For much of the past year, many wondered if we’d already seen the best of Andrew Luck.
Even three weeks into this season, some questioned the health of Luck’s surgically repaired right shoulder, citing a wealth of dink-and-dunk throws (5.3 yards per attempt in Weeks 1-3 despite a 68.6 percent completion rate) and Jacoby Brissett’s cameo on a Hail Mary against the Eagles.
Two months later, Luck might be better than ever.
He posted his eighth straight game with three-plus passing touchdowns — the second-longest streak ever, behind only Tom Brady’s 10-game run in 2007 — on Sunday against the Dolphins, earning the Colts their fifth straight win with a rally reminiscent of Indy’s 2012 and 2013 teams.
Back in those days, Luck played like Superman because he had to. He extended plays and exposed his body to dozens of hits while willing his team to victories, including seven fourth-quarter comebacks and 10 game-winning drives those two years alone.
But that style of play proved unsustainable, and new head coach Frank Reich arrived with a clear focus on protecting Luck’s health through scheme. A shrewd play designer — as we explored two weeks ago with his use of tight ends — Reich structured his offense to make Luck play on-schedule and deliver quickly on almost every play. To his credit, Luck embraced the approach, breaking defenses down presnap with mental acuity and mitigating the pass rush.
The efficiency was meager at first, but it limited pressure, which disappeared almost entirely when left tackle Anthony Castonzo returned to the lineup in Week 6. That began a five-game sackless streak — Cameron Wake finally got one to end it Sunday — and a stretch of six games with just 11 QB hits, including a goose egg in Week 11 against the Titans.
Meanwhile, with more time to build chemistry, Reich and Luck have found a groove, torching defenses quick throws that often turn into big plays through design.
But Luck’s cape isn’t gone. The beauty of Reich’s approach is that it keeps Luck safe and on-schedule while allowing him to unearth his improvisational genius when needed.
The first play after the two-minute warning on Sunday was one of those moments, as the Colts faced third-and-9 and the possibility of punting to the Dolphins with the game tied at 24.
Like a 2013 nightmare, Luck’s protection broke down, but he eschewed a checkdown to Nyheim Hines. Instead, with defensive end Andre Branch lurking behind for a strip-sack and defensive tackle Akeem Spence barreling up the middle, Luck pumped to get Spence off his feet and ducked forward and left, leaving Spence grasping at air. After starting to run (he might have converted), Luck spied Carlos Rogers — who found a void downfield after the Dolphins’ zone had collapsed — and hit him for 34 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.
Spence’s exasperation told the whole story. Watching the throw travel downfield, the helpless big man and fell to the ground in anguish and pounded the turf.
Though committed to Reich’s designs, Luck is steadily becoming more comfortable again holding the ball late in the down, an awfully ominous sign for defenses. He extended plays a few other times Sunday — including a 17-yard gain to Jordan Wilkins and a scramble on third-and-4 — a week after creating a pair of off-schedule touchdowns against the Titans (14 yards to T.Y. Hilton and 7 yards to Dontrelle Inman).
That willingness speaks to Indy’s fabulous protection as well as Luck’s confidence in his own health. After attempting a diving catch in Week 11, Luck skied to snag a Brissett hospital pass on another trick play Sunday, taking a huge hit to convert fourth-and-1. Reich might want to tone back those risks, but Luck told reporters he didn’t think at all about his shoulder on the hit, another indication that he feels 100 percent again.
With a thriving O-line and a sharply designed scheme built on quick-timing throws, Luck has the support system to keep it that way, as he makes a transition much like Ben Roethlisberger did midway through his career.
The priority is to carve up opponents with ruthless, quick-strike efficiency, but Luck reserves the right to scramble for game-changing plays when needed.
-Appreciating Xavien Howard’s brilliance
Luck’s masterful comeback obscured one of the day’s best performances, as Howard forced the QB into his first multi-interception game since Week 6.
Interceptions can be wildly random, but much like Jalen Ramsey’s pair that we broke down last week, Howard engineered two masterpieces on Sunday.
First, with 60 seconds left before halftime, the Colts dialed up a sail route (deep corner route) for Hilton off of play-action. Playing press-man coverage, Howard didn’t get much on the shifty receiver off the line, but he mirrored him closely while patiently maintaining outside leverage.
Knowing Hilton’s inside release ruled out a go route (which almost always release outside), Howard waited for the wideout to break left or right. With safety help in the middle of the field, Howard didn’t bite on Hilton’s head fake inside, allowing him to turn smoothly underneath the receiver when Hilton broke to the corner.
Many cornerbacks would have face-guarded Hilton and/or drawn a pass-interference flag on a slightly underthrown ball, but Howard turned to locate the pass immediately. The vast majority of corners would have reached with just one hand to knock the throw away, but Howard went up with two, outleaping Hilton and snaring the ball at full extension over his back shoulder for the highlight-reel pick.
Miami’s offense promptly wasted the turnover with one of its own on the next play, sending Howard right back on the field. On his next snap, he not only nabbed a takeaway, but also saved a touchdown.
