INDIANAPOLIS – NFL losses are never about one player or even one position group.
But among the many missteps that have led to this disappointing Indianapolis Colts’ campaign, the failure to find suitable replacements at left tackle and right guard has to rank very near the top of the list.
Indianapolis (4-6-1) came into the season banking on a left tackle (Matt Pryor) with only two career starts at the position and has turned to an injured journeyman (Dennis Kelly) and overmatched rookie (Bernhard Raimann).
At right guard, the Colts have cycled through unproven youngsters Danny Pinter and Will Fries, with a brief cameo from right tackle Braden Smith.
That’s no way to protect a 37-year-old quarterback with limited mobility nor to maximize the potential of the NFL’s leading rusher from a year ago.
The struggles of the offensive line as a whole have played a big role in Indianapolis’ inability to put points on the scoreboard.
The Colts have held two of the NFL’s top-three scoring offenses (Philadelphia and Kansas City) to season-low totals of 17 points each. But they’re 1-1 in those contests and 4-3-1 in one-score games overall – including back-to-back 17-16 losses at home against NFC East opponents.
“I told the guys (Sunday) afternoon when we left the game that the men in this locker room are plenty to get it done,” interim head coach Jeff Saturday said. “Again, we have to find a way to translate what’s happening on the practice field to the game field. We didn’t do enough of that. Again, when you have opportunities like we had yesterday in different areas – whether it’s offense, whether it’s defense, whether it’s special teams – there are certain areas of emphasis that have to be made throughout a game. Finding a way to do that is vital. We’re right there at the cusp.”
It starts with the men up front.
General manager Chris Ballard has preached an emphasis on the trenches since he arrived in 2017, but he’s done little to replace left tackle Anthony Castonzo – who retired following the 2020 season – and did not retain right guards Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed in free agency last spring.
The losses of those players combined with the retirement of tight end Jack Doyle and the departure of wide receiver Zach Pascal to the Philadelphia Eagles have helped take the starch out of the running game.
After breaking out with 207 rushing yards on 6.9 yards per carry in Saturday’s debut against the Las Vegas Raiders, the Colts rushed for just 99 yards on 3.8 yards per attempt in Sunday’s 17-16 loss against Philadelphia.
Add in four sacks of quarterback Matt Ryan and some untimely penalties to short-circuit drives, and it was another rough day for the league’s highest-paid offensive line.
“We had opportunities to make plays, and it would be one guy kind of here on the edge or another guy here (not executing),” Saturday said. “We’ve talked about it. It’s a point of emphasis for us each and every week, about making sure that we understand our assignment, we understand how to go about it and then the execution lies in the finished product.
“We just failed at execution too often. When you look at it, (the Eagles) played tight to the line of scrimmage. There were a lot of bodies up there. There were times we were moving guys out in one section of the offensive line and the other section of the line wasn’t quite there. It may have been a tight end or outside of that.
“Again, it’s all guys on board. I thought the effort was excellent. Those guys were pushing and fighting and doing their absolute best, but again it’s the details that matter. So just going back and coaching those fine details, making sure we understand it and then execute it.”
The Colts have extra time this week to prepare for a Monday night showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-7). But the offensive troubles have been a season-long epidemic.
Indianapolis ranks 31st in the league with an average of just 15.7 points per game, and they’ve scored more than 20 points just twice in 11 tries.
That increases the degree of difficulty in a league in which it seems every game comes down to the final possession.
But Saturday said it’s not just about the fourth quarter. The Colts had three third-quarter drives against the Eagles with their worst starting field position at their own 45-yard line. They scored a combined three points on those possessions.
Better execution during that stretch might have increased the team’s confidence when it failed to find the end zone after having first-and-goal at the 5-yard line in the final five minutes.
“You know what your core plays are and being able to execute those,” Saturday said. “Listen, this travels throughout a game. It’s not just in the final minutes of a game. It’s throughout. Some of our red zone struggles, there are plays to be made and you have to execute them. You have to make them. They’re not overly complicated. They are there to be made. Again, it’s just about executing at those moments.
“So I think just making sure guys understand the moment is what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter. There are going to be opportunities to make plays. You have to be consistent in making those plays. That’s how you diminish the moment — is because you’ve made those plays time and time again. It gets to be habit as opposed to, ‘Oh man, I have to go make something happen.’
“So putting them in positions whether it’s in practice or in game situations that they continue – you have to make the same ones over and over. That’s the plan, and we just got to go make it happen.”