Pushed around for years, Colts' O-line is the bully now

INDIANAPOLIS -- There's been a case of amnesia going around the Indianapolis Colts locker room with their offensive linemen this week. The players who were on the line last season for the Colts can't seem to remember what happened the last time they faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in Indianapolis.

It wasn't until late during a recent locker room media session that one player finally admitted he knows what the Jaguars did to that group on Oct. 22, 2017.

Here's a CliffsNotes version for you: The Colts gave up 10 sacks, an additional eight quarterbacks hits and had quarterback Jacoby Brissett feeling like he barely survived a 12-round pounding against Mike Tyson in his prime.

And it got even worse after the game when the normally reserved T.Y. Hilton started some finger-pointing.

"They believe in each other. They're having fun playing the game again." Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo on his players

"The O-line just has to play better," Hilton said after the Colts' 27-0 loss to the Jaguars last season. "... Far as receiving, nothing can change. We've got to take some pride up front and block for him [the quarterback]. What if we put them back there and take those hits?"

Colts general manager Chris Ballard didn't need to hear Hilton's comments. He already knew changes had to take place up front in order for the Colts to stop being punked over and over again at the line of scrimmage.

Fast forward to today and the Colts have not only the best offensive line Andrew Luck has played with during his seven-year NFL career, but internally they feel like they have the deepest and one of the best overall units in the league.

Here are some numbers to back up the confidence of the offensive line:

  • Luck has only been sacked 10 times, the second fewest in the league through eight games. He was sacked 31 times at the same point of the 2016 season (Luck missed the 2017 season).

  • He has gone 160 straight dropbacks without being sacked. That's a staggering number when you consider Luck was sacked 156 times in the first 70 starts of his career.

  • The Colts have sustained their blocks 71 percent of the time, which is best in the NFL since Week 6, according to ESPN's new pass block win rate metric (PBWR) using NFL Next Gen Stats. They're ninth overall at 55 percent, which has been helped by Luck not holding the ball as long in the pocket.

  • Since Week 6, the Colts are second in the league in yards per rush at 5.7 and third in yards before contact per rush at 3.58. They have rushed for at least 200 yards in each of their past two games, which is their longest single-season streak since 1985.

"They're blue-collar work guys," first-year Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo said. "These are the guys that dig holes. They work with jackhammers every day. There's no glory for these guys. If it weren't for them, nothing else happens."

All that success was a foreign concept early in Luck's career. But now the Colts are about to put those numbers to the test when the Jaguars and their intimidating defense return to Indianapolis on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

"I think it is the toughest test," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "I don't want to diminish the positive that's happened, because each week in this league in one sense is for real, and every game that we play poorly or well -- it all counts. But this is definitely going to be the toughest test of the year."

Having success up front wasn't an easy transition this season for the Colts. DeGuglielmo arrived in Indianapolis last spring with talented players whose confidences had eroded some after years and years of struggles and nonstop deserved criticism.

DeGuglielmo, an East Coast native who doesn't shy away from speaking his mind, had to get the group mentally tougher and told them, according to center Ryan Kelly, "Don't listen to the media and the [expletive] they write."

"I started simple and made them realize how important they were and how talented they were," DeGuglielmo said. "And they have to show the talent. They have to show it on each and every play. Through your play -- if you're consistent -- people will start to treat you a little bit differently, and I think it's more internal in the room. They believe in each other. They're having fun playing the game again."

There were challenges on the field, too, as projected right tackle starter Austin Howard didn't make the 53-man roster and J'Marcus Webb, who started the season at right tackle, was put on injured reserve on Sept. 11. Joe Haeg, the Swiss Army knife of the line, went on injured reserve on Sept. 28, veteran Matt Slauson, who had played every snap at right guard through the first five games, was lost for the season because of a back injury, and veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo missed the first five games of the season with a hamstring injury.

Depth helped the Colts tread water while dealing with all those injuries. But they found stability over the past three games with Castonzo, first-round pick Quenton Nelson, Kelly, Mark Glowinski and rookie Braden Smith. Four of the five were selected by the Colts in the first or second round.

This has become a group that embraces playing nasty to keep a clear pocket for Luck, and pulling to give Marlon Mack and the rest of the backs a lane to run through. The days of being nervous for a film session have been replaced with them eagerly looking forward to seeing DeGuglielmo's grade sheet and checking out "some clinic tapes of double-teams." Heads being lowered in frustration on the bench after giving up a sack are now group huddles talking about how they want to change the blocking scheme to attack the defense on the next series.

"Every team in the league has physical talent, but the mental makeup of this group top to bottom is by far the best I've been around,” Slauson said. "The way they're able to take coaching and immediately apply it is huge. It allows for in-game adjustments to happen real fast."

And that brings us back to the "toughest test" the Colts are about to face up to this point. These aren't the same fierce pass-rushing Jaguars of last season -- they rank 25th in sacks -- but they're still one of the best units in the league, with many of the same faces who embarrassed the Colts nearly 13 months ago. The Jaguars are giving up the fewest passing yards (190) in the league and allowing 123.3 yards a game on the ground.

"[Our guys] know what's coming," DeGuglielmo said. "You know eventually in this division you're going to play great defensive lines. Our players are unemotional about it. You have to devise your protections and run schemes for the people who you're facing, and this is challenging because they have a lot of players in all the spots.

"But we have a few players, too, and we have to go out and do our best to keep them at bay. If we can just hold them off long enough to let Andrew do his magic, things will be OK. If we can open even creases to let Marlon and the crew get going, it'll be an OK day. That's the key. Understanding we're not going to blow these guys away, we're going to have to play a conservative type of football up front and use our physicalness to try to be effective late in the game."