INDIANAPOLIS — Ever wanted to know what it’s like to watch game film with a cerebral quarterback like Andrew Luck?
Recently, NFL.com presented the opportunity when they ran an “NFL Game Pass Film Session” in which former NFL players and current analysts Brian Baldinger and Ron Jaworski sat down with Luck to go over a variety of topics.
For those that haven’t yet caught the show, we’ve got you covered here.
Luck’s Return From Injury
The show begins with Baldinger talking about Luck’s return from shoulder surgery, which caused him to miss the 2017 season, and how Luck ultimately returned following a methodical process.
“Baby steps, and small victories, and progress, and getting better. And I certainly learned a lot about myself. I think I certainly grew up in many ways, and my perspective on not only the game, but on life,” Luck said. “In many ways, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It was challenging. I had some very dark moments, but I had fun playing football, and I didn’t know if that was going to be a possibility for me — I didn’t know if I was going to play football again.
“Being pain free and enjoying my teammates sort of rekindled my love for the game,” Luck continued. “It’s the greatest team game in the world, and (I’m) excited to see what the future holds.”
Luck’s Success In The Red Zone
Baldinger and Jaworski begin the film portion of the show by highlighting Luck’s strong play inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“I think, one, you realize it is a different situational part of the game,” Luck said about performing in the red zone. “And your plays are going to be different, so there’s a scheme element.
“In the red zone, positive yards really matter,” Luck continued. “If you’re at 1st and Goal on the 10-yard line, to take a three-yard completion or a run and another three-yard completion and get to 3rd and Goal from the four, it’s a lot easier to score from the four-yard line than it is to incomplete, incomplete, and you’re third-and-goal from the 10. Your odds go way down.”
The first play highlighted was from the past season in Week 14 against the Houston Texans down in Houston.
The Colts had the ball on the Texans’ 14-yard line. Tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton were bunched to the left, with Ebron on the outside and Hilton inside lined up on the ball.
When the play begins, Hilton and Ebron both angle away from their initial position and then cut back around the six-yard line, creating space for Ebron who got open for the touchdown.
“So, we put T.Y. and Eric on the same side of the ball — the two premier catchers there — knowing that the defense is throwing an in-and-out combo-type coverage. A little switch release and that allows Eric to create leverage,” Luck explains. “It’s not a very good throw — it’s a below average throw — and Eric makes a good job of getting his shoulder down and sort of trapping the ball under his arms and not letting it hit the ground, and then rolling in to get the touchdown.”
The next play was from a younger Luck against the Baltimore Ravens at home back in Week 5 of the 2014 season. Luck joked, “You’re digging into the vault for this one, Baldy (Baldinger).”
The Colts were lined up at Baltimore’s 6-yard line. Tight end Coby Fleener was lined up off the line of scrimmage behind left tackle Anthony Castonzo’s left side. Fellow tight end Dwayne Allen is on the line and off the right tackle.
Before the snap, Fleener briefly goes in motion, runs back, and then goes again, this time lining up in the backfield as the fullback. Luck then receives the snap, and Fleener angles out toward the right, front pylon while Allen runs a crossing route across the field toward the left side while angling towards the front of the end zone. Allen is wide open, so Luck delivers an accurate strike for the touchdown.
“First, this is a play that some folks know as ‘Spider Right’ or ‘Spider 2,’ (Luck is heard calling ‘Spider Right Y Mesh’ on the highlight) there’s a bunch of different ways to call it,” Luck said. “But Fleener coming out of the backfield, so he’s one. If he’s open, we’re taking it. And then this sort of sneak route, if you will, by Dwayne, he becomes our No. 2 right now. Reg (Reggie Wayne) sort of just affecting Mosley (Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley) just enough in his route to make him bubble over. It takes all 11 guys out there doing their job for an offensive play to work, and that’s the beauty of football.”
Luck’s Love For Tight Ends
The next topic was tight ends and how both Luck and head coach Frank Reich have always kept them heavily involved.
“Your tight ends have been absolutely phenomenal,” Jaworski says. “And that’s probably one of the keys to your success, particularly in that red zone area.”
“I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for tight ends,” Luck responded. “They’re big bodies, and you scheme up big bodies and guys who can run and create mismatches. We had five tight ends catch touchdowns this year: Eric Ebron, Mo Alie-Cox came on incredibly well in really his first year of football, Jack Doyle had a tough injury this year, but (is) a stud, and Erik Swoope had a really positive season, and Ryan Hewitt.”
The conversation then shifted to Ebron specifically, who enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2018 in his first year with the team.
“I mean, Frank’s always liked his tight ends. He liked them in Philadelphia, he liked them in San Diego. You’ve always liked tight ends going back to Stanford,” Baldinger said. “But I thought overall Eric Ebron had an unbelievable renaissance. It seemed like he came in and it just seemed like he was the big body, almost like a big wide receiver in his ability to run. He complemented you guys so well”
“He very much did. He bought in, and he runs fast and he runs hard,” Luck said. “I’m proud of Eric this year. He really did a great job.”
A play then highlighted one non-obvious area in which Ebron affects the game: as a decoy. The game was Week 7 of the 2018 season at home against the Buffalo Bills.
The Colts had the ball on Buffalo’s 18-yard line. Ebron is lined up on the line off the right tackle, and Swoope is to his right, off the line.
