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Tale of the Tape: Failing to Optimize the Screen Pass and Mack’s Big Day

San Francisco 49ers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts have struggled to get anything going on the ground with veterans Frank Gore and Robert Turbin. While some of that has been due to an offensive line that hasn’t really been able to get comfortable playing with one another and musical chairs at center due to injuries to Ryan Kelly and then undrafted Indianapolis local Deyshawn Bond, it also has had to do with an injury to Marlon Mack and offensive play-calling.

While this story will not go into great detail about the issues with some of the offensive play choices, particularly given certain down and distance situations, it will look at something that popped out as a missed opportunity from a personnel perspective last week against the 49ers. In particular, we will take a look at the Colts telegraphing screen passes to running backs, particularly on third and very long, and choosing to send Robert Turbin out onto the field in those situations.

We also will break down Marlon Mack’s biggest runs and how he was able to play a huge role in the Colts ability to sneak one out against San Francisco at home.

One of the possible explanations that has been given for Marlon Mack not being in the game during third and very long situations or for screen passes has been his inexperience as a pass blocker. Head coach Chuck Pagano mentioned it when he was asked about what is holding back Mack’s role in the offense and referenced that he needs more time to learn those things in practice.

While it is true that Mack still needs practice to learn protections and has yet to prove himself in the NFL as a pass blocker, the idea that this plays a major factor in putting him in the offensive personnel on third and long situations — particularly when you plan to run a screen and everyone can see it — doesn’t hold muster.

You can see above just how much Robert Turbin “blocks” on this play. This play is the biggest impact a running back made on a screen pass during the entire game. I’m confident that Mack can simply push the outside shoulder of a defender as he escapes into the flat.

Here is the sad part, this play had the makings of something really big. The secondary covers the deep receivers down the field and Jack Mewhort is able to get out in front to get a body on the crashing safety. This would have given Mack a look in front of him that includes a great deal of open field, a safety with a blocker in front, and a defensive lineman trailing him from behind.

Tell me that isn’t the making of a significant gain with Mack’s speed and ability to make things happen in the open field. Instead, Turbin isn’t confident he can properly utilize the block and tries to get the defensive lineman to fly by him by slamming on the brakes.

Here is another example of Turbin on a screen pass. As you can see, he doesn’t play an important role in pass protection. He is never touched in the backfield and sneaks out into the flat for Brissett to complete an easy pass.

As with before, the sideline angle will show you that while there were defenders in front of Turbin here, his indecisiveness and inability to scare the defenders with his speed made this an easy tackle. Mack might have been able to close the distance to the defense quickly and made one move to the outside to gain the edge.

Of course it is possible that Mack wouldn’t have been able to get much more on this play, but there’s no denying that he has a better chance of turning this into a considerable gain than Turbin does.

On this play, Frank Gore escapes through the middle of the defensive line to take a screen pass from Brissett. You’ll notice that he has no impact in pass protection and simply becomes a receiver.

Gore gets a very nice gain on this play but take a look at the space in front of him on the left side of the field. You have to wonder how much faster Mack would have gotten into the secondary and if one additional move could have broken this play for even more yards.

While the result of this play was extremely important for the Colts, and allowed the team to gain some momentum, this did not go according to any plan. It would be more accurate to call this play a mistake by Mack from the snap and a busted play than it would be to call it a impressive display of the Colts running game.

That being said, it is hard to argue with result. You have to acknowledge that speed allows you to make something out of nothing and can mask weaknesses or mistakes. When Mack makes a mistake that doesn’t result in a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, it forces the defense to crash and when that happens he wins the foot race to the outside more often than not.

This is another play where Mack was supposed to be running through the A gap to his left. Vujnovich whiffs on his block and Mack immediately sees that going in that direction is not a good option. He improvises and bounces the play to his right, away from the free defender. Once again, it is a foot race that he wins and results in a touchdown.

This will just highlight how badly Vujnovich was burnt and how easily this play could have been a loss. Mack is fast enough that he gets away from the defensive lineman and outruns everyone else.

As you will see, this play also is not designed as a sweep to Mack. He mentioned in his post-game interview that he just saw the opportunity to get outside and use his speed to gain yards and that is what he did.

The line didn’t create much of a rushing lane at all with the best inside rushing lane forming in the A gap right. When a defender flashes in the hole, Mack’s decision is easy. This play puts the Colts into field goal range for Vinatieri.

Something that isn’t as easy to notice from the end zone angle is that T.Y. Hilton motions left and presents the threat of a jet sweep or reverse. The cornerback is playing man over the top and following him across the line. When he does, the whole right side of the field is left empty. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mack noticed this pre-snap to give him confidence that no one would be home if he bounced the play to the right.

This also should be noted by Rob Chudzinski as he prepares to utilize Mack more in the offense. Pre-snap motions and recognizing opportunities like this one can result in huge chunk plays and get the ground game going.

Ultimately, the tape tells us that one benefit Marlon Mack will bring to the Colts offense is to turn offensive blunders into big plays. Even when he screws up, he can use speed to cover up for it and making something out of nothing.

The tape also tells us that any excuse that is offered about not utilizing Mack on third and long situations or any time you have a desire to run a screen because you’re concerned about his ability in pass protection is not to be taken seriously. Mack should get the call on these plays every time and can turn really bad situations into home runs in the blink of an eye.