When asked if the blind-side hit from Cleveland’s Sheldon Brown that caused his fourth-quarter fumble Sunday was the hardest he had taken this season, Luck didn’t need long to scan his memory banks.
“No,” he said, deadpan. “I was hit fairly hard against Green Bay.”
That sarcasm prompted most of those in the room to chuckle but masked a greater point. Twice in the last three games, the Colts’ prized rookie quarterback has taken highlight-reel hits; many more of those and we’ll all learn more about Drew Stanton than we ever expected.
As the Colts prepare for their third attempt at a first road win Sunday in Nashville against the resurgent Titans, they have a number of priorities – get started more quickly on offense, continue to develop the running game, protect the ball, create big plays defensively – but none is greater than keeping Luck clean.
It depends as much on Luck as those in charge of protecting him.
From his years in Pittsburgh working with Ben Roethlisberger, interim head coach Bruce Arians has an acute awareness of the fine line between buying enough time to make a play and selling out, throwing it away and moving on. Roethlisberger is legendary – or perhaps notorious – for his willingness to take punishment in the pocket.
Like Roethlisberger, Luck has showed a reluctance to give up on a play, which leads to more time in the pocket, more pressure on the protectors and more opportunity for the hunters.
“He took some hits in the game he shouldn’t have taken and he’s got to learn to quit doing that,” Arians said. “It didn’t get Ben until last year; he held onto a ball when he got his ankle sprained and played on one leg the rest of the year. We don’t want that happening to Andrew. There are times to create and there’s times to get rid of it and play the next down. He’s just got to learn it. …
“You’re going to get pressured as a quarterback and you’re going to get hit. Just don’t take the unnecessary ones.”
Luck appears to push those limits even harder on the road and the results have been troubling. In two blowout losses to the Bears and Jets, Luck has thrown five interceptions, lost two fumbles and been sacked seven times.
The rookie’s passer rating on the road is a paltry 51.8. But while the Bears and Jets both are built on strong defenses, Tennessee is quite the contrary. The Titans have surrendered 16 touchdown passes and produced just nine sacks. Opposing quarterbacks have a 108.2 rating.
In order for Luck to capitalize on the opportunity, he must continue to work on his decision-making in the pocket.
“I know when the hits are my fault for not getting rid of the ball,” he said. “I’m not going to blame anybody else for it or different things. When I miss the hot (read), I realize that. Those are nice physical reminders that I’ve got a lot of work to do within the offense.”
It may be the most difficult part of a young quarterback’s evolution, learning when to stay and when to let it go. Arians doesn’t want to douse Luck’s competitive fire, but neither does he want his quarterback to continue to expose himself to big hits.
“Go through the progressions and if it’s not there, just don’t take those vicious hits when you don’t have to,” he said. “It’s a Catch-22.”
It’s one that must be untangled before so many big hits add up, Luck can’t remember them.