INDIANAPOLIS — For years, the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line has been a sore subject for fans to discuss.
Many of the moves that had been made to rectify the unit's struggles failed to pan out for one reason or another.
However, the team's offseason moves to address the line in recent seasons are finally coming together to form a unit that has depth and is reliable in its duties. Statistically, the group enters Sunday's Week 7 matchup against the Buffalo Bills allowing the third fewest sacks per pass attempt in the league.
"I think the communication has been good. The fundamentals have been good. Passing game is better with each progressing week," Colts head coach Frank Reich told reporters this week. "The backs obviously involved in the protection, they are a big part of it as well. So, I think we continue to make good progress."
It's not just in-house optimism, either. Through six weeks, Pro Football Focus has the Colts' offensive line graded as the No. 10 unit in the league. This weighs the grades that they have for all NFL offensive linemen who have played any amount of snaps for their team's line.
Braden Smith (76.1), Ryan Kelly (73.7), Le'Raven Clark (69.3) and Quenton Nelson (68.3) all currently have grades that consider them "above average" to "high quality."
As Reich mentioned, run blocking and pass protection isn't just a line function; it's a whole offensive effort. To that point, the Colts have some non-offensive linemen who have performed at a high level in both areas. Running back Nyheim Hines, according to PFF, currently ranks No. 10 among non-linemen in pass blocking, tight end Ryan Hewitt is No. 16 and tight end Eric Ebron is No. 23. Wide receiver Ryan Grant is the No. 1 non-lineman when it comes to run blocking, and tight end Jack Doyle is No. 4.
Two big pieces of the Colts' protection were acquired this offseason when Nelson was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft and Smith was taken in the second.
Nelson was plugged in as the Colts' starting left guard from Day 1, but Smith developed behind Matt Slauson — another offseason pickup who played well — at right guard until injuries moved him into the starting right tackle slot.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup two weeks ago, Smith has excelled, allowing just six hurries/pressures and giving up no sacks.
"Well, we will continue to evaluate it week-to-week, but right now it's looking like its Braden's spot," Reich said. "Right now it's looking like it's Braden's spot with the way he is playing."
PFF ranks both Nelson and Smith among the top five rookie offensive linemen in the NFL, giving the Colts an immediate return on investment.
Have the Colts' line dealt with injuries up front? Absolutely — they've only repeated an offensive line group once so far this year, and we've seen Slauson, Joe Haeg and J'Marcus Webb all land on injured reserve — but the players who have filled in have done a very nice job overall.
Despite dropping back 46 times last Sunday against the New York Jets, quarterback Andrew Luck was not sacked once. In fact, he's been sacked just 10 times this year despite league highs in pass attempts (288) and dropbacks (306). He's been pressured on just about 24 percent of his dropbacks, a figure which is the seventh-fewest in the league, according to ESPN:
As far as the run game goes, although the Colts have not run the ball much yet, they are picking up four yards per carry. The offense just got two starters — running back Marlon Mack and left tackle Anthony Castonzo — back in the lineup last week, so the improvement in that area is expected to continue.
Moving forward, the Colts could have an offensive line grouping that they wouldn't have expected at the beginning of the season, but that could be one that sticks together for the foreseeable future.
Castonzo is back at left tackle, with Nelson at left guard and Kelly at center. Four-year veteran Mark Glowinski made his first start for the Colts last week at right guard and did a respectable job, and then Smith completes the line on the other side of Glowinski at right tackle.
"Yeah, for right now that is the plan," Reich said this week when asked if the same starting five from last week will continue into this week against the Bills.
Continuity is key for the growth of any offensive line, so we will see how things continue developing for coach Dave DeGuglielmo's group as the season progresses.