How Chris Ballard, Colts Are Evaluating Offensive Line's Play In 2022

While the Colts' offensive line played better in the second half of the season, ultimately, Ballard said that group did not play up to the high standard it set for itself. 

Two things can be true about the 60 sacks the Colts allowed in 2022: Not all of them were the fault of the offensive line, and the offensive line didn't play up to the high standard it, collectively, set for itself.

While general manager Chris Ballard on Tuesday pointed to the Colts' offensive line improving over the second half of the season – which coincided with consistency in the starting five and the arrival of interim head coach Jeff Saturday – he noted that group's play wasn't to the level it needed to be.

"At the end of the day, even though I thought they played better, they're not playing to the standard that they have set," Ballard said.

In the home locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium following the Colts' season-ending loss to the Houston Texans, five-time Pro Bowl left guard Quenton Nelson said the improvement needed next season "has to start with me."

"I have to be better and do better," Nelson said. "There's a bunch of plays this year I want back. I sat down and wrote down my goals for the new year and how I can have my best season next year individually. That's what I'm going to do this offseason, I'm going to attack and come back the best I've been."

While Ballard and the Colts' brass will conduct their annual, thorough postmortem evaluation of the 2022 season, one thing Ballard pointed to this week regarding the offensive line was the lack of early-season continuity at left tackle and right guard. It wasn't until Week 9 that the Colts rolled out what would become their starting five, when healthy, for the rest of the season: Bernhard Raimann at left tackle, Nelson at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, Will Fries at right guard and Braden Smith at right tackle.

"Early in the season we had some changes to the offensive line, and that's where our struggles occurred early and we just never really recovered from them," Ballard said. "It took us awhile to get some continuity. I probably underestimated that. I thought we've been so good up front for the last few years, I thought with the three really good players we had coming back in Braden, Ryan Kelly and Quenton, that we would absorb those other positions and they would come up to speed right away. It just didn't occur that way, and that's a mistake.

"Now I will say midseason, I did think the line played better. I thought they played better down the stretch. I know they've taken a lot of criticism, but down the stretch that wasn't the reason we were losing."

Ballard is right about the line playing better in the second half. Take Pro Football Focus grades for what you will, but in Weeks 10-18, the Colts had the 10th-highest PFF pass block grade in the NFL (74.8); in Weeks 1-9, they had the third-lowest (54.1).

Rookie left tackle Bernhard Raimann emerged as a bright spot over the second half of the season, too. The 2022 third-round pick held his own against a gauntlet of pass rushers that ranged from young superstars (like the Cowboys' Micah Parsons) to established veterans (like the Chargers' Khalil Mack). Raimann's 76.5 PFF pass block grade ranked 21st out of 81 tackles with a minimum of 100 snaps from Weeks 9-18; among rookie tackles, that PFF grade ranked second out of 10.

Ballard said he was "very encouraged" by Raimann's progress, especially from where he started – Raimann had a tough go in his first career start in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos, then was tagged with allowing three sacks in his second career start in Week 9 against the New England Patriots.

"Early was rough, as it is for most left tackles," Ballard said. "I mean, we want them to be Jonathan Ogden the second they walk in the league or (Anthony) Castonzo. We forget Anthony had his struggles early. Most left tackles do have their struggles early.

"But to his credit, I'll never forget leaving New England and Bernhard is passionate, cares and wants to do the right thing. He's got tears in his eyes walking to the bus. I remember telling him, I said, 'Look, you're going to have days like this in this league.' And I said, 'But your mental toughness and your ability to reset is important.' And I said, 'And for you to make it, you have to do that.' To the kid's credit, he battled his (butt) off. He got better each week.

"Sure, he's got some things he's got to work on. He's got to get a little bit bigger, little bit stronger, but we thought he performed at a winning level the last seven, eight weeks of the season. I know there was a couple of plays and some mistakes out there, they all do. Look across the league, players make mistakes. They're not perfect."

Still, while there were some good things the offensive line did in the second half of 2022, the Colts still finished on a seven-game losing streak and with a 4-12-1 record. And, again, two things can be true: The Colts are not a talent-deficient team – and are hardly talent-deficient on the O-line – but they, collectively, need to improve in 2023.

"I'm not going to sit up here and make excuses. We've got to get better," Ballard said. "I've got to do a better job. I've got to get more talent on this football team. I've got to improve it.

"Our best players have to play to their capability and the young players have to play to their capability that we thought. I don't think the cupboard is dry. I do think we have some good young players and I think we have some players in their prime that can play better.

"But at the end of the day, we're 4-12-1. Not good enough."

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