Colts Offensive Line Finally Showing Signs of Life

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Amid all the bad news about injuries, improvements made by the Indy line have largely gone unnoticed.  After the offensive line struggled early in the year against the Texans, it's important to note that for several weeks now, the Colts line has played well.

There are two components to good line play.  One is good pass blocking, and the other is good run blocking.  There aren't a lot of ways to measure pass blocking in a vacuum, because key indicators like sack percentage and yards per pass attempt reflect heavily on the quarterback.  Still, let's at least note that the Colts adjusted sack rate is 2nd in the NFL at 3.3%.  Last year it was first in the NFL at 3.1% .  The Colts are on pace to give up 16 sacks this year (one a game) after giving up 13 last year and 14 the year before that.  In other words, there's not much difference.

As for yards per attempt, 7.5 is a little lower than last year, but then again Peyton has been throwing a lot more.  He is still in the top 10 in passes over 20 yards completed and is fourth in passes over 40 yards.  For the most part, Peyton has had time to throw.  There has been some inconsistency in the pass protection, even within games, but on the whole, the pass blocking has been credible.

Where this line has greatly improved has been in run blocking.  There are some great advanced stats we can look at to get a feel for how the Colts have improved.  The first is "Stuff Rate". Stuff rate measures how many runs go for zero or negative yardage.  In recent years, this has been a big problem for the Colts, as running backs were constantly hit behind the line of scrimmage.  Generally speaking, such runs are considered the fault of the line, not the running back.  Considering the Colts' philosophy of avoiding 'negative' plays, stuffs present a real problem for the offense.  Finally, in 2010, the Colts seem to have solved this problem.

  Stuff Rate Rank
2008 21% 27
2009 22% 27
2010 16% 6

The fact that Indy is getting positive yardage instead of negative yardage more frequently is a good thing.  This means there are fewer players getting beat at the point of attack or simply making mental errors.  There will always be plays that don't work, but the key is to have fewer of them.

Indy is also shooting up the boards in the adjusted line yards statistic.  This metric attempts to isolate how many yards per carry are the result of line play.  While nothing can ever fully separate running back play from line play, this is an attempt to get close.  The Colts are performing much better here as well.

  ALY Rank
2008 3.99 23
2009 3.93 25
2010 4.24 10

Again, that's real progress from the line.  Indy has improved running in several directions.

  Left end Left tackle Middle Right tackle Right end
2008 4.84 3.94 4.08 4.23 2.66
2009 2.63 3.96 4.39 3.92 3.94
2010 3.61 5.04 3.91 3.75 5.08

Charlie Johnson had a miserable year run blocking last year (remember that Ugoh mostly started in '08), but has improved dramatically this season. Ryan Diem is has also raised his game considerably.  Actually, I have no play by play data to support this, but if I had to guess, I would suspect that the addition of Brody Eldrige is helping the Colts run better to the edges of the field.  Indy is a full yard better running wide this year than they were last year on both sides.  That's marked improvement.  By the way, I suspect the spike in yardage off left tackle is largely due to the one long run by Addai against Washington.

Individually, I've been pleased with the progress from Mike Pollack.  He hasn't been great, but he has been credible.  Overall, the offensive line should continue to play better as it gels.  Remember that continuity is of vital importance to a line, and Indy's hasn't had a lot of work together.  Saturday, Pollack and Diem have started every game (though Saturday missed camp), but Charlie Johnson has missed a start and left guard has been something of a revolving door. thanks to very uneven play from Jamie Richard, who lost his starting job to Kyle DeVan last week.

The net result of all this has been improvement on a play by play basis for the run game.  Remember that DVOA measures how effective plays are against the average play of that down and distance.

  Rushing DVOA Rank
2008 -6.7% 27
2009 -2.5% 20
2010 6.7% 9

To make it simple this chart says the Colts' run game is now above league average on a play by play basis.  We aren't looking to lead the NFL in rushing yards, but the Colts need to have an efficient running game that doesn't waste plays.  We are a long way from mission accomplished, but the early returns are encouraging.  As the line plays together more, we should see some continued improvement in these numbers.