Anthony Castonzo, Braden Smith help to bolster Colts’ pass protection

Anthony Castonzo (L) and Braden Smith (R) (Photos courtesy of Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – If not for a pair of pre-snap hiccups, you might not have noticed them Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.

And that’s fine with Anthony Castonzo and Braden Smith, the Indianapolis Colts’ latest bookend offensive tackles.

“For my first game coming back,’’ Castonzo said, “if you didn’t notice me, that’s a win.’’

The long-time anchor of the line returned to the starting lineup against the New York Jets after missing the first five games with a balky right hamstring, and took all 69 offensive snaps. Castonzo conceded his 2018 debut was far from spotless – “There’s a lot of stuff I’m going to have to clean up’’ – but the only time his name was mentioned for an on-field indiscretion was a first-quarter false start.

“That’s good,’’ he said. “It went all right.’’

Ditto, Smith. A natural guard, the second-round draft pick made his second straight start at right tackle.

Essentially, Smith matched Castonzo’s anonymity while matching Castonzo’s workload. Since stepping in for Denzelle Good against New England while the veteran tackle has dealt with the death of his brother, Smith has been on the field for all 152 snaps.

“If people notice you that probably means you’re messing up or something, getting embarrassed,’’ Smith said. “I’d rather take it as not noticing me than noticing me.’’

What’s worth noticing is the level of efficiency being put out there week after week while position coach Dave DeGuglielmo and assistant Bobby Johnson have dealt with injury after injury.

A quick recap: the Colts used a fifth different starting O-line combination against the Jets; Joe Haeg, Matt Slauson and J’Marcus Webb are on the injured reserve list, although there’s every probability Haeg returns from a high ankle sprain in late November; and the team has turned to four different right tackles (Webb, Haeg, Good and Smith) and three left tackles (Haeg, Le’Raven Clark and Castonzo).

“Guys have been buying into the game plan and Andrew’s been helping us out,’’ Castonzo said. “He’s been getting rid of the ball quickly.’’

Added Smith: “It just comes down to people knowing their assignment, using good technique. It’s a huge credit to coach Gug. He’s done a good job of coaching us up.

“It’s Andrew getting the ball where it needs to be and not holding onto the ball so long. And we’ve got great guys up front.’’

The end result? Without question the best pass protection since Luck’s arrival in 2012. He’s been sacked just 10 times despite throwing 288 passes, a league high and the most through six games in NFL history. The Colts rank third in sacks per pass attempts.

Against the Jets, the pass protection allowed zero sacks and just three hits on Luck. The offensive line also helped create creases as Marlon Mack (12 carries, 89 yards) injected life into the dormant running attack.

“Nobody wants to hear the positives when you’re 1-5, but the pass protection is a positive and the fact that we ran the ball a little bit better,’’ Frank Reich said. “So I thought it was a good indication that the offensive line played well.

“I mean, you throw it 43 times and don’t give up a sack.’’

Protecting Luck has been Priority 1 for Reich since he succeeded Chuck Pagano. DeGuglielmo described it as protecting everyone’s “meal ticket.’’

“We really put a lot of work into what we call our protection: SOP. That’s standard operating procedure,’’ Reich said. “We have a very formal way and a very systematic way of how we approach protection and how we call it and how we make our calls and adjustments in a game.

“It’s something we put a lot of time and effort into and it’s paying dividends. I mean it’s a tangible area of improvement that we are seeing in spite of all the rotation and injury we’ve had up front.’’

According to coordinator Nick Sirianni, the Colts’ approach to pass protection begins a week ahead of the upcoming game and leans heavily on quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady doing the heavy lifting in conjunction with DeGuglielmo and Johnson.

“(Brady) grinds his butt off just getting it ready,’’ Sirianni said. “He really puts in endless hours to get that tape ready, putting the plan together and presenting it to us as coaches.

“I think it all starts on the week before…they kind of get all the looks together. I want to say they start the Thursday before just so they methodically go through every blitz that the defensive coordinator has shown for the past year, year-and-a-half.’’

No one should be surprised at the exhaustive process.

“Keeping Andrew upright is obviously the main priority,’’ Sirianni said, “so we will go to all ends that we need to to do that.’’

Buffalo brings a 2-4 record and NFL-worst offense into Lucas Oil Stadium, but no one should summarily dismiss the threat. The Bills’ defense is one of the NFL’s most effective: 3rd in total yards allowed per game (311.7) and per play (4.9), 8th against the run (92.5), 6th against the pass (219.2) and 12th in scoring (23.0).

They’re also 7th in sacks per pass attempt, and led by former Colt Jerry Hughes (4.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries), Kyle Williams (3.5, 6) and Trent Murphy (3, 7). The Bills have forced a league-high 19 fumbles, recovering seven.

“Each defense has a personality of its own,’’ Luck said. “This week is certainly no different in what Buffalo presents and the challenges they present in this sort of relentlessness and aggressiveness in which they play.

“It’s not necessarily tricking you in too many ways. It’s fast, it’s relentless and it’s aggressive and that’s the strength of their defense.’’