year, he faced pressure on 40 percent of his snaps (sixth most in the league), and he didn’t respond well, finishing with the NFL’s second-worst adjusted completion percentage when under pressure. The struggle to protect Luck led the Colts to hire former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin to run their offensive line, a role that Philbin excelled in with the Packers and at the college level. The team also took the best center in April’s draft, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, with its first-round pick. With the rookie anchoring the middle, the Colts surrendered pressure on just 29.4 percent of their pass plays against the Lions on Sunday.
Even more promising: Indianapolis didn’t have to alter its scheme to create protection. The Colts aren’t focusing on quick throws, dump-offs, and screens to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, which is how many teams are currently trying to beat the rush. Compared with the rest of the league, Luck is still taking relatively deep drops before throwing (his average time to pass was the same as his mark last year at 2.66 seconds) in order to give his receivers time to get open. And he’s still pushing the ball downfield with authority, as his average depth of target on Sunday was 11.3 yards.
Per Pro Football Focus tracking, Luck was 11-for-13 for 203 yards and three touchdowns when throwing the ball 10-plus yards downfield. He’s also not relying on his playmakers to get a bunch of yards after the catch: 302 of Luck’s 385 passing yards came in the air this week, 76 more than the next quarterback, Drew Brees.
Luck played like the icy-cool-in-the-pocket, rocket-armed, aggressive thrower that carried the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. Just about any quarterback in the league is going to be able to complete passes when they’re given enough time, but the way that Luck negotiated the pocket with subtle movement, attacked downfield with surgical accuracy, and went through his reads smoothly even after the original design had deteriorated, showed why the Colts felt comfortable guaranteeing him $87 million.
In the first quarter, against a standard four-man Detroit rush, he calmly stepped up into the pocket and hit T.Y. Hilton on a deep crossing route. Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead disrupted the original timing of the play, but Luck stayed with it, hitched up into the pocket, and threw a laser between two defenders.
In the second quarter, Luck hit Donte Moncrief on two deep slant routes to the right on separate drives. When he’s not facing almost immediate pressure, Luck is a terror.
Even with seven-man protection schemes and fewer passing options, Luck was able to make plays downfield, including two bombs to 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett. On both throws, Luck made it look easy, adjusting to the moving pocket and delivering the ball deep down the field.
That’s the key to the Colts offense this year: Give Luck just a little bit more time to throw, and he’ll pick defenses apart. It was apparent on all four of his touchdown passes. On the first one, Luck had to adjust and wait for Moncrief to extend his route beyond the initial slant. With the extra time, Luck was able to hit him with a dart in the back of the end zone despite tight coverage.
On his touchdown pass to Jack Doyle with 37 seconds remaining, Luck scans to his left and doesn’t see what he wants on his first read. With the extra time the line provides him, he comes back to his second read, a drag route by Doyle in the middle. Luck fires it in to him for the score.
The continued success of Indy’s offense rests upon Luck’s improved health, a big jump in protection, and further development in chemistry between Luck and his top three receivers: Hilton, Moncrief, and Dorsett. While the tight end group will continue to see targets — especially in the red zone — expect the Colts to continue to use six- and seven-man protection schemes with their running backs and tight ends to try to allow this trio of speedsters to get behind defenses and make big plays.
A huge test comes this Sunday, when the Colts face off against the Broncos, a team that boasts not only a devastating pass rush, but also three talented corners in Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby that can counter Indy’s big three. In Week 9 of last season, Denver’s pass rushers hit Luck 11 times, and lacerated his kidney, ultimately ending his season. The performance last weekend against a Detroit pass rush that finished last season tied for seventh with 43 sacks was a positive development. But weird things can happen in a one-game sample. If the Colts O-line can keep Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware away from Luck, then we’ll know that the Indy offense is for real. We already know that their quarterback is.