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Why were Colts tight ends so quiet in Week 1 OT loss to Chargers?

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts’ receiving corps looked to become a strength this season as the team filled the group out through the draft and free agency. Paris Campbell was selected in the second round, Deon Cain came back from a season-ending injury in training camp a year ago, and Devin Funchess was added through free agency to fill a very specific role for the team.

In addition to all of that, the Colts’ tight end room entered the season with some pretty lofty expectations.

We largely know what we’re getting from Jack Doyle each week, he’s an excellent blocker and a steady and reliable receiver. Eric Ebron is coming off of a career year, and is expected to be a beast in the red zone as well as the group’s dynamic option in the passing game between the 20s. Mo Alie-Cox offers a bit of both aspects at the position, and his integration into the offense is still yet to be determined going forward.

In looking at last year’s numbers, and the overall dependence the team had on their tight end production last season (especially for Ebron and Doyle), it made me curious as to why the entire unit only saw 6 targets in Week 1 against the Chargers. Maybe it was presumptuous, but I expected to see more targets to the group, largely because of what we expected to be the game plan for Brissett in his first start of the year.

The expectation was that there would be a lot of quick, short underneath routes, and a significant amount of timing throws to get him into some sort of a groove. Well, Frank Reich did keep the game plan for Brissett in place, but the tight ends weren’t much of a focal point in Week 1.

Last season, Ebron averaged nearly 7 targets (6.88) on his own per game. Doyle, in 6 games, was targeted 33 times (5.5 TPG). So, how did three tight ends combine to only receive 6 for the game?

I wasn’t sure if maybe the Los Angeles Chargers schemed to take the tight ends away, or if they may have not been running quality routes, or if they were simply just getting really good coverage throughout the day.

Most remember Doyle’s 20-yard catch after leaking out to the opposite side of the formation, and Ebron’s near touchdown late in the game. Ebron had a catch for a short gain running a hook route in the middle of the field, and his third target was a quick hitch route that Brissett just missed on.

Alie-Cox caught a ball for a one-yard gain, and Doyle’s only other target was the Y-shake he ran towards the middle of the field — in the red zone — in which a bullet from Brissett went between his hands and bounced off of his helmet.

Unfortunately, that was it for the tight end group for the day. Thus, in going back, I wanted to see what went on with the unit.

What I found was a little bit of everything.

First, it wasn’t that Reich and Brissett were ignoring Ebron and Doyle. The Colts were very successful in the running game as Marlon Mack ran for 174 yards on the day. The reality of it all, is that Reich continued to feed the hot hand in Mack, and now he has a pretty diverse group of weapons at Brissett’s disposal.

Hilton is going to get his touches, and Reich had to be chomping at the bit to get Campbell involved as well. Hines is going to get some attention out of the backfield, we know that’s his role, and Devin Funchess requires some targets underneath in order to open up any deep shots the team may hope to take within this scheme.

In other words, the ball has to be spread around — and it was — just as it was last season.

The Chargers didn’t really scheme much to stop the tight ends dead in their tracks or anything, so there’s that. The tight ends were, however, used quite a bit to run off coverage, sometimes tight to the formation and sometimes from more of a slot position. They were wisely passed up as the initial targets when they were facing quality coverage. Brissett did well to progress past them when they weren’t opening up on time.

The tight ends were also used as designated downfield blockers in the screen game a handful of times, as well. Doyle was used in the flat to open up some routes traveling towards the middle of the field, and was used ultimately as a lineman a few times as well, to great effect.

You can see some of this below in a snippet laid out by our own Zach Hicks:

Now, maybe we can argue that Reich should implement a more direct game plan to get his tight ends further involved, but again, Reich has a lot of toys for Brissett to use, and in order to keep defenses on their toes he’ll have to continue to spread the targets around.

The bottom line, at least for now, is that Doyle will be used more as a blocker if the running game continues to flourish. The viability of that game plan will certainly affect Ebron’s targets, but this group will still be heavily relied upon as the season progresses.

This will not be the typical sort of workload the tight ends get throughout the season.