Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Colts Offense

Film Room: Colts Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

The return of Andrew Luck was not glamorous. As the Indianapolis Colts trudged through a 1-5 start to the season, Luck looked more like someone who could be a good quarterback rather than someone who was a good quarterback. The passing offense was watered down to accommodate for Luck as he knocked off the rust from his shoulder issue. New head coach Frank Reich, the Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, did not appear to have any answers as to how to unlock the offense beyond that. It was not the offense many were hoping to see from a returning superstar quarterback and a champion offensive mind.

Thankfully, the tides turned just in time for a playoff push. Since Week 7, the Colts have ditched the hobbled, scared iteration version of their offense for a more well-crafted approach that caters to the talent on hand. Sure, sure, catering to the talent on hand seems like it should be expected of an offensive coach such as Reich, but even the team he left not 12 months ago has admitted to not being able to find a role for the league's best yards-after-catch threat, Golden Tate. It may have taken Reich and company a while to find their groove, but this offense finally has an identity and Luck is taking full advantage.

The challenge for Reich has been transitioning from a spread, wide receiver-oriented offense in Philadelphia to more of a tight end-centric roster in Indianapolis. Jack Doyle is the ol' reliable of the Colts' tight end group, but former Lions first-round pick Eric Ebron has found new life under Reich. Even Mo Alie-Cox, an undrafted free agent last year, has come on strong as a third tight end, giving the Colts the flexibility to comfortably sub out either Doyle or Ebron, as well as to operate out of viable three-tight end sets. Reich now embraces the abundance of tight end talent on the roster and uses it to dictate opposing coverages to give Luck clearer and easier reads.

Todd Wash's Jaguars were caught slipping a few times versus the Colts' tight end-based plays. Be it matching two- and three-tight end sets in coverage or following tight ends across the formation in run defense, the Jaguars just did not have answers for the Colts' depth at that position.

Here is some pre-snap movement from the Colts that serves to dictate the Jaguars' coverage. In the first shot, the Colts have two tight ends to the right and two detached wide receivers to the left, which Jacksonville has responded to with a one-high safety shell and press coverage from cornerback Jalen Ramsey at the bottom of the picture. When the Colts motion Doyle across the formation in the second picture, Ramsey backs off from the line of scrimmage and two of Jacksonville's players to the strong side of the formation, safety Tashaun Gipson and linebacker Leon Jacobs, fan out to account for the newly created trips formation. From the position, the Jaguars are most likely looking to some form of "Palms" (or two-read) coverage to the trips side.

via Gfycat

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

In this instance, middle linebacker Myles Jack should find the No. 3 receiver (the innermost receiver out of trips) and either carry him vertically or catch him running underneath. However, Jack falls for the Colts' play-action and exposes the middle of the field to T.Y. Hilton on an intermediate crossing route. Luck, having seen how Jacksonville shifted its coverage shell and knowing that should have given Hilton a favorable matchup, gets his head around as soon as he finishes the play-action fake and throws a dart to the receiver.

Just last week, the Titans' defense also fell victim to how well the Colts utilize their tight ends to set up defenses. Granted, Hilton's 150-plus-yard performance against cornerback Adoree' Jackson played a key role in Indianapolis' dominant performance as well, but they still showcased their tight end group well.

Take this third-and-7, for example. The Colts deploy a trips set to the right side of the formation with Doyle on his own to the left as a pseudo "nub" tight end. On its own, this formation may not be revealing, but the Titans are overloading the weak side (left) of the formation, which would not make any sense if they were worried about covering Doyle and the running back, the only two receiving threats to that side. The Titans want to blitz here and Luck knows it.

via Gfycat

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

As Luck deduced from the defensive alignment, the Titans sent a blitz from the overloaded side of the formation. With the blitzer leaving space open over the left hash and the cornerback responsible for Doyle playing an outside alignment, both Doyle and Luck knew they had a window over the left hash. Doyle works into the space vacated by the blitzer and Luck hits him in time to allow him to wrestle his way over the sticks for a first down.

Earlier in the Titans game, the Colts used a seemingly insignificant pre-snap motion to open up an RPO concept.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

In this example, Doyle begins in a wing position as a tight end off the line of scrimmage. Doyle then begins to motion across the formation from left to right before making his way back to the left side of the formation. Rather than settle back into his wing position, however, Doyle takes a slightly wider alignment to serve as a "jumbo slot" instead of a true tight end. The back-and-forth motion from Doyle forces one of Tennessee's linebackers to move from the line of scrimmage to a traditional alignment and forces a defensive back to roll down to the line of scrimmage to cover Doyle man-to-man. Upon receiving the snap, Luck executes the option-exchange and pulls the ball to throw to Doyle, whom he trusted to beat the defensive back aligned over him.

None of what the Colts are doing with tight ends is revolutionary. These are not new, exotic play concepts that the Colts are deploying. Instead, the Colts are simply making use of their best pass-catching assets by moving them around the formation to force defenses to show their hand in accounting for them. Many teams do this in different ways, but Reich has finally figured out the Colts need to do it with their tight ends.

The fruits of Reich's labor are as ripe as ever. Over the past five weeks, only likely-MVP Drew Brees has posted a higher adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) than Luck's 10.64 mark. Furthermore, the Colts' four best passing offense performances per DVOA have come over their past four games (Weeks 7 through 11 -- subscription required), with their bye week breaking up the action in Week 9. Only Brees and Patrick Mahomes have better individual passing DVOAs than Luck over that span. Luck and the Colts' offense are as hot as any around the league.

With a slew of quality defenses left on the schedule (Jaguars and Texans, most notably), the Colts will need to keep up the pace if they want to squeeze into the playoffs. The Texans have a two-game lead in the division, while the 7-3 Chargers have the fifth seed all but locked up, leaving the sixth seed open to teams such as the Colts, Ravens, Bengals, and Titans. This is where Luck can reclaim his reputation as a force in the league, and where Reich can prove he was not a product of Doug Pederson in Philadelphia, but is a brilliant mind of his own.


2 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2018, 1:32pm

1 Re: Film Room: Colts Offense

Once again proving that coaching matters. I believe Luck has also throw three or more TD passes for each of the last SEVEN weeks, which is remarkable even I this pass happy year.

2 Re: Film Room: Colts Offense

Let’s not forget that the starting left tackle played his first game of the season just about the same time as the offense got better, and that they haven’t let up a single sack in something like 4 games. The play of the offense of line has had a huge impact.