INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL’s highest paid offensive line is broken.
Well, look at how desperate the Colts staff was last week in believing multiple changes were necessary.
Despite having no practice on a short week leading into a road game on Thursday Night Football, the Colts made starting lineup changes at 3 of their 5 offensive line spots. They used a starting 5 that had drilled together less than 10 percent of the time at training camp.
They started a rookie in Bernhard Raimann at left tackle for the first time in his career, even though he had missed valuable practice time in recent weeks due to an ankle injury. They moved the usually reliable right tackle Braden Smith to a position he hadn’t played in 6 years. And Matt Pryor was asked to flip over to right tackle, after training the entire offseason for a new experiment at left tackle.
The results last Thursday were predictable.
Matt Ryan was sacked 6 times. And the entire offensive line was flagged for 6 different penalties.
While the Colts clearly had offensive line problems, making so many changes in a week without practice was a recipe for disaster.
It was reminiscent of something the Colts tried in Week 3 of the 2015 season. Even though that week had 3 days of practice prep for a trio new starters, the results were crippling.
Andrew Luck was sacked 3 times, with one of those being the first hit that led to persistent right shoulder issues, which would sideline the quarterback the next two weeks (his first missed NFL action in 4 years) and start an injury train that eventually had Luck retiring at the age of 28.
Honestly, there were signs of the Colts offensive line regression we’ve seen this year. The group started to take a step back last season from the elite unit in 2020.
Starting jobs were handed to Pryor at left tackle (had 2 career left tackle starts in college and the NFL) and Danny Pinter at right guard (had never played right guard in a game in his football career) this offseason, with no true starting battles playing out at either spot during training camp.
In brief preseason game appearances this August, you saw individual breakdowns. Those were also on display during the training camp joint practices with the Lions. With the only offensive line depth experience coming from Dennis Kelly (51 career starts), and he missed about a month of camp/preseason due to a knee injury, the Colts didn’t feel comfortable reaching into that part of their roster.
Add all of that up, and Chris Ballard’s biggest roster building belief is failing the Colts. The Colts rank 29th in yards per carry this season and 29th in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Many have pointed to offensive line coach Chris Strausser, who the team hired after the 2018 season, as a major reason for the O-line struggles.
It is anyone’s guess as to how the Colts offensive line will line up this Sunday against Jacksonville. Remember, it was the Jaguars who sacked Matt Ryan 5 times and hit him 11 times in the Colts being shutout 24-0 last month.
Outside of Quenton Nelson at left guard, you could make multiple cases for multiple different guys at the other four offensive line spots.
If the Colts are thinking more long term up front, what about a grouping of: LT-Bernhard Raimann, LG-Quenton Nelson, C-Danny Pinter, RG-Will Fries, RT-Braden Smith?
If the thinking is more short term: Is a healthy Ryan Kelly still the better center option? Should Dennis Kelly finally get a look at one of the tackle spots? What about Matt Pryor moving inside to guard?
A decision on Ryan Kelly, who is nursing a hip injury, and Pinter for the center job, is a decision the Colts will have to make, needing to put the contractual status of the two to the side.
Part of the line taking a step back has to be pointed to the veterans of the group too. Kelly has dealt with continued injuries now in his 7th NFL season, and has not recently played at a Pro Bowl level. Last year, Nelson played on the heels of having 3 surgeries in less than a year. And Smith had his most playing time of his career in 2021 (missing 6 of 17 games).
It was a group showing some cracks at different points of last season.
Toss in a pair of new starters in 2022, a lack of depth commitment in the offseason, plus the issues observed at Grand Park and the preseason, and the Colts are now in a spot Ballard never envisioned.
Whatever they decide for the starting offensive line this Sunday, the fact that the Colts have these decisions to make in mid-October shows what a mess they are in.
And it’s a major reason why they are the worst scoring offense in the NFL and in a historic franchise rut.
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