INDIANAPOLIS — It's no secret that the Indianapolis Colts faced some major scrutiny the first half of the season when it came to the play of their offensive line, which allowed the most sacks and quarterback hits of any team in the NFL during that timespan.
But give credit to the big men up front, as they have seemingly turned the tables the second half of the year, despite continuing being hampered by more and more injuries to key contributors.
By using a mostly-young rotation of players — including starting three rookies the past two weeks — the Colts have suddenly featured one of the top offensive line corps in the league over their last seven games, as its nine sacks allowed ranks tied for the fifth-fewest in the NFL during that span.
And, if you ask Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, the line isn't just playing well on paper — the cohesion is looking good on film, too.
"The group itself has markedly improved in the second half of the year," Grigson said this week in his weekly appearance on 1070 The Fan's "Colts Roundtable Live." "Everything on paper, everything on film, we are moving in the right direction in that area, which is obviously a vital one."
After hiring a new offensive line coach, Joe Philbin, in January, the Colts really began to preach the importance of versatility for all offensive linemen heading into offseason workouts.
That approach has really paid off for Indianapolis this season, as injuries to original starters Jack Mewhort (left guard), Denzelle Good (right guard) and Joe Reitz (right tackle) have turned into opportunities for rookies like Joe Haeg and Le'Raven Clark, who has held his own in his first two career starts at right guard the past two weeks.
Being versatile has really been Haeg's calling card this season, as he became the first NFL rookie offensive linemen to start at three different positions (left guard, right guard and right tackle) since Kyle Turley in 1998. Turley was the seventh-overall selection in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft; Haeg was a fifth-round (155th-overall) selection of the Colts this year.
"Joe Haeg, it's kind of unfortunate that we've had to maybe stunt his growth, maybe, a little bit by having him move around so much," Grigson said. "But then again, that in and of itself is so encouraging that he's been able to handle something like that and starting that many positions for a rookie, more than anyone since 1998
Jonotthan Harrison, meanwhile, this season has been able to shift over from center, his natural position, and has been a key contributor at left guard, also the past two weeks.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the offensive line group of Anthony Castonzo (left guard), Harrison (left guard), first-round pick Ryan Kelly (center), Haeg (right tackle) and Clark (right tackle) has not allowed a single sack of quarterback Andrew Luck the past two weeks, marking the first time in Luck's 69 career games with the Colts that he has not been sacked in consecutive contests.
"That group has done a tremendous job," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "And you start three rookies, everybody's worried about it a couple weeks ago, with Ryan Kelly at center and (Joe) Haeg at right guard and then Le'Raven Clark coming in, and it was his second start against a darn good Oakland defense with a bunch of good players up front, guys that can run, and some guys off the edge that can rush the passer."
Those Oakland pass rushers include perennial NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, who have combined for 18 sacks this season.
Two weeks ago against the Minnesota Vikings, the Colts barely allowed one of the top defensive fronts in the NFL — which includes standouts Danielle Hunter (12 sacks), Everson Griffen (eight sacks) and Brian Robison (seven sacks)— to even get close to Luck in the pocket, and the big men up front earned game balls for their efforts.
Pagano and Grigson hope their offensive line can keep that momentum going on Sunday, when the Colts play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their 2016 season finale at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Those guys communicated, they were on the same page. There was a few things here and there, but overall, very very impressed with that group of guys," Pagano said of his offensive line the past couple weeks. "Conscientious group — you know, Coach Philbin and Coach (Joe) Gilbert, Coach (Frank) Giufre, they've done a tremendous job of bringing those guys along and developing that talent and developing those young players, and you can see heading into this last week and down the road that we've got some good, young players that are going to keep working extremely hard to be great players, and the future looks bright there."