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Film Room: What is wrong with the Colts’ screen game?

Can the Colts fix their putrid screen game this season?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

I went into this week fully expecting to do a Quincy Wilson full season film room piece. When I tweeted that out though, many fans offered up other ideas.

One suggestion that caught my eye look at exactly why the Colts’ screen game has been so ineffective. I was so intrigued that I decided to put off the Wilson film room until next week and started researching Colts screen plays.

There are many factors that go into running a successful screen play. The quarterback, running back, and offensive line all have to be masters of deception. If the defense becomes aware of the screen too quickly, the play has almost no chance of succeeding.

Along with this deception, the three units all have to be in perfect sync since a screen play is so dependent on the other groups all doing their job. Lastly, the coaching staff needs to know exactly when the right time is to call these plays.

Here is where the main issues are with the Colts’ screen game and why— for the most part— the calls have been unsuccessful. The calls are very obvious, the timing is out of sync, and often times either the offensive line or running back is giving away the play way too early. But instead of just rambling on about the deficiencies in the screen game, let me show you all a few examples.

Reasons for failure

Predictable play calling

Head coach Frank Reich has been masterful at times with his play calling this season. He has instituted a lot of quick timing routes that have made life much easier for quarterback Andrew Luck. That being said, he is still growing as a play caller. He tends to favor certain plays over others and becomes a bit too one dimensional at times.

I want to highlight a series of three plays against the Bengals that shows how predictability in the screen game can be costly. I do want to note that this was early in the season and Reich has definitely improved in this area since.

This first clip comes on a 2nd and 5 play with only 1:28 left in the first half against the Bengals. This is a textbook version of a successful screen play. Running back Nyheim Hines sells like he is staying in to block, the offensive line sells that they are pass blocking, and Luck looks off the linebackers before coming back to the screen.

It is deceptive in it’s nature too as it comes with little time left in the half when the defense is expecting more passes downfield. This results in a modest 10 yard gain with a good catch and run by Hines.

So the first play is run very well, no issue with it at all for me. My issue comes just a minute later on the exact same drive on a 1st and 10. Reich dials up the exact same play to the exact same side. The execution by the players here is actually similar to the first play but it’s because the call is so obvious to read that it is blown up.

Bengals’ defensive lineman Ryan Glasglow notices the exact same thing that everyone watching notices the second that Hines takes his first step towards the line. The play is very easy to read and the fact that it was run just a minute prior gave away all deception.

So, obviously the play was blown up because the defense could expect it a second time. So fast forward to under a minute left in the fourth quarter and guess what play Reich draws up? You guessed it, the exact same play to the exact same side.

I understand going back to play that worked earlier but there has to be more deception here. The Bengals know that this exact play was run twice in the two minute drill in the first half. They are completely expecting this play to be run again in the two minute drill in the second half. This predictability contributed to the poor screen game in this first game.

Skilled defenders

Another major factor though that is just hard to account for is elite defenders. The Colts have faced off against the likes of Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Jonathan Allen, and other stout defensive lineman to start the season. That is a brutal stretch. Sometimes these star players make unreal plays that you can’t really account for when you draw it up.

This clip is the best example I could find of such a play. The Colts know that they are going against an elite talent in Fletcher Cox so they double-team him initially to sell that it is just a normal pass play. When the lineman breaks off the double team, Cox bursts through the line and is able to run down Hines for a small gain.

The Colts schemed this play up perfectly to account for Cox and even had two lineman get their hands on him. At the end of the day, great players make great plays. Not much you can do here as an offense to stop this.

Out of sync

Timing is everything when it comes to the screen game. One player getting a little ahead of themselves and the whole play is a disaster. What I really noticed when watching all of the Colts’ screen plays is that often its just that one player making a mistake that leads to failure.

Here is an example of the running back being way too impatient. Running back Jordan Wilkins is tasked with running the exact same screen that we’ve seen Hines do in every other clip.

Notice how Hines keeps his head upfield to sell his route whereas Wilkins here is way too hesitant around J.J. Watt. Wilkins never really sells the route and this is able to tip off that the screen is coming. As a result, the play is ruined.

This next clip is one that shows the offensive lineman throwing off the timing of the screen. Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly are supposed to be the lead blockers on a screen for running back Marlon Mack. Their goal is to initiate contact with their defensive lineman then get out in front of Mack and take on the corners.

Nelson stays on his block way too long which takes him out of the play. Kelly then trips over the player that Nelson is blocking, leaving Mack by himself with corners and safeties closing in. Mack still needs to catch this ball— obviously— but even if he does, this play is a 4 yard loss at best.

Should there be any optimism?

The above clips combined with the ever growing pile of failed screens every Sunday begs the question, should the Colts should even attempt screen passes this season?

In short, yes. This team is very capable of successfully running screen plays. They have athletic lineman along with capable running backs to catch the ball.

With Reich growing as a play caller and becoming less predictable, these plays should work. With a set group of linemen that includes very young mobile players, they should be able to get the timing down and get out in front of running backs. With Andrew Luck getting better each and every week, these plays will eventually begin to work.

Take this play by Jordan Wilkins. Wilkins sells the screen perfectly. The lineman are all able to get in front and Wilkins takes the quick screen right off their backs for a 12 yard gain. This team has the capability of running screens effectively.

Final Thoughts

Overall its tough to expect a team that features a quarterback returning from a year long injury, two rookie running backs, and two rookie offensive lineman to just come in and master a timing play like a screen play. These plays will succeed with more and more repetition.

With all three running backs healthy and the offensive line finally set, I expect more reps and stronger chemistry built between these groups. As a result, the screen game will get better.

The screen game is close to being very effective, the players just need to improve their timing and chemistry. I expect this to be an issue that corrects itself as the season continues to play out.