INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the first things Indianapolis Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo noticed when he was hired during the offseason was a unit that was a "little down" and lacked some confidence.
That's understandable when you consider the offensive line played a big part in quarterback Andrew Luck's body taking a pounding to the point that he missed 26 games between 2015 to 2017 and why the Colts gave up 56 sacks last season.
The first of many steps for DeGuglielmo, who was with the Miami Dolphins last season, was to regain any lost confidence of the five returning offensive line members while mixing in the new faces for a group that would again try to protect their franchise quarterback the best they've done in his seven seasons in the NFL.
"They didn't carry their heads high when they walked around the building as a unit, because there were a lot of issues they had to work on," DeGuglielmo said. "Whether it be personnel or technique. Each individual is different."
DeGuglielmo is a Massachusetts native who doesn't hold back in giving praise or criticism. He lets everybody know the pecking order, which starts in the film room. The five players playing that week sit in the front row of the offensive line meeting room. The rest of the group sits in the back. No exceptions. And players with the exception of center Ryan Kelly aren't responsible for knowing just their position. They have to have to know every position on the line.
"In the modern NFL, you're not going to play with five guys all year long," DeGuglielmo said. "That's just how their mindset is. You don't know where you are going to be -- I don't tell them when I switch positions during camp and during the spring. We didn't tell them. I tell them when we get on the field, 'By the way, you're at left tackle,' and you have to figure it out, because in a game you don't know when you are going to go to left tackle or you're going to go to right guard, so you have to figure it out. So, they're prepared for that and that's the modern NFL. It's just the way it is."
Injuries at both tackle positions have hurt continuity, but the emphasis on not making excuses combined with an offensive scheme that has emphasized quick throws has allowed Luck to escape being hit as much.
The five sacks allowed in the first three games are tied for the seventh fewest allowed in the NFL, and the 19 quarterback hits are the 12th fewest in the league. That type of success has been unheard of in Luck's career.
"I'm never going to like what I see completely," DeGuglielmo said. "We have a long way to go. Our goal is to not let anyone near him at all and maybe that's the extreme, but you have to shoot for that in order to get through a ballgame. The NFL is a challenge every week. Every team has somebody you have to worry about. There's something over there that's damaging. A scheme, an individual exceptional talent."
To make what's happened so far even more impressive is that starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo has not taken a snap this season -- even in the preseason -- because of a hamstring injury. Joe Haeg, who started at left tackle before moving to right tackle, is out several weeks with an ankle injury. J'Marcus Russell, who started Week 1 at right tackle, is out for the season with a hamstring. And still, the Colts have allowed five sacks.
"We're not re-inventing the wheel," DeGuglielmo said. "Just focusing on slightly different things and I think they're starting to understand whoever is in there, is in there and we can't cry about who is not there. I've got some of these guys I've never had. I had [some] for a day or two. How can I miss something I've never had?"
Luck, to his credit, is not holding the ball as long as he did in the past. There's been a premium put on quicker throws, which means less time for the defense to get to the backfield. Luck has only attempted 33 of his 124 passes while holding the ball longer than three seconds.
Run blocking has been a different issue. The Colts' 3.9 yards a carry ranks 21st in the league and Luck is third on the team in rushing with 42 yards. The Colts have been solid on the interior part of the line with guards Quenton Nelson and Matt Slauson to go with Kelly. They should get better once Castonzo returns and they gain stability at right tackle.
"That's another thing I really believe is a total effort," offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. "It's got to be Andrew making quick reads, has to be the wide receivers getting open, has to be the offensive line protecting, has to be [coach] Frank [Reich] calling the plays and the running backs protecting. It's a total, total team effort as far as that goes. ... Obviously we want to run the football better. As far as protecting the passer, they've done a good job keeping the pocket firm for Andrew."