Every offense should have an identity. The Chiefs have speed and spacing. The Titans have a smashmouth run game and play-action passing. The Cardinals have a spread-to-run approach that whittles opponents down with one-thousand papercuts.
For the Indianapolis Colts, the preferred method of attack is to make use of their running back trio in the passing game. Rookie Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, and even Jordan Wilkins can all function quite well when enabled this way by the offense. The latter two in particular can be used out wide, much in the same way the Patriots use James White or the Chargers use Austin Ekeler.
Per Sharp Football Stats, 25% of the Colts' pass attempts have gone to running backs this season, which ranks fifth in the league behind the Saints, Patriots, Packers, and 49ers. They also hold a 56% success rate (second) and average 7.6 yards per attempt (third) over those passes. Hines and Taylor also both rank in the top 10 in receiving DYAR among running backs. The short: Indianapolis loves throwing to their backs and are very good at it, especially as of late.
Fishing for man coverage tells is a core function of Indianapolis' passing game. There are a number of ways to do that and a number of reasons why a team would want to (i.e., which players they want to get open). The Colts primarily do so in order to find and abuse space for their running backs on the perimeter.
The Colts start in a 3x1 bunch set with both sides of the formation condensed and the back to the weak side. Quarterback Philip Rivers then shifts the No. 3 (innermost) receiver from the bunch set over to the other side, creating a 2x2. One of Cincinnati's defensive backs directly follows the receiver across the formation and communicates with his teammate that they will need to play in-out rules over this stacked receiver set. By now, Rivers should have an idea that the defensive back following means man coverage.
Once the ball is snapped, that man coverage is confirmed. The Bengals are in what looks like two-man as the defensive back who followed the receiver before the snap sprints to follow him back across the formation again after the snap. With Indy's lone receiver to the left in a tight split and the cornerback pressed up against him, there is a natural pick that blocks the linebacker from taking a good and direct angle to the flat. Either the linebacker cuts underneath and risks losing over the top or plays it over the top and effectively gives up the catch in the flat for free. He chooses to play it over the top, which Rivers recognizes, and gives up a relatively easy 7 yards to Taylor on the reception.
The Colts again look to find man and abuse coverage indicators while opening up space on the perimeter through condensed formations. Before the snap, Indy's wide receiver to the left is split out to the sideline and the back is to the right side of the formation. Rivers sees the defense getting into press man coverage on the outside and suspects he can make a change to exploit that. He flips the back over to the left side while also shifting the receiver on the left to a condensed split, sort of recreating the scenario from the previous clip.
In this instance, the Colts seem to get a bit lucky in that the Bengals' second-level defenders miscommunicate on who is supposed to cover who. The defender walked up over the tight end and manned him up, while the linebacker walked up as though he was waiting for the back to either sit in pass pro or slip through the middle for a checkdown. The mix-up gets Taylor free in space again, nearly leading to a Colts touchdown. Seeing as the linebacker was the one communicating to the defensive back to cover the tight end, it's more than likely that this was the fault of the linebacker not understanding the back was his.
Before getting to everything else, notice Indianapolis' personnel on this play. They have two running backs on the field -- Wilkins in the backfield and Hines split out to the right. With a tight end (Jack Doyle) on the field, the Colts get into a pretty unusual trips set to start this look off. However, Doyle shifts back to the formation, getting the linebacker who had been covering him out wide to also come back to the formation. Again, likely man coverage from Detroit here.
The genius in this play, though, is the reverse orbit action. Hines starts the play by booking it towards the formation and getting depth for a potential end-around handoff, but doubles back before he gets to the quarterback and works into the flat. The action completely confuses the defender covering him as Hines gets lost in the shuffle behind the line of scrimmage. Hines is able to get into space for free and finish this play off with a sick spin into the end zone. Initially, it feels like Rivers could have hit the deep crosser as well, but he is first looking at the defender responsible for Hines, so of course he triggers on that as soon as he sees him lost in space.
Indianapolis also does a wonderful job getting their running backs open on routes that do not start from the backfield. Hines and Wilkins, especially, are skilled enough as receivers that they can be used from wideout positions.
Again, the Colts are in a rather unusual personnel set. They are in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) from an empty formation. Wilkins, the lone back, is split out to the left as the only wideout to that side. Just before the snap, he motions towards the heart of the formation and gears up to sprint across the field. At this point, assuming man coverage, Rivers needs to confirm that there will not be a linebacker on the opposite side of the field sitting to pick up the crosser. Rivers brings his eyes to the weak linebacker and sees that he is occupied with the tight end, leaving him an easy completion to Wilkins on the shallow crosser.
And lastly, Indianapolis has the unique advantage of a running back who serves as a legitimate deep threat in Hines. No, he is never going to be DeSean Jackson or even Robby Anderson, but the fact that he can occasionally pose as a real threat down the field against safeties and linebackers is a huge boon for what the Colts can do from a creativity standpoint. In this clip, Hines gets single coverage to the top of the screen against safety Tracy Walker. The double-move gets Walker to bite for just long enough to allow Hines to get to the pylon. Rivers, as per usual, delivers a perfect ball right over the top to Hines for another Colts touchdown.
Hitting running backs down the field like that is an area of comfort for Rivers too. In the previous few seasons with the Chargers, Rivers had Austin Ekeler, one of the few other running backs who can threaten vertically like this, at his disposal. New team, new back, but Rivers generates the same results.
The caveat with Indianapolis' offense is that they still have not shown the receiver talent necessary to open the offense up in full. Parris Campbell got hurt early this season and has yet to return, while none of the other new names they added this offseason provide the speed required to put this offense over the top. Rookie Michael Pittman looked promising as a possession receiver early in the year, but missed Weeks 4 to 7 with injury and was a non-factor in Week 8.
Nevertheless, it is important that the passing game has found clear ground to stand on in the way they use their running backs. Having a clear identity and pillars to lean on as an offense is crucial to developing over the course of the season. The Colts clearly have that, even if the offense is still somewhat incomplete. If they can start finding just a few more explosive plays, as well as have Rivers cut down on his interception totals just a smidgen, Indianapolis' offense could catch fire by the time winter football comes around.