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Castonzo: Colts’ O-line tougher because it’s better

Anthony Castonzo in action against Buster Skrine of the New York Jets on December 5, 2016 (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’ve all heard the talk. Tougher. More physical.

Those are the prevailing buzzwords that followed the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line into this season.

And here we are.

As the Colts emerge from their bye week and embark on a November that gives them every opportunity to atone for early-season stumbles – three straight at Lucas Oil Stadium, beginning Sunday when Jacksonville visits – they feature an offensive line that’s taking a backseat to no one in the NFL. Consider:

  • three straight games with no sacks allowed for the first time since 2009.
  • a personal-best 156 passes by Andrew Luck since his last sack. That came on his first drop-back at New England Oct. 4.
  •  10 total sacks yielded, second-fewest in the league. The sack-to-drop-back ratio – 1:35.3 – is the NFL’s best. For perspective, consider the Colts gave up 10 sacks to the Jaguars the last time they visited Indy, tied for the second-most in team history.
  •  back-to-back games with at least 200 rushing yards for the first time since 1985.

Everything – absolutely everything – starts up front.

But tougher? More physical?

You’ll have to excuse Anthony Castonzo for attempting to quiet the mounting revelry regarding his area of expertise.

Yes, the offensive line is performing at a level not seen since the Peyton Manning days.

“It’s the NFL,’’ Castonzo said. “It’s our job to go out there and protect the quarterback. It’s our job to get that done.’’

But that, Castonzo insisted, isn’t the result of a tougher, more physical approach.

“I think ‘tougher’ is just a word that’s being thrown around,’’ he said. “Tougher just means better. If you play better, people start saying, ‘Oh, you’re tough.’

“Rocky was tough as (expletive), but he was getting the (expletive) kicked out of him by Apollo Creed. You know what I mean? That’s the reality of it. If you get the (expletive) kicked out of you and you come back, and you get the (expletive) kicked out of you and you come back again, you’re tough but you’re not necessarily good.’’

Castonzo smiled. He’d rather be part of an offensive line that’s considered markedly better than one that’s simply tougher than its predecessors.

“No matter what you see from the outside, all tough means is you’re good,’’ he said. “It’s the same thing.’’

The most recent starting combination: Castonzo at left tackle, rookie Quenton Nelson at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, Mark Glowinski at right guard and rookie Braden Smith at right tackle.

It’s better. Much better, although Smith’s status needs to be monitored as the week unfolds. He participated in Monday’s walkthrough, but was held out of the light practice with a wrap on his left hand/wrist.

Despite the offensive line’s recent success, Jacksonville figures to offer a stiff challenge.

“This protection, this sackless streak that we’re on here is really going to be put to the test this week,’’ Frank Reich said Monday. “This team can get after the passer.’’

The Jaguars have spent the last several seasons fortifying their defense – Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Marcell Darius, Yannick Ngakoue, Myles Jack, Jalen Ramey, A.J. Bouye – and manhandling the Colts.

Jacksonville has won four of the last five in the series – the outlier was Luck leading the Colts to a 24-20 comeback win in the final game of 2016 – and everything has emanated from its defense’s ability to dominate. During that five-game stretch, the Jaguars have piled up 27 sacks, an additional 30 quarterback pressures and 31 tackles for loss. The average score: Jaguars 31, Colts 15.

We’ve mentioned Jacoby Brissett getting pulverized in Jacksonville’s 27-0 rout last season. He was sacked 10 times and hit on another 10 drop-backs.

In a 30-27 loss to the Jaguars in London in 2016, Luck endured a career-high 6 sacks along with another 8 hits.

Enough was enough.

The sea change began when Ballard invested two of his first three picks in the April draft – Nos. 6 and 37 – on Nelson and Smith, a pair of All-American guards. His rationale was rooted in the 156 sacks and zillion hits Luck had absorbed in his first five seasons, and the fact the resulting body trauma forced the Colts’ $140 million quarterback to miss all of last season.

Even so, guards seldom are popular picks.

“They complain when our quarterbacks get hit,’’ Ballard said at the time, justifying his decision. “They’ve been hit more than any other quarterbacks in the league over the last five years.

“People forget that on draft day. It’s not sexy to draft on the O-line.’’

Ballard also was quick to remind folks how the Colts had been routinely roughed up in the AFC South. He didn’t specifically mention the Jaguars, but his inference was clear.

“I had some frustrating moments last year where I thought physically we did not match up against teams, especially within our division,’’ Ballard said.

Reich has been adamant from his first day on the job the Colts had to be stronger along the offensive and defensive lines. That was especially true if Luck was going to be able to return to form and help return the franchise to prominence.

“There’s no doubt in our division with the defensive lines that we play against,’’ he said. “I mean the feeling about getting good up front would’ve been true no matter what, but I think is especially true in this division that we play in with the defenses that we face.’’

For their part, the offensive linemen aren’t buying into the hype that’s coming their way. They’re well aware they’re only as good as the next game.

“Of course. This is the NFL,’’ Castonzo said. “That’s life as an offensive lineman. We’ve done this our whole lives so we understand that. It comes with the territory.’’

Kelly insisted “you get tested every week. Bills come to town, record doesn’t say what they really are. Same with the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have elite players and if you don’t bring it every single game . . . if you’re half-assed, you’re going to get whooped.’’

No one in the position room, he added, is listening “to the media and the (expletive) they write.

“You’re only as good as your past game. It’s a tough position. It’s just been a hell of a lot of run. We control this team and how far we go.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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