Colts proved they can protect Andrew Luck and plow way toward playoffs

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Andrew Luck was being hit every play and the Indianapolis Colts couldn’t run the ball because their offensive line was terrible.

Colts owner Jim Irsay hired Chris Ballard to be the general manager, and Ballard — who was respected during his tenure in Kansas City as an assistant general manager with an eye for talent — quickly went about building the line he needed to protect Luck, a franchise asset if healthy.

After his first full season in charge, Ballard went all-in on the line in the 2018 NFL draft, trading down from No. 3 to No. 6 and taking a Steve Hutchinson clone in offensive guard Quenton Nelson, while drafting brawny Auburn guard Braden Smith in the second round. Nelson was a Day 1 starter while Smith is now the starting right tackle.

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The Colts bullied their way past the Cowboys on Sunday. QB Andrew Luck has had a season worthy of Comeback Player of the Year honors. (Getty Images)
The Colts bullied their way past the Cowboys on Sunday. QB Andrew Luck has had a season worthy of Comeback Player of the Year honors. (Getty Images)

Teamed up with holdovers like talented center Ryan Kelly, reliable left tackle Anthony Castonzo and brawling right guard Mark Glowinski, the Colts now have an offensive line that is talented, young and most of all, nasty.

That, as much as anything, has led to the Colts’ resurgent 8-6 record this season behind new coach Frank Reich and Luck, who may well be the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. And that’s also why their 23-0 beatdown of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, in which they gashed the league’s No. 3 rush defense for 178 yards on 39 carries, was so fun to watch.

All of which leads to our first topic on this week’s “Things I Enjoyed,” which is …

1. How Colts used ‘wham’ blocks to set tone vs. Cowboys

In the video above, you’ll see how Reich’s use of “wham” blocks — which call for a tight end or fullback to make a first-level block that frees up a lineman to punish at the second level — was so effective against the Cowboys. The Colts’ run game is varied, but these “wham” blocks by tight ends Mo Alie-Cox and Ryan Hewitt helped Indianapolis set the tone for the whole game.

2. Chris Jones dominating with his quickness

Every good pass rusher needs a go-to move — or a finishing move, in wrestling parlance. Reggie White had his famous “hump” move, while Von Miller has his spin.

Well, it shouldn’t be surprising that Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones has one, too. Jones, a third-year pro, is one of the best down linemen in football, even though you may not have heard of him until this year. Judging by the results of Pro Bowl voting — Jones was snubbed in favor of Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, Tennessee’s Jurrell Casey and Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward — there’s a good chance you still haven’t heard of him.

That will change soon. Jones, who is essentially in a contract year and is expected to engage in extension talks with the Chiefs this offseason, has recorded a sack in 10 straight games, which is absurd for a lineman.

Jones’ 14 sacks ranks fifth in the NFL, and his staggering 26 quarterback hurries ranks seventh, ahead of edge rushers like Houston’s J.J Watt (24), Miller (24) and Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence (20). That’s ridiculous, and the fact Jones didn’t make it over Atkins (10 sacks, 19 hurries), Casey (seven sacks, 11 hurries) and Heyward (six sacks, 16 hurries) speaks to how much ground he has to make up with fans to become recognized.

The good news for Jones is that he’s well on his way toward doing that, and his swim move — his favorite pass-rush tool by far — will be a big reason. Jones’ maneuver is like Doc Gooden’s curveball in 1985 — you can know it’s coming, maybe even sit on it, but there’s nothing you can do against it. Jones boasts good quickness for his size (6-foot-6, 311 pounds) but his 34 ½-inch arms make his swim move so devastating.

Here’s a montage of such plays:

I can pick out a hundred plays where Jones dominated a guy with his swim, but Jones can win in other ways, too. Here’s him doing it with a rip move:

And here’s a couple more plays of him doing it with pure speed and hustle:

Jones, 24, has paired all that with an effective bull rush, making him an outstanding pass rusher. A source told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday night that despite his initial Pro Bowl snub by the fans, Jones has been named a first alternate for the game. As long as he keeps playing like this, it might be the first — and last — time he goes as an alternate.

