INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts are betting big on their offensive line.
They made a huge investment in left tackle Anthony Castonzo last September. They went heavy on offensive linemen in April’s draft. They brought in Joe Philbin, who has instituted a hands-on approach to fixing the line. Now everyone wants to see if the payoff will be making the playoffs.
It’s a high-stakes risk for one of last season’s most disappointing teams.
"Anytime your quarterback gets hurt — if he tried to scramble, he shouldn’t have had to scramble, he should be able to stay in the pocket," Castonzo said. "Obviously, we want to play as well as we can, so that’s the goal. The goal is always 0.0 sacks."
Nobody can expect perfection, but a year ago the offensive line was the Colts’ most glaring problem.
Andrew Luck missed nine games with an assortment of injuries, backup Matt Hasselbeck struggled with multiple injuries during the second half of the season, third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst missed the season finale with an injured hamstring. Yet somehow the Colts won their last game with two street free agents who had been in town less than a week.
None of those four is back for training camp, which opens July 26 at Anderson University, a Division III school about 30 miles northeast of Indy.
The chaotic twists and turns provided a clear blueprint for Indy’s offseason.
Instead of gambling on expensive free agents, general manager Ryan Grigson took the long-term approach by using his first-round draft pick on center Ryan Kelly, firming up the most unstable position along the line. Grigson didn’t stop there, using half of his eight picks on linemen.
Coach Chuck Pagano revamped his staff by keeping interim offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and bringing in eight assistants including Philbin, the former Miami Dolphins head coach who has already made strides in bringing along this young offensive line.
Luck also is chipping in by refining his ability to slide to a stop.
"It’s part of practice. A big part of practice is making it as game-like as possible," Luck said in June, following his first action at Lucas Oil Stadium since lacerating his kidney when he didn’t slide in early November. "With all things, if you throw an interception you start running after the guy that intercepted it. If you’re out running and you’re not near the sidelines, you slide."
While that sounds good, Castonzo understands Indy will cash in if everybody helps Luck stay upright.
Here are some other things to watch during training camp:
TURNOVER TURNAROUND: Injuries weren’t Indy’s only problem last season. Luck threw two interceptions in a season-opening loss at Buffalo before things really got bad. He wound up throwing 12 interceptions in seven games, a pace that would have shattered his previous career high of 18 from his rookie season. Luck has averaged 1.0 interception per game through his first 55 NFL games — a number that must be reduced to reach a Super Bowl.
WHAT RUSH? The Colts need help in this area on offense and defense. Frank Gore is still smarting after his streak of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons ended at four in 2015. At age 33, Gore is convinced he can finally end the Colts’ drought of 1,000-yard runners. The last was Joseph Addai in 2007. Defensively, Robert Mathis is still one of the league’s most feared pass rushers, but the Colts need to find a complement — and a successor — to the 35-year-old linebacker who is entering the final year of his contract.
GETTING ACCLIMATED: New defensive coordinator Ted Monachino will start his tenure by trying to fix the Colts’ run defense. Chudzinski, who replaced the fired Pep Hamilton in November, has finally had time to install his own offense. How much will change? The Colts haven’t hinted at any secrets and certainly didn’t provide much of a glimpse during offseason workouts. The next few weeks will be the first time most fans will get a real chance of seeing the progression.
SILENT TREATMENT: One year ago, the pre-camp talk focused on Super Bowl titles. Not this year. Though players and coaches have almost universally taken the words "Super" and "Bowl" out of their vocabulary, they acknowledge the goal remains unchanged: bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.