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Breaking down the Colts offense

Posted Sep 5, 2014

Andrew Luck's mobility, the return of Reggie Wayne and the arrival of Hakeem Nicks make Indianapolis' attack dangerous.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Other quarterbacks run more than Indianapolis' Andrew Luck. Of the 41 quarterbacks with at least 200 action plays (attempts plus sacks plus rushes) last year, he was 12th in run frequency: one every 10.6 plays.

Other quarterbacks run more dynamically than Luck; he ranked 11th among passers in yardage per carry. But of those 41 quarterbacks, only one with at least 30 runs was more efficient at getting first downs than Luck -- Carolina's Cam Newton. Newton moved the chains on 40.5 percent of his carries; Luck did so on 36.5 percent of his runs.

Luck is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, but he is light on his feet. He sheds pass rushers. He has the quick side or backstop out of trouble perfected. You think you have him, and then, like Houdini, he escapes, calling to mind another big quarterback whose footwork belies his size.

"I'm treating Andrew Luck like 'Big Ben,'" said cornerback Chris Harris Jr., citing Roethlisberger, the long-time Steelers cornerback he faced in the 2011 playoffs and the 2012 regular-season opener. "When you're playing Roethlisberger, you can't tackle him low. You have to tackle him high, and tackle the ball, because he's so strong.

"So we know with Andrew Luck running around, we've got to plaster -- and 'plaster' means we've got to lock onto our guys immediately when we see him out of the pocket, because it's going to happen."

Added defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: "That makes him more difficult than those scrambling quarterbacks, like, let's say, a (Colin) Kaepernick or Cam (Newton) is that he's a big guy … he's more like a Big Ben-type, a guy that you've got to wrap up and tackle almost like a running back, tight end body type. He steps up in the pocket. He'll take a hit, and when he does step up in the pocket, he steps up to throw it deep, and he steps up to run it."

And this is only the beginning of Luck's attributes. Although he will have to learn to avoid contact better as his career progresses, his improvement at keeping defenses off guard will more than compensate for any reduction in production as a runner. Luck is already one of the league's best at disguising his intent, in forcing safeties and coverage linebackers out of position with a look or a pump fake.

"He's talented with the way he does things, and the way he operates, and his mannerisms," said safety Rahim Moore. "You look at him on film, and you study his idiosyncrasies, it's impressive. He looks like a guy that's been in the league five, ten years."

It will be crucial for the Broncos to contain Luck, and for the linebackers to remain disciplined, for the edge rushers to not get guided behind Luck. But that will be more difficult this year -- even with the Broncos' upgraded defense -- because of the improvements the Colts have made to achieve more balance.

The Colts expect Trent Richardson to be better than he was last season, but Indianapolis will not achieve offensive balance with an appreciable change in the run-pass ratio. Instead, balance will come by keeping defenses off-balance via a wider array of targets: two improving tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, a healthy Reggie Wayne and free-agent pickup Hakeem Nicks.

"Last year, they had (Darrius) Heyward-Bey, which -- well, he was a speed guy. Now they've got more possessional receivers," said Harris. "Nicks has better hands -- way better hands, of course."

And he might be crucial to the Colts attempting to overcome what appears to be their weak point: the offensive line, particularly up the middle, which has been besieged by injuries.

Guard Donald Thomas re-tore his quadriceps in training camp, suffering the same injury he incurred early last season; he was placed on injured reserve. Hugh Thornton moved from right guard to left guard.

But the focal point is the center, where Khaled Holmes has struggled since injuring his ankle in the preseason opener against the New York Jets. He did not practice Friday after being limited the previous two days and is questionable. If Holmes doesn't play, recent waiver claim A.Q. Shipley -- who started five games in 2012 for the Colts before being traded to Baltimore -- is likely to start, just seven days after re-joining the Colts.

Shipley started nine games for the Ravens last year, all at left guard in place of the injured Kelechi Osemele, and struggled. By this summer, Osemele was back, and Shipley was expendable to the Ravens -- but not to the Colts, to whom he represented a viable option because of his work in relief of then-starting-center Samson Satele in 2012.

"He's just jumped right back in," Luck said.

But with rookie Jack Mewhort penciled in at left guard and second-year vet Thornton at right guard, there is no film of this interior trio working together, since Shipley was last a Colt before they arrived.

"You react to what they do. I don't really put too much stock into it'," said defensive tackle Marvin Austin. "They're going to run the plays that the colts run as an offense so him individually I don't get into that. Everybody's got gray jerseys on to me. It doesn't matter."

Added Knighton: "I's just about who goes out there and executes better. You know, the thing with our defense is that we have certain principles we abide by, so regardless of what they throw at us, we have certain rules we play. Anything we haven't seen that they throw at us, we'll be ready for."

But as is the case with many teams, the game will come down to the quarterback above all, and Luck appears poised to crash the game's elite ranks.

"If we don't come ready to play," said Moore, "it'll be ugly."