To run or not to run. When it comes to Indianapolis Colts second-year quarterback Andrew Luck, his competitive nature usually comes into play.
In a perfect scenario, the Indianapolis coaching staff would like for Luck to stay in the pocket and find an open receiver down field with a pass. Move the offense with his arm rather than with his legs.
But as an injury plagued Colts offensive line continues to struggle with pass protection and more pressure is applied to the team’s signal caller, chances are pretty good that Luck will decide to take off with the football and attempt to get as many yards as he can.
It’s great when one of his runs results in a first down or, even better, a touchdown. But the specter of potential injury is always right around the corner. And that’s what worries Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Luck can turn a bad or broken down play into something positive. He’s already rushed for 365 yards and four touchdowns so far this season. A year ago, he had 255 rushing yards and five TDs.
A year ago, Luck was sacked 41 times in 16 regular-season games. This season, through the first 14 games, he has been sacked 30 times.
While most fans have bemoaned the team’s offensive line struggles, the stats don’t match the perception. Indianapolis is tied for the fifth fewest sacks allowed in the National Football League with New Orleans. The Colts are also seventh in the league for the fewest sacks per pass attempt.
Still, there have been times when Luck has been forced to pull the ball down and take off. And more often than not, he’s had success doing it.
“It forces the defense to have to defend us differently than what that had originally intended,” Hamilton admitted late last week. “We have a two pat rule in place. We don’t want the quarterback holding on to the ball for a long time in the pocket. It’s hazardous to his health.
“We’re fortunate to have a guy that’s athletic enough to extend plays and manage bad plays. That’s pulling the ball down and running for the first down, sliding and we’re excited to have him to be able to do it.”
While Pagano often holds his breath when his quarterback moves out of the pocket and out into the open field, he is happy to have a guy who can make plays on his own if needed.
“He’s got ‘it.’ He’s big. He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s durable. He’s got that sixth sense, he knows exactly the clock in his head is always ticking. He knows where to go with the ball. And when it doesn’t happen and when it breaks down, the guy’s a threat,” the Colts head coach said.
“I think certainly if you watch his whole body of work and they understand the numbers and they look at those things, you would make sure that you took care of that aspect of his game.”
Hamilton and Pagano contend that the Colts have not called a running play for Luck all season long. When he does run, or pull off a bootleg keeper like he did for a touchdown at San Francisco earlier in the year, the quarterback is thinking on his feet.
“I think having the guy under center that we have, his athleticism, size and strength, things like that, [adding some called running plays to the Indianapolis offense is] certainly worthy of discussion,” the Indianapolis head coach said.
“Now whether you ever have it up, have it in the game plan, actually work it, that’s another side to it. But certainly if you had things designed for him, we all know he’s more than capable of executing it and getting it done. But again, that’s your franchise, so a lot of risk/reward there.”
“I would think that when you play man [pass] coverage on third down, defenses particularly play more man coverage than zone, and you don’t account for the quarterback. And, granted, you may have an extra rusher or you man have an extra defender to help defend the middle of the field. But when you got an smart quarterback who’s also an extra [runner], that’s a weapon that we’re fortunate to have,” he said.
Luck averaged 4.1 yards per rushing attempt as a rookie in 2012. This year, he’s averaged 6.6 every time he’s ran.
“Not by design,” the Colts offensive coordinator stressed. “We have other guys who are paid to run with the football. It just so happens that Andrew has been able to make some big plays for us running the football.
“[But] we don’t want to expose our quarterback. We want to protect our quarterback. We just so happen to have a pocket passer who can extend plays with his legs. We don’t want to abuse that gift and let him be abused by the defense.”
Second-year tight end Coby Fleener, a teammate of Luck’s at Stanford, is used to seeing his quarterback running with the ball.
“I don’t cringe because he’s done it so many times and done it so successfully that it’s exciting. But absolutely, even more so than anybody else, you want to make sure that the play’s well-blocked for him,” Fleener said.
“I think that’s one of the great things about Andrew. He presents so many difficult decisions for a defense. Do you leave someone in there to make sure he doesn’t run? Or do you drop everyone because he can throw the heck out of the ball? That’s a great dilemma to have as an offense and we’re happy to have Andrew.”
One thing is certain. Whenever Luck does run, he has to learn how to slide better before being tackled.
“The sliding could use a little work. We joke with him about that sometimes. He needs to go get with a baseball coach or something and learn how to do that,” second-year wide receiver Griff Whalen, another former college teammate, offered.
Pagano has some definite ideas on the subject.
“What’s the local [minor league] baseball team we have down here?,” he joked recently. “Yeah, we might [send Luck over to work with their coaches] in the off season. It’s that or him and [quarterbacks coach] Clyde [Christensen] in Clyde’s back yard with a slip’n’slide.”