3. Marlon Humphrey’s physicality

Keeping with the theme of Pro Bowl snubs, second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey has had an outstanding season for the Baltimore Ravens — although you wouldn’t know it based on his ball production.

Humphrey, a 6-foot, 197-pounder, recorded his first interception of the season Sunday against Tampa Bay, but his overall body of work against the Buccaneers was as impressive as the pick itself. Humphrey allowed only two of six completions for 13 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, and also recorded a pass breakup.

He did some of this against the Bucs’ super-sized receiver Mike Evans, which is noteworthy. Check out this montage of Humphrey’s day and tell me he’s not a complete player (look for No. 29):

The athleticism. The anticipation. The toughness. I’m all-in on the former first-round pick, who has a 69 percent success rate in coverage (according to Football Outsiders). He may not make the Pro Bowl this year but he almost certainly will in the future.

4. Desmond King II, perpetually underrated Detroiter

I need to show some love here for a fellow Detroiter in Chargers cornerback Desmond King, who might be the best cornerback you’ve never heard of. King is Pro Football Focus’ second-highest rated cornerback — and he also passed the eye test, for those skeptical of PFF’s grades — but the second-year pro got no Pro Bowl love this year, despite playing a big role for an elite defense.

King is used to being underrated. The 5-10, 200-pounder was a fifth-round pick out of Iowa in 2017, despite winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best corner in 2015 and being named a two-time All-American. Before he got to Iowa, King was not offered by Michigan or Michigan State out of high school.

But everywhere King has gone, he has made plays. His stickiness and ball skills in coverage outweigh the physical limitations he may have with his size and overall athleticism. The guy is a football player, and his willingness to do everything is appreciated.

Check out No. 20’s willingness to get his nose dirty and tackle with the big boys:

And his ability to stick with and carry one of the game’s best tight ends down the field:

And his ability to chip in as a returner:

King has also picked off three passes this year, thanks to his elite eyes and anticipation:

King is easy to root for. Hopefully, fans will see enough of him in the future to give him some votes.

5. Leighton Vander Esch doing Brian Urlacher-y things

Vander Esch, the Cowboys’ 6-4, 256-pound rookie, has been really good this season, racking up 114 tackles — tied for the seventh-most in professional football. So good that even though he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, it’s hard not to look at him and be reminded of another super-sized, athletic linebacker in Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher.

That’s not a comparison I make lightly, either. Even during the Cowboys’ 23-0 throttling at the hands of the Colts on Sunday, Vander Esch did things to make you go “wow.” Check out the hip fluidity and suddenness of Vander Esch (No. 56) on this third-and-1 stop, which mercifully forced a field goal:

Cowboys fans are going to enjoy watching this guy for a long time.

WEEK 14: No-looks and sidearms — 7 more throws from Patrick Mahomes you missed
WEEK 13: Here’s what Seahawks have to do if they want Russell Wilson to keep rolling
WEEK 12: Bills QB Josh Allen is changing some skeptical minds
WEEK 11: Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Chiefs-Rams gave us glorious forecast of the future
WEEK 10: This is why Rams’ Todd Gurley is mentioned in MVP talk
WEEK 9: Here’s how Dez Bryant can make Saints scarier
WEEK 8: How Golden Tate, 3 others dealt at NFL trade deadline can impact their teams
WEEK 7: These Amari Cooper plays can help Dak Prescott, Cowboys soar
WEEK 6: Flying to the football, Steelers’ nasty blocking & Matt Nagy channeling Andy Reid
WEEK 5: A Tale of two Cams (Newton and Erving)

WEEK 4: The juice of Patriots RB Sony Michel and lineman who slowed down Von Miller
WEEK 3: Mahomes magic and Lane Johnson’s acting chops
WEEK 2: Dallas’ deep ball, and the ridiculousness of Mahomes and Saquon
WEEK 1: Andy Reid’s goal-line circus and more

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