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Plodding QBs have destroyed the perception of Indy’s offensive line

And Washington’s as well

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Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Sometimes, though not often, the stars align almost perfectly with a confluence of factors coming together in such a way that it makes for a really enjoyable, and relevant topic to pursue. This is one such time. I hope you’ll enjoy the outcome as much as I’ve savored the preparation.

In week 8 of the NFL season, the Washington Commanders will face the Indianapolis Colts in what appeared - when the schedule was first released - to be the “Carson Wentz Revenge Game.” A few weeks into the season, after watching a series of miserable performances by Wentz in Washington and the badly spent Matt Ryan in Indianapolis, it looked like the game would be a “Toilet Bowl”-type slog of dueling offensive incompetence.

Now, however, with Wentz sidelined with injury, and the exciting Taylor Heinicke assuming the starter’s mantle in DC, and Matt Ryan permanently benched for relative unknown, Sam Ehlinger, in Indy, the game holds a bit more intrigue.

Both of the teams is still mathematically alive for their respective conference Wild Card spots, but they weren’t likely to have had much shot with their washed up vet starters. Will the inexperienced back-ups be able to put their teams on a more successful trajectory? That question will be answered Sunday afternoon.

The question that I’ll seek to answer today, however, is this one: Is Indianapolis’ offensive line really as terrible as it’s currently perceived to be?

The Early Years

After years of seeing Andrew Luck pounded into near oblivion, the Colts finally started investing seriously in their offensive line with the selection of center Ryan Kelly in the first round of the 2016 draft. They followed that up two years later, taking guard Quenton Nelson number six overall, and Braden Smith in the second round of the 2018 draft. By the 2018 season, their offensive line unit was among the elite groups in the NFL.

In italics, beside each season, is the Pro Football Focus (PFF) offensive line ranking for that year, the primary QB, and the PFF unit description:

2018 Season - #3 (QB - Andrew Luck)

OL composition: LT, Anthony Castonzo; LG, Quenton Nelson; C, Ryan Kelly; RG, Mark Glowinski; RT, Braden Smith

We knew they’d be better, but I don’t think even the biggest Colts homer could have foreseen this coming. Drafting the highest-graded rookie guard though and the second-highest-graded rookie tackle will do that. Everyone and their mother predicted Quenton Nelson would be a stud, and he was as a second-team PFF All-Pro, but Braden Smith going from college guard to pro tackle was a wildcard. Fortunately, that card came up aces as Smith was PFF’s 25th-highest graded tackle on the season.

After Luck retired, the offensive line remained stout, even in the face of protecting two new quarterbacks in successive seasons. Both Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers actually had the lowest sack rates of their careers behind the Colts’ line in 2019 and 2020, and it was reflected in the rankings.

2019 Season - #3 (QB - Jacoby Brissett)

OL composition: LT, Anthony Castonzo; LG, Quenton Nelson; C, Ryan Kelly; RG, Mark Glowinski; RT, Braden Smith

Continuity on an offensive line is always a good thing. That’s exactly what the Colts got in 2019 with all five starters playing over 1,000 snaps on the season. A group that was much maligned when Andrew Luck was having frequent dates with the turf has quickly become one of the top groups in the NFL, led by Quenton Nelson. The Notre Dame product was the highest-graded left guard as a rookie last season when you include the postseason, and he’s back on top in Year 2. He’s been especially dominant in the run game — Nelson’s two-year run-blocking grade leads all guards.

2020 Season - #7 (QB- Philip Rivers)

OL composition: LT, Anthony Castonzo; LG, Quenton Nelson; C, Ryan Kelly; RG, Mark Glowinski; RT, Braden Smith

This was a relatively down year for the Colts’ offensive line, given some late-season injuries at the tackle position and middling performances from several players on the interior, but the fact that they remain at No. 7 speaks to what we have come to expect from this unit.

Quenton Nelson’s first two seasons in the NFL were so remarkable that an 86.1 overall grade in 2020 — third among qualifying left guards — feels like a bit of a letdown. We can’t be that quick to normalize greatness, though. Nelson’s 90.6 PFF grade over the first three seasons of his career ranks first among all guards since 2018, and it is neck and neck with the grade Zack Martin produced over the first three seasons of his career in Dallas (90.8). Nelson has given no reason to believe that he won’t be one of the best interior offensive linemen in the NFL for the next decade-plus.