Howard was assigned to play any vertical route by the single receiver (Inman) on the backside of a 3x1 formation, with a safety dropping down to handle any inside route. When Inman ran inside instead of vertical, Howard became a free defender and went looking for work.
Tight end Eric Ebron, the inside trips receiver, ran a deep over route from the opposite side and was 2 yards clear of his man, linebacker Kiko Alonso. Luck saw it and let fly, never reading Howard because a backside cornerback almost never factors into this sort of route. But Howard sunk under the throw and closed from several yards outside to pluck the ball, retaking possession for Miami and likely preventing a 55-yard touchdown.
Howard now has nine interceptions in his last 15 games (!), and shockingly few have come from good fortune. Only one was tipped, while several came via tight man coverage, including a near-mirror image of Sunday’s first pick against Tom Brady (while covering Brandin Cooks) last year.
Not just a splash player, Howard is also a spectacular down-to-down cover artist. Big (6-foot-0, 201 pounds, 31 1/4-inch arms), fast (4.41 40-yard dash) and agile (6.94 3-cone drill), he has curbed the grabbiness that plagued him at Baylor and is wielding his tools very effectively in his third NFL season.
Luck threw at Howard just four times Sunday: Two were complete underneath for 23 combined yards; one was broken up on a deep curl and the other was Howard’s first interception. Howard’s second pick wasn’t even thrown at him, one of two plays he made outside his coverage Sunday. On the other, he came off his man to slam Inman a yard short of the sticks as he caught a pass on third-and-8.
Howard rarely shadows receivers in the slot, and he shows immaturity at times (see Sunday’s 15-yard penalty for a late hit), but he’s quietly become one of the league’s top cornerbacks. With one year left on his rookie deal, he should be due for a monster extension this offseason.
-The Broncos’ unheralded hero
The Raiders cut Shelby Harris, a 2014 seventh-round pick, four times in two years, the last in May of 2016. The Jets kept Harris just three months, and he spent most of 2016 without a team after being cut in August. The Cowboys added Harris to their practice squad in late December and cut him 19 days later.
In January of 2017, Harris joined the Broncos on a reserve/future contract. On Sunday, the backup nose tackle might have saved Denver’s season with the game of his life — two days after the birth of his daughter — and it was no fluke.
For whatever reason, Harris was passed over by three teams and nearly out of the league. But he forced the Broncos to keep him in 2017 by dominating in the preseason (three sacks, four tackles for loss, four QB hits), and then steadily earned regular-season reps. He blocked a would-be game-tying field goal at the buzzer in Week 1, then added sacks in Weeks 3 and 4. He finished 2017 with 5.5, second on the team behind Von Miller.
The production (no sacks, three QB hits entering Sunday) didn’t pop early this season, but Harris has still impressed on tape.
Built wide and squatty (6-foot-2, 290 pounds), Harris is listed as a nose tackle but plays just as often at end in Denver’s 3-4 scheme. He’s a load in the run game, using heavy hands to shock linemen on impact and lower-body strength to press them into the backfield. He leans on his bull rush as a pass rusher — often collapsing pockets for Miller and Bradley Chubb rather than getting there himself — but also flashes quick swim and rip moves, and even the occasional spin.
Everyone saw Sunday’s game-sealing interception, but Harris hounded Ben Roethlisberger all day. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown was nearly a safety, as Harris planted six-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey on his back with a bull rush and hit Roethlisberger as he released. Undeterred by the near miss, Harris did end Pittsburgh’s next possession, this time bulling through left guard Ramon Foster and barreling into Roethlisberger’s chest to force an errant throw that Chris Harris intercepted.
Later in the third, Shelby Harris closed Roethlisberger’s escape lane on Shaquil Barrett’s sack. He opened Pittsburgh’s final drive with a half-sack of his own by walking Pouncey into the QB as Miller ripped through a double team on the edge.
Then came the heroic pick, which might have been divined a play earlier. As the Steelers ran left on second-and-goal from the 3, Harris — who got in on that tackle — glanced out wide mid-play and saw receivers running slants, indicating it was a run-pass option. When Pittsburgh ran another RPO on third-and-goal from the 2, Harris was ready. He wasn’t supposed to drop, but after an initial push, Harris saw Roethlisberger pull the ball and sank backward into the throwing lane, using soft hands to nab the pass and clinch the game.
Despite his effectiveness, Harris has played just 34.4 percent of the defensive snaps this season, barely ranking fourth among Denver D-linemen, but that could be changing. His 36 snaps Sunday marked a season high, behind only end Derek Wolfe and outpacing starters Adam Gotsis (end) and Domata Peko (nose). The big performance could earn Harris a larger role, especially with Wolfe and Gotsis struggling to generate pressure, and Peko — who turns 34 on Tuesday — taking a clear step back in his 13th season.
Of course, Harris is used to uphill battles, and there should be a big reward coming down the line. The 27-year-old will hit restricted free agency in March and — assuming he doesn’t sign an extension — unrestricted free agency in 2020, nearly six full years after he was drafted. Whenever he finally gets paid, he’ll have earned every penny.
—David DeChant, Field Level Media