I’ve been sitting back and analyzing preseason play, and in analyzing it, I have tried to avoiding to be “that guy”. We all know who that guy is; he’s the one who over analyzes the exhibition play of players — particularly rookies — and determines if they are going to be a colossal bust or the best thing since the creation of the internet (how great has that been?).
With that said, Indianapolis Colts No. 1 overall pick and quarterback Andrew Luck has been fantastic, perhaps Manningtastic. In his two preseason games, he’s made dozens of dazzling throws while remaining poised in the pocket and displaying a complete understanding of the game en route to scoring drives.
This past Sunday night, a few things stood out during Luck’s second preseason game, which was against the frightening Pittsburgh Steelers defense: poise, athleticism, intelligence, and velocity.
And his play on third down and long, which I characterize as six yards or more. Third down and long is indicative of the talent of the passer because it’s the lone down that the passer truly has to step up and deliver. If he consistently doesn’t, then he’s unable to extend drives and lead his team to the promised land. Luckily, the Colts’ new franchise quarterback didn’t disappoint, going, by my count, three for five on the day.
3rd and 6: Luck short right to Brazill for 11 yards. 3rd and 14: Luck incomplete short left to Hilton. Hilton gets knocked down. 3rd and 9: Luck short left intended for Wayne intercepted by Taylor. Luck stares down Wayne. 3rd and 6: Luck short left to Allen for 13 yards. 3rd and 6: Luck deep middle intended for Hilton intercepted by Allen. Hilton bobbled the pass.(h/t NFL.com for the assistance)
It could be argued that the incomplete throw on 3rd and 14 was not entirely his fault and could have gone for a first down. The issue was that T.Y. Hilton, his receiver, fell down after engaging in contact with a Steelers defensive back. Moreover, Luck impressed on several other plays which illustrated not only his calm demeanor, but his understanding of the game too.
With just under six minutes to play in the second quarter, Luck threw a quick pass to tight end Coby Fleener for nine yards. “Blitzburgh,” an apt moniker for the Steelers, were blitzing on first down, and they didn’t try to hide it one bit: two defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage and four stand-up defenders and potential blitzers, two of which seemed to be destined for the A-gap (between the center and guards) — which, when a quarterback is blitzed in it, is equivalent to a kick in the jockstrap-less nuts.
When Luck snapped the ball, rushers came downhill and into the offensive backfield, forcing him to make a throw off his back foot to his “hot read,” Fleener, for nine yards.
It was quite a pass because many rookies (and sometimes veterans) can’t find their hot receivers, and they take a loss on the down. Interestingly enough, Luck told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King sometime before Sunday’s game that finding hot reads and figuring out protection was “tough”:
“The tough thing here, I’d say, have been the protections. We ran one type of dropback protection at Stanford, but here there’s man protection, slide protection, scat protection [no backs kept in, and man blocking by the line]. There’s a protection where the TE’s staying in, where the RB releases, where the center IDs the MIKE linebacker, when I ID the MIKE linebacker, where this guy’s the hot guy, or another receiver’s hot … and I’ve got to make sure I’m on the same page as the receivers. It’s tough.”
A half-slide to his left and a hot read later against the Steelers, it didn’t seem so tough.
Shortly after the throw, Luck made another one: this time, an 18-yard strike to a inside-breaking Reggie Wayne. Before the snap, Wayne motioned (it was unusual to see him do that after so many years of idly standing to the left) across and to the right of the formation. Following Luck’s drop step, old No. 87 broke off his vertical stem and ran what would be a Dig route between two defenders. But before Wayne could even pass the first defender, the ball was in flight.
Luck anticipated Wayne’s route, which was expected in the middle of the field, and put it where it was the safest for him and his receiver: high (where most coaches teach QBs to throw the ball when throwing in middle of field) and slightly behind, where only Wayne could get it and not get walloped by the driving center-field safety.
Anticipatory throws are the ones that separate great from good, which is what Luck could potentially become if he continues to make throws like these.
However, as impressive as Luck was on Sunday night, it’s still vital to remember that he’s a rookie, meaning he’s going to make mistakes, and he made a few against Pittsburgh. He found his hot reads, he found his outlet receiver, he went through his reads, but he didn’t always avoid staring down his targets and delivering under-thrown passes, as Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor emphatically noted when he intercepted a Luck pass and took it to the house for six.
Despite the rookie mistakes, the Colts’ brass and fans consider themselves luck-y to have No. 12 on their side.