Amid the controversy of the Indianapolis Colts’ overtime loss to the Houston Texans in Week 4, Andrew Luck had a throwback game. Luck’s resurgence provides optimism for the future of the roster.
At 1-3 and coming off a home-loss to a Houston Texans team that entered the game winless, the Indianapolis Colts aren’t going to be content with moral victories. Expectations weren’t to turn the ship around in Year 1 of Frank Reich’s tenure, but this was a difficult game to lose considering Houston’s struggles.
Though the loss looms over the team, what cannot be overlooked is how well franchise quarterback Andrew Luck played. His first three games back were marred by a conservative scheme that compensated for a limited supporting cast, and Luck’s role was mitigated.
Week 4 saw a change though, as Luck managed to rally the team to a 21-point second-half. He finished with 464 yards and four touchdowns on 40 completions, and could’ve had 500 yards had his receivers not dropped six passes.
I had to look at the game after seeing those numbers to help gain the context of how they came about. It was startling how well Luck played despite his teammates not being as good as the competition and having a run game that produced only 30 yards on 14 carriers when taking out his 11 yards.
While Deshaun Watson had DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee combine for 25 receptions, 327 yards and two touchdowns, Luck had to do more with less. T.Y. Hilton continues to be a great playmaker, but Luck completed a pass to seven other receivers, relying on several players who would be fighting for roster spots on most teams.
The benefit of having a quarterback with the talent to make tight window throws is how it elevates those around him. Offensive weapon Nyheim Hines is a gifted rookie who totaled nine receptions for 63 yards and two touchdowns. Luck and he have already created a chemistry that will payoff, as defenses can’t do much to stop completions like the one below.
Luck’s touch and knack for high-upside plays is a special trait that carried him despite his velocity and deep passing prowess not being fully back to him yet. In charting his 64 passing attempts, he put on an absolute clinic on short and intermediate passes.
Taking out throwaways, Luck only attempted five passes beyond 20 yards. This is a feature of the new offense, but also an important growth for Luck. Luck at times struggled to find rhythm on shorter throws In previous offenses and it led to an abundance of turnovers.
He had no interceptable throws despite his 44 attempts between zero and 19 yards. More impressive, he threw a catchable ball on 12 of 14 throws between 11-19 yards with one touchdown. His diagnosis of coverages paid off as he continually found weak spots in Houston’s defense.
As opposed to previous weeks, Luck and Reich found a balance on third downs as well. The big concern up until this week was how they’d perform when they needed a certain amount of yards and the defense tightens. This applied to conversion downs and in the red zone.
The problem with short dump-offs is that it’s a restrictive approach when there are more defenders in an area, especially the red zone. That wasn’t a factor this game though as Luck thrived in both situations.
He threw a catchable pass on 13 of 15 third downs, including all eight of his 3rd and longs. Eight of the 15 total passes went beyond the markers, and several others were just shy of it. Drops cost the offense a chance to extend the drive four times.
He made significant throws in the red zone as well.
Especially considering the Colts lack a reliable possession receiver who can exploit smaller defenders, it’s key Luck can create outside of the pocket so that his shiftier options can shake free. Yards after the catch are important for this offense as they need easy yards to pile on in place of a non-existent running game.
All six of Luck’s red zone throws were accurate, resulting in four touchdowns.
This was a healthy passing offense despite Luck taking three sacks that could be directly pinned to poor blocking, and him facing immediate pressure on 12 attempts.
With 40 throws total behind the line of scrimmage up to 10 yards down the field, Luck was protected for large stretches. But it was his intermediate dominance that kept the Texans unable to rush four and play straight man coverage. He made great, indefensible throws.
And while it’s not the goal of this offense to evolve into another Bruce Arians vertical monster, his deep pass to T.Y. Hilton also gave hope that this facet of his skill set will return to its once-great level.
It’s going to continue being a bumpy season for the Colts despite Luck coming into form.
The defense is encouraging as a whole even as Watson eviscerated them today. Their young secondary is one corner away from being an average group with a high-upside playmaker in safety Malik Hooker. The front seven also needs more talent but the early development of Darius Leonard, Margus Hunt, and a deep group of defensive linemen is a promising reflection of the coaching and development in place.
The team will likely have another top-10 pick to utilize in what looks like a potentially solid 2019 NFL Draft class. They have plenty of needs, but they’re also flexible enough to just take the best player on the board and amass talent.
Free-agency can also be a plus, too. They’re unlikely to spend like the Browns did in 2018, but they may chase one or two big-names like Le’Veon Bell, Demarcus Lawrence, Bradley Roby, Frank Clark, or Ali Marpet if any of them hit the open market. If not, they can continue to take advantage of a deep second-tier of free-agents on more reasonable deals.
Luck’s performance on Sunday allows optimism on that type of roster-building discussion. He’s not going to continue playing that well all-year with this cast of players, but seeing the ceiling rise is important. General manager Chris Ballard can spend more confidently knowing Luck’s recovery is clear.