But, eventually, Rivers’ time in the NFL would come to close as well, and as he rode off into the sunset, the Colts sought out a replacement. At Frank Reich’s behest, the team pursued a trade for Carson Wentz from the Eagles. Philadelphia’s offensive line had just finished that season the 19th ranked unit in the league, per PFF.

2021 Season - #12 (QB - Carson Wentz)

OL composition: LT, Eric Fisher; LG, Quenton Nelson; C, Ryan Kelly; RG, Mark Glowinski; RT, Braden Smith

The Colts just were never able to piece things together in pass protection well enough. They began the season with injuries, but even when their top players returned, they didn’t play to the peak of their powers. Quenton Nelson is one of the best offensive linemen in all of football when healthy, but he earned a 69.7 overall PFF grade this year and a 62.0 pass-blocking mark.

The Colts ranked 30th as a unit in pass-blocking efficiency, but they dominated as a run-blocking group, helping pave the way for Jonathan Taylor to lead the league in rushing.

In 2021, Indy’s line slipped in the rankings, falling out of the top ten for the first time in four years, but it was still respectable, almost entirely as a function of its run blocking. Apropos of nothing, during the same period, the Eagles’ offensive line shot up to number four in Wentz’s absence.

But Wentz wasn’t destined to remain in Indianapolis, and after trading him away to Washington early in the offseason, they searched valiantly for a replacement. The Colts (thought they) found their man in the Falcons’ Matt Ryan.

2022 Season - #”Near the bottom” (QB - Matt Ryan)

OL composition: LT, Dennis Kelly; LG, Quenton Nelson; C, Ryan Kelly; RG, Matt Pryor; RT, Braden Smith

What had once been an elite line, with many of its key players still remaining, quickly became a smoldering disaster. A group that had been top 10 in the league two years earlier was now at the bottom of the league, and shouldering the blame for much of the Colts’ struggles.

But what was really going on? Had studs Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith all simply declined, before hitting the age of 30? Or was there another explanation at work?

Two weeks ago, The Athletic’s Ben Standig pulled together two of ESPN’s Brian Burke’s graphs to make a point about Washington’s apparent offensive line decline from 2021 to 2022:

While the Washington observation was/is interesting in its own right, something else struck me. First, I noticed how the Colts’ apparent year-over-year offensive line decline matched Washington’s, particularly with respect to pass block win rate (the x-axis). Both teams were bottom three in the league at this point.

What was the source of that decline in Indianapolis? Could it have been the quarterback? In 2021, the Matt Ryan-led Falcons had the 27th ranked offensive line in the league, per PFF. The graph above, using different metrics, places them in the same range. In 2022, they appear to have undergone a miraculous turnaround, particularly with respect to pass block win rate, showing up as a top 5 unit in the league.

What we appear to have is a chain reaction of events, whereby QB movement - both literal and figurative - has accounted for a dramatic shift in the performance of three separate offensive line groups. I’ll lay that out more clearly below.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images


The arrival of Carson Wentz in Indianapolis in 2021 coincided with a sharp improvement in the Eagles offensive line, and dramatic decline in the Colts pass blocking effectiveness, dropping the Colts unit into the middle of the pack overall.

In 2022, Wentz’s transfer to Washington resulted in an analogous decline in the Commanders’ line performance. But in Indianapolis, Wentz’s replacement was an even bigger liability behind the line than he had been.

This season, Matt Ryan drove a dagger through the heart of Indy’s big men, dropping the unit to worst in the league. Unsurprisingly, now unshackled from their albatross, Atlanta’s line quickly rebounded to be among the best performing in the league.

Both Washington and Indianapolis have new quarterbacks now, and I expect the perceptions of both offensive lines to improve fairly dramatically over the coming month or two. That will have been no accident. In the meantime, both Washington and Indianapolis should prepare for each other expecting better apparent offensive line play than either unit has shown for much of the season to date.


Do you think that quarterbacks can make their offensive lines look considerably "worse" than they actually are?

This poll is closed

  • 84%
    (472 votes)
  • 8%
    No, I think the primary responsibility is with the line itself.
    (46 votes)
  • 7%
    I’m still contemplating the issue.
    (43 votes)
561 votes total Vote Now