Colts' heavy investment in offensive line not showing positive returns

INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard will see one of his mentors on Sunday when the Colts host coach Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs.

This is notable because it is Reid who imparted upon Ballard a concept that has become a guiding principle for the former Kansas City executive.

“If I learned anything from Andy Reid, (it’s) O-line, O-line, O-line,” Ballard said in 2018. “That wins.”

Ballard has embraced the notion so much that the Colts are invested in their offensive line more than any other team. The Colts are No. 1 in offensive-line cash and cap spending for 2022, a fact that suggests they should have consistently elite production from the unit.

Instead, the Colts are coming off one of the poorest collective performances seen from their line in recent years. And given the way the Colts’ roster is constructed -- with such concentrated investment in one unit -- underperformance from the line is something Indianapolis can ill afford.

“When it comes to expectations, we have the highest expectations for ourselves -- individually, as a unit and as an offense,” said All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, whom the Colts recently made the highest-paid guard in NFL history. “We definitely didn’t reach it last Sunday. It wasn’t close. It was embarrassing.”

The particulars are jarring.

Through Week 2, the Colts ranked 30th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate (48.5%) metric. That’s in stark contrast to the entirety of the four-plus seasons in coach Frank Reich’s offensive scheme, during which the unit has averaged 61.1%.

During last Sunday’s shutout loss against Jacksonville, quarterback Matt Ryan was under siege. He was hit 11 times, meaning he absorbed a hit on nearly a third of his 35 dropbacks. Jacksonville’s five sacks matched the second-highest total allowed by the Colts since 2018 -- the year the Colts began their overhaul of their offensive line by drafting Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith.

And Jacksonville accomplished this feat, in part, through relatively simple tactics. Several of the shots Ryan took were the result of late reactions by the Colts to line stunts and twists that they’ve seen before, players said. That includes one on which linebacker Josh Allen sacked Ryan without ever being touched. Rest assured, the Chiefs also saw this and could elect to deploy similar tactics to test the Colts on Sunday.

“Kansas City’s D-line is going to do the same thing until you stop it, and we show we can stop it,” center Ryan Kelly said. “We’ve shown on tape that we’ve stopped it before.”

Linemen are also losing too many individual matchups. The tackles – Matt Pryor on the left and Smith on the right – have struggled to fend off speed rushes, in particular. Pryor’s spot has been under scrutiny since the offseason seeing how he’s never been a full-time left tackle. The concerns seem warranted given his slow start. Smith, who last year signed a 4-year, $70 million contract, has been surprisingly inconsistent as well.

The impact of all this on Ryan and the Colts’ typically strong running game has been undeniable. Jonathan Taylor, last season’s league rushing champion, rushed for 4 yards on his first 5 attempts versus Jacksonville as he was consistently confronted with defenders in the backfield. Meanwhile, Ryan has four interceptions in two games, three of which were at least somewhat related to defensive pressure.

When the Colts find themselves at their lowest, they’ve often looked to their offensive line to pull them from the morass.

When they opened 2018 with a 1-5 record, it was the crystallization of the offensive line that helped pave the way to nine wins in their final 10 games and a playoff berth.

And when quarterback Andrew Luck stunningly retired in August 2019, the Colts leaned on their offensive line by becoming a physically dominant, run-centric offense to take the pressure off Luck’s replacement, Jacoby Brissett. That season was, arguably, the peak performance seen from the current offensive line and led to the “Run the Damn Ball” mantra players and fans came to embrace.

There are two new starters in Pryor and right guard Danny Pinter, both of whom have played roles in the current struggles. As a unit, this offensive line has to come through for the Colts. The team has built its identity around the group and has quite literally put its money where its mouth is.

The short-circuited offensive drives, the challenges in the passing game and the ineffective running game all start up front. The Colts can either fix it or to continue to deal with the fallout from their failure to do so.

“The time is now,” Kelly said. “We have to do it now.”