Through five weeks of the Indianapolis Colts 2018 season, we’re seeing some interesting trends. Offensively, the Colts have done about what we presumed they would in Frank Reich’s system: heavy usage of their tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
Focusing on their tight ends, the Colts have targeted them on over 27 percent of Andrew Luck’s attempts. Through the first three games of the season that number was up to 31 percent, and lately that’s down just a bit to around 25 percent in the past two weeks. With Jack Doyle being out in these last two games, that makes sense as the Colts have had to use Mo-Allie Cox and Erik Swoope as stand-ins in attempt to replace some of that production.
Today, we’re going to look at some of what the Colts have been doing to scheme their tight ends open, and creating favorable matchups without Doyle in the lineup. You’ll see clips against man coverage (predominantly from Thursday night) as well as zone looks and how these concepts have worked.
Smash versus man coverage
Erik Ebron has had to shoulder the load without Doyle in the lineup whereas in the first few games he had been used more sparingly for the most part. Andrew Luck has racked up 121 attempts in the past two weeks and Ebron has been targeted heavily as a result.
Here we see the Colts using a smash concept which is quite effective versus a man-coverage look, and especially when that matchup features a physical mismatch for receiver being targeted.
For this clip, Ebron is set up split out a bit from the line, and inside the slot receiver (Chester Rogers) and the outside receiver (Ryan Grant). There are different variations of the smash, but here both of the outermost receivers are set to crash the middle of the field on short in routes. Versus man you can see how this works so effectively.
With Ebron running the corner route — outside of being bumped at the line of scrimmage — this leaves the 6-foot-4, athletic tight end in a matchup against the 5-foot-10 safety Devin McCourty. Ebron should win this battle each and every time, given the pass is on target. Swoope, who is also 6-foot-4 and very athletic and could be used in this manner effectively whereas we may not see much of this from Doyle given the contrast in speed.
I really like this concept for what the Colts have in terms of overall talent at the receiver position, and there are some simple alterations that can be used to open up, both, the running backs and receivers.
Short crossers in conjunction with verticals
This isn’t a concept that is as effective against a man look as it is versus some zone coverages. In this clip, though, we see a cover-2 from the Houston Texans. Most of what happens here depends on the quarterback recognizing which coverage he’s seeing, and the receiver’s ability to pick it out as the route progresses.
Here, Luck is getting verticals out of his X and Z receivers, a hitch from Ryan Hewitt and a drag route from the target, Ebron. Aside from the tight end, here, everyone is used to either draw the coverage downfield to set up Ebron with a one-on-one opportunity to make a play after the catch. The alternative — against this zone look — Ebron is to be used as the eye candy for the corner and linebacker, while the field side receiver is to passed the corner and sit down underneath the safety, or break in on a shallow post route.
It didn’t work out that way as Luck was more concerned with getting into a rhythm and takes the tight end as soon as he passes the opposite hash. This is still a safe option for Luck versus the zone, it’s just not the optimal one in terms of eating up yardage and beating the Houston zone.
This either produces something short and simple, or potentially a big play down field if the receiver can beat the safety after the catch. Expect to see some of these combinations go for big yardage throughout the season at some point.
Play action mismatches
Everyone wants to call out RPOs now with this look, but this is indeed simply just the Colts using effective play action to move one defender, and send out a mismatch versus another. The Colts attempted to use this same play from the other side of the formation with Cox in Week 4 as well, but this clip shows more of what the idea behind the play is.
This one is pretty straight forward as well. Luck recognizes man coverage here, and uses the play to take advantage of this simple completion with very little resistance. Nyheim Hines lines up to the right of Luck to pull his coverage with him.
After the snap, you see Luck eyeballing the linebacker. If he doesn’t go with Hines, Luck will likely try to hit him out in the flat. If the linebacker does follow Hines, though, Luck easily throws behind him to Ebron and gets an easy 10-yard completion deep in Texans’ territory.
Of course the latter happens, and you can see that the linebacker completely vacates the middle of the field and how much area Luck has to make this quick throw. Simple design, easy execution.
Most of the time we hear of wheel routes coming from the running backs. Ultimately this is out-and-up from the Swoope, but the concept is the same. Here the Colts find themselves going up against a man look over the top, a single-high look from the safety with some zone from the linebackers underneath.
At the bottom of the screen we see Swoope lined up upright near the line and Zach Pascal out wide with the idea of stretching the coverage they’re facing. This simply titled post-wheel combination is exactly what it sounds like. Pascal takes his coverage deep and to the middle of the field to occupy the corner and the safety, while Swoope executes more of an out-and-up version of the wheel route in attempt to get his coverage watching the quarterback and beat him deep.
This works out nearly to perfection throughout the process of the routes. Swoope’s coverage doesn’t bite on the out portion of the route, but Swoope is able to beat his man deep with no help over the top. This is a perfect throw from Luck to the front corner of the end zone and Swoope makes a beautiful catch and nearly gets credit for the touchdown.
In closing, we see that Reich is trying to use the position to create mismatches and different advantages in all areas of the field. The Colts’ once strength at the tight end position has diminished a bit with injuries and roster movements, but they still have a steady set of concepts that they can use to continue the success of the tight ends in general.
How these concepts progress when Doyle returns to action will be equally interesting to watch, but you have to like what we’re seeing so far. The Colts tight ends have been on the receiving end of half of the team’s passing touchdowns (6) thus far, and they continue to be legitimate targets in all areas of the field. I’d say the position is actually producing remarkably well with all things considered.