Andrew Luck was once a budding nemesis of the Patriots. The heir to Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Luck faced the Patriots five times in his first four seasons, including two playoff appearances.
While the Patriots won all five games (four in blowout fashion), it was obvious that Luck was an NFL superstar, and the Patriots would be seeing him a lot over the next decade.
But a mysterious shoulder injury sidelined Luck for the entire 2017 season. And the Colts went underground, as well. Due to the schedule rotation and poor Colts seasons, they haven’t faced the Patriots since 2015. Thursday night’s game will be their first trip to Foxborough since the infamous Deflategate game in January 2015, which feels about three lifetimes ago.
Luck returns with a new supporting cast — Chris Ballard is his GM, Frank Reich his head coach. Most of the familiar Colts names are gone, and T.Y. Hilton, one of the few holdovers, isn’t expected to play on Thursday night with chest and hamstring injuries. And Luck himself is a major question mark after missing an entire season.
“This is a new coaching staff with a lot of new players from the last time we played them,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “There’s hardly anybody that’s on that team from the last time we played them. We’ll have a lot of work to do there.”
Through four games, Luck has held up well. The Colts are just 1-3, but Luck has thrown for 1,126 yards, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions while throwing 186 pass attempts (46.5 per game), tied for second-most in the NFL. The record for pass attempts in a season is 727, and Luck is on pace for 744.
“Well, he looks pretty good,” Belichick said. “Andrew does an excellent job of just running the team, making decisions pre-snap, post-snap and handling the team.”
To get a better feel for what to expect from Luck Thursday night, we flipped on the All-22 video of Luck’s performances in losses to the Eagles and Texans the last two weeks.
And the film confirms a lot of what Belichick said. If Luck’s shoulder is an issue, it certainly hasn’t shown up in any meaningful way on Sundays.
Notably, Luck isn’t pushing the ball downfield this year. His yards per attempt is a paltry 6.05, which ranks 31st out of 34 quarterbacks. Luck only has four completions of 25-plus yards, and his longest this year is 42.
But that might be more a function of the Colts’ offense than a sign of Luck’s arm strength. The Colts run a west coast-based offense that relies a lot on run-pass option plays that Reich ran to perfection last year in Philadelphia for Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Luck reads the defense and decides on whether to hand off to his running back, or throw a quick slant or hitch to the outside. This style of offense includes a ton of play action, which the Patriots will have to be wary of Thursday night.
Against the Texans, Luck’s 4-yard touchdown to Zach Pascal showed how difficult the Colts’ offense can be to defend — Luck faked the hand-off, moved the linebackers out of position, then zipped a perfect slant pass to Pascal for the score.
Luck definitely still has his throwing touch. He threw a perfect sideline fade to Hilton for 42 yards against the Texans, and a beautiful corner fade to running back Nyheim Hines for a 14-yard touchdown.
And Luck still has plenty of arm strength, as exhibited by an 18-yard deep out to Hilton in the first quarter of the Texans game.
That’s the toughest throw to make in the NFL, and Luck put it right on the numbers. He also zipped one over the middle to Chester Rogers for 22 yards that went right through one defender’s hands, and between two others.
“He is an excellent thrower — all throws down the field, inside, outside the numbers,” Belichick said.
What’s most noticeable when watching Luck that he rarely makes a bad mistake. Luck had one bad pass against the Texans, where he chucked it up deep into double coverage and almost had it intercepted. Otherwise, Luck is calm and smooth in the pocket, has excellent footwork, makes the right read, delivers the ball on time, and has no wasted movement.
And one aspect Luck didn’t lose in his year away from football was his athleticism. Listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds, Luck has a lot of Ben Roethlisberger in him, in that he is tough to bring down, and can buy plenty of time in the pocket with his feet. Against the Texans, Luck had an excellent 16-yard throw to Marcus Johnson on the run.
Against the Eagles, Luck avoided the rush, threw on the run and hit Hilton for 29 yards. Luck also had an impressive 33-yard scramble against the Eagles.
The Patriots are going to have to spy Luck and make sure he doesn’t break the pocket, and need to stay disciplined in their defensive assignments. This will also be a game where the cornerbacks have to cover their receivers a couple of seconds longer than usual, due to Luck’s scrambling ability.
“He is a strong guy and hard to bring down in the pocket,” Belichick said. “He makes some timely scrambles to buy time to throw or to pick up the first down. He is a hard guy to tackle.”
Luck doesn’t have the same weapons that he used to, especially with Hilton likely out this week. But Luck still looks every bit like the superstar, franchise quarterback that he was before the shoulder injury knocked him out in 2017.
“I have a ton of respect for him,” Belichick said. “I think he has done an excellent job of leading that team and that franchise the time that he has been there, and he is always a tough guy to play against. So, I know we will have our hands full with him on Thursday night.”