The two tight ends run upfield together and then they criss-cross around the five-yard line, Ebron breaking to the right and Swoope running the inside post into the end zone. Luck delivers a perfect ball to an open, in-stride Swoope who leaps to grab it and secure it for the touchdown.
“We caught split safety, which we were looking for with this concept,” Luck said. “Now, it’s using Ebron’s speed and the attention that he demands to allow Erik Swoope a chance to get underneath the safety. A little play fake to try and keep those linebackers where they are. Another well-schemed-up play.”
Luck’s Head Coach Frank Reich
Throughout NFL history, elite quarterback and head coach pairings have helped shape league history, and if the Colts have it right then Luck and Reich could be on their way to carving out their own bit of history.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have some great coaches, and now to have Frank Reich as our head coach and the experience that he brings,” Luck said. “I think he does a great job of seeing the same thing from many different perspectives. He empowers the quarterback to trust your instincts.
“As the head coach, he was in 99.9 percent of our meetings this year; position meetings, unit meetings, everything. And we talked, more than anything this year, we just talked football, we talked through plays. He says, ‘Hey, what about this? Do you like this?’” Luck continued about the constant dialogue he keeps with Reich. “I mean, go through it and spend 10 minutes on a play and looking at the different looks and getting into the minutia. I look back and towards the end it’s like, ‘Man, this really starts working. It starts slowing down a little.’ The theme of the year, and the theme always with Frank: get one percent better on what you’re doing and where you are, and just keep improving.”
Tight Split Formations
Under Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, the Colts have quite an exotic offense that is capable of doing numerous things out of numerous formations. However, the Colts tend to be particularly lethal when they have receivers and tight ends in tight splits.
A tight split is where you have at least one player lined up “tight” to the formation closer to the line of scrimmage rather than split out wide toward the sideline.
“As I watch a game just as a fan, the minute I see that tight split, I’m thinking ‘crosser,’” Jaworski said. “That’s kind of a staple, isn’t it? When a guy tightens that down, you’re gonna likely get a crosser?”
“There’s a good chance, but it’s a big run formation as well,” Luck responded. “You’ve gotta be able to do other things off of it.”
The next featured play was from last season, Week 10 at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Colts were on their own 30-yard line and had wide receiver Ryan Grant in a tight split on the left, with Hilton the same on the right.
Grant essentially runs a go route while Hilton goes roughly 13 yards upfield and then cuts inside while still stretching his route downfield. The single deep safety and the corner covering Grant both follow Grant, which opens up a bunch of space for Hilton, who has a couple steps on All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey. Luck then delivers Hilton the ball for a 35-yard gain right along the left-side numbers.
The Colts had the best season of pass protection in recent franchise history in 2018. Luck was the least-sacked quarterback in the league, even going five entire consecutive games and 239 straight pass attempts without being sacked.
“It seemed like with Frank and Nick this year that protection was the first, most important thing. A lot of max protection, a lot of play action,” Baldinger said. “There was a period this year over five games where you could’ve played the game in Bermuda shorts and flip flops, it looked like. You went those games this year without getting sacked, and it coincided with that unbelievable win streak you had, and you guys dug yourself out of that hole.”
“Yeah, protection was the focus of every week. The start of every week was our protection meeting,” Luck responded. “The defensive and offensive line, they’re the engine for a team. That’s where things begin. Football still is a simple game, and it starts with blocking and tackling, in my mind. And then as a quarterback, taking care of the ball, you keep it that way. I’m proud of how well the guys did up front. They’re a great group to play with, and we certainly set a standard, and now you’ve got to improve, you’ve got to improve, and you’re got to improve.”
Two plays that perfectly displayed how well Luck’s protection was during the season were then shown.
The first was from the Week 11 matchup at home against the Tennessee Titans. The Colts had maximum protection with two tight ends on the line on the right side.
Luck play-action faked to running back Marlon Mack, who then also became a blocker and winds up doing a great job picking up a blitzing safety. There are two receivers in the formation, Grant on the left and Hilton on the right.
The play-action fake freezes the other safety long enough to eliminate him from contention. Hilton runs a deep post with nothing but his corner to worry about, who, like most corners, is lagging behind Hilton. Hilton gets a step on him, receives a perfect ball from Luck and gets into the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown.
“We caught the right coverage at the right time, and sometimes it works out like that,” Luck said. “Frank is a great playcaller. He has a great sense for what’s appropriate at the time. And T.Y.’s got a little option to sit down, but he sees the middle of the field’s open, so he takes it.
“The focus this year was a firm middle of the pocket. A firm middle, a firm middle,” Luck continued. “And when you’ve got Quenton Nelson, and Ryan Kelly and (Mark) Glowinski, they’re all tough, nasty SOBs, so they did a heck of a job with the middle of the pocket and creating that space.”
The next play was another from the Week 14 showdown in Houston. Luck had an incredibly clean pocket with plenty of time to throw. It was another max protection formation like the previous play and yet another bomb to Hilton, this time for 60 yards.
When the film session ends, in true Andrew Luck fashion, he asked to see the rest of Jaworski’s notes on him. When coming across a negative that Luck wasn’t as good on the road as he is at home, he looked at the paper intently and then commented that it was good to know so he could improve.
Leave it to Luck to come away from a casual film session with something to work on.