The Indianapolis Colts fell to the Oakland Raiders this past weekend 31-24 in a game that was ugly all around for the team. The defense struggled all day to get the Raiders’ offense off the field and the Colts’ offense struggled late when they needed to step up. In a game with very few bright spots on either side of the ball, one receiver did stand out for the second week in a row. That receiver wasn’t electric sixth rounder Deon Cain or speedy second rounder Parris Campbell but former UDFA Zach Pascal.
Pascal is entering his second year with the Colts and his third year in the NFL overall. He spent time in the 2017 off-season with the Washington Redskins before being cut and claimed by the Tennessee Titans. He was a solid special teamer that season and was able to land in Indianapolis the following season as a result. After surprisingly making the roster last year, he was thrown into a more prominent role in the offense as injuries piled up. He was inconsistent but showed decent flashes as he finished the season with 27 catches for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
As injuries again pile up at receiver, Pascal has yet again been forced into more playing time. This year he seems to be taking full advantage as he has six catches for 125 yards and a touchdown in the last two games. With his increased production and development as a route runner, he appears to be an ascending player despite his undrafted history.
In today’s film room, we will be looking at what has made Pascal so important to the Colts these first few weeks. From route running to consistent hands, he has looked to improve important aspects of his game while also doing the little things that has helped in stick in this league for the last three years.
Let’s start with an area that is so underrated for receivers. While not a necessity by any means, it is still important for receivers to be effective blockers. Coaches don’t want players to be liabilities in any area of football and receivers who struggle to block won’t see the field as much as players who show the effort. One reason Pascal has stuck in the NFL his first three years is his ability as a blocker. He shows great effort in this area and is never afraid of contact.
Despite seeing zero targets in the first two games, the Colts did play Pascal quite a bit in those match-ups. When he wasn’t contributing as a pass catcher, he was mixing it up in the run game and helping his team control the ball. He is used a bit like a tight end even on these blocks as he seals off linebackers and safeties from getting into the backfield.
In this first clip, he is lined up in the slot on the play side. He comes down from his slot position to block the slot cornerback out of the hole as Marlon Mack races by for a first down. His technique isn’t perfect— head is on the wrong side of the block— but he gets the job done and opens the hole for the running back.
Another clip that features Pascal as the blocking receiver on the play side. The Colts call the sweep play to the left with Doyle and Pascal on the outside. Doyle takes the defensive end and the play side lineman pull out in front of the play. This leaves Pascal’s assignment as getting inside and slowing down the linebacker so the lineman can get to the defensive backs. He does his job perfectly as he shields off the play side linebacker and takes him out of the play. The result again is a first down running to his side of the field.
Final run blocking clip but again the Colts find success running to Pascal’s side in the run game. Here is a simple dive play up the middle with the interior line crashing down. Pascal has to make a tough block on the safety over top of Jack Doyle and prevent him from getting into the backfield and disrupting the play. He is able to beat the defensive back to the spot and knock him down as Marlon Mack cuts off his backside for the gain. Again, even if the technique isn’t there at times, the effort and consistency as a blocker is always apparent on his film.
Run blocking gets a player like Pascal on the field but what does he do with that opportunity? Last season we saw bright spots— the double move against Houston— and we saw rough patches— multiple drops against the Patriots. This season however he seems to be more consistent and confident as a receiver. His route running looks improved overall and he hasn’t struggled with drops in any game yet (knock on wood).
First clip is a great play design but Pascal does contribute to it’s success. Frank Reich draws up a beauty as Jacoby Brissett fakes the screen to Nyheim Hines and hits a wide open Pascal for the touchdown. While the defense does bite due to the skill of Hines and the eyes of Brissett, watch Pascal fake run blocking. He runs right at the slot corner which does just enough to sell the screen pass. This makes the defensive backs jump the screen as Pascal is able to slip into the end zone for the score. Great design but Pascal selling this block— with his reputation as a run blocker— also contributed to the wide open score.
Pascal yet again is able to slip free in the Falcons’ secondary due to his reputation as a run blocker. On a pivotal third and one late in the game, Reich dials up a play for Pascal. The Colts fake the inside run as Pascal appears as though he is run blocking. As he is about to make contact with the linebacker, he quickly shoots up field and gets open. The outside corner who was responsible for him is way behind the play as he immediately looked inside when Pascal gave off that he was run blocking. The result is a huge gain and it led to an even bigger touchdown that helped seal the victory against Atlanta.
Those first two catches are great but they are mostly schemed routes with his run blocking in mind. How does he perform as a true receiver? Pretty well actually. Here against the Raiders, the team is facing a long 3rd down before halftime. Pascal is lined up in the slot against off man to man coverage. He pushes up field quickly and makes the defensive back retreat in his coverage. He pushes towards the sticks and then quickly breaks down his hips and gets into his break. He gets excellent separation from his quick turn and Brissett is able to find him over the middle. He makes a great hands catch away from his body as the defense closes in and nearly picks up the first down. Great route and catch though from Pascal.
The very next play, the Colts are able to pick up a critical fourth and three by targeting Pascal. He is at the bottom of the screen in bunch formation to start the play. He comes across the field on the drag route against zone coverage. Recognizing he doesn’t have enough depth on his route for the first, he begins to drift near the sticks while keeping his eyes on his quarterback. Once he drifts far enough for the first, Brissett throws him a heater in traffic. The ball is a bit behind Pascal but he is able to slide down and reach back for the big catch while also protecting himself against a big hit. Big play to pick up the first.
His route running and consistent hands are again on display here. He fights through the press at the line while readjusting his route up the numbers. Once he gets to the first down marker, he breaks inside on a quick speed cut for the in route. While he tries to sit in the zone between the safety and the corner, Brissett leads him more inside on the route. This results in Pascal having to start his feet again as he dives inside to have an attempt on the pass. He is able to come down with the diving reception as the safety closes in and even get up field for some extra yards. A near miscommunication on the route is saved by a great catch by Pascal over the middle.
Final clip of the day is another good one for Pascal. He past the press again with a swim move and readjusts his route up the numbers. He sells the route as if he is going deeper before stopping on a dime at the 35 yard line. He gets his head around quickly as the ball hits him in between the numbers. He then does a nice job of turning up field and getting extra yardage. Nothing too flashy on this play but the way that he has improved his footwork and breaking down his hips over the past two years is a real positive thing to see for the future.
In a season that has been a bit rough to watch at times early on, Pascal has been one of the biggest bright spots. He is not a star by any means but his constant improvement from day one with this team is something remarkable. He has always been a grinder and you can see it in the way he does the little things— like blocking— and the way he plays special teams. Where he has truly been remarkable though is his constant improvement as a receiver.
He has progressed so much a pass catcher. He has gone from a pure special teamer to a spot starting player to now maybe being a key part of the receiver rotation. He has clearly worked on his route running and hands in the off-season and it is paying dividends on the field. He has outplayed players with higher draft status and has earned his spot on this team. He may never be a star player but his constant improvement and solid play this season has made me an even bigger fan of Zach Pascal.