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The 2019 Indianapolis Colts Passing Offense; A Scouting Report

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More than you could ever want to know about the Colts passing game.

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Chicago Bears v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Overview

On August 24th, 2019, Andrew Luck retired from football. In the hours and days that followed many people started to ask questions about the offense; how much of it will Jacoby Brissett be able to run? What changes to the scheme will the Colts make?

These and others like them were all good questions to ask given the confusion and emotional state of Colts fans everywhere. All of the sudden, we were losing a great player who happened to play the most important position in all of football.

As a result, our fearless leader here at Stampede Blue, Brett Mock (you may know him as Bert), asked me to take a look at the Colts offense and write something that could help show Colts fans what Frank Reich’s offense looks like in more detail than we could ever expect a TV broadcast to provide. So what follows is just that. In my normal breakdowns I go position by position and talk about how everyone will be used. In this breakdown I’m only focusing on the Colts as it relates to overall scheme and I will only be focusing on the passing game.

Fair warning, this is a long article. I suggest you refill your drink, maybe grab a snack and clear your appointments for a while (longer if you’re insane and click all of the links).


Offensive Scheme

DISCLAIMER: There is absolutely no way anyone can encapsulate the entirety of an NFL offense in a single article. This isn’t the entire story, it’s not meant to be. What it is, is a cross section of plays, concepts and methods that Frank Reich likes to use that will hopefully help more people understand what the Colts are trying to do and what this system asks of it’s quarterback. I have only taken plays from two games, and only one play comes from a game other than week 12 against the Dolphins, like I said this isn’t an all encompassing look, but in that one game I was able to find a lot of the concepts we will see our Colts use each and every week.

When you watched the 2018 Indianapolis Colts, at first glance, it seems like the Frank Reich Experience is a highly sophisticated, intricate offense based solely around confusing a defense. Now, I’m not going to lie, and tell you this offense is some basic, vanilla, college level offense. In reality it’s a little bit of both, and that’s the brilliance of it.

Around a year ago I took a look at what I thought Frank Reich’s offense might be like. It was, at best, an educated guess. Despite his time spent as an NFL offensive coordinator he had never completely implemented his own offensive system. Now, a year later Frank Reich has revealed some of his secrets. As time goes on Reich will add wrinkles and work on his tendencies but we have a pretty good idea of what his base offense will be.

Reich’s system is rooted in the West Coast philosophies that helped Bill Walsh turn the 49ers into a dynasty in the 1980’s. If you want to invest a couple hours learning from the man himself this is the link to part one and this link is to part two of Walsh at a coaching clinic somewhere in history around the time he was head coach of the Stanford Cardinal. The $0.02 version of what Walsh preached: spread the field horizontally, build in high percentage throws and rely on your receivers ability to run after the catch.

To go along with those base principals Reich has added modern touches and taken (like everyone else) from the famed Air-Raid system created by lifetime college coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach (to a lesser extent). If you really want to go deep in the weeds on this one this book is a fantastic read. Frank Reich also isn’t concerned about Northwestern head coach, Pat Fitzgerald’s opinion that the modern run-pass option play is the “purest form of communism” as the Indianapolis Colts made a killing off of the distinctly college concept in 2018.

So those are the basics. It’s a simple system, rooted in short passing concepts and high-percentage throws that implement modern schemes that have proven to be effective at multiple levels of football. Lets dive into the offense and some of these concepts:


The Drag Route

This is less about any specific concept, last year we saw a lot of drag routes get open underneath and it’s by design. I’m not 100% sure what coverage the Dolphins are in here, it might be quarters, it might be quarters cut, it could also be man-to-man with the expectation that someone (either a linebacker or safety) would rotate to cover the backside receiver. Instead the Colts do a great job keeping the defense busy trying to account for all five receivers while clearing defenders deep on the play-side. Meanwhile the tight end runs a route that would make life difficult if the backside safety were trying to come down to cover the crossing route. And if you were wondering if anyone dropped off either of the deep routes to cover the flat, that’s six points.

The Colts like to use these underneath crossers to try to create traffic for defenders to work through in an effort to get receivers wide open for short, high percentage throws.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is a really well designed play against what the Dolphins defense likes to do (switch). Frank Reich, obviously knew their defensive tendencies and understood that a mostly uncovered drag route would be possible. He timed the play call well and they got the look they wanted.


Levels

This is Peyton Manning’s favorite play... well, kind of. Manning never ran it out of an RPO. We’ll get to more RPO talk soon, but first we’ll focus on levels.

What it is, is a great blend of new and old. They run three in breaking routes which were almost guaranteed to get someone open for a nice gain.

Once again, this play is all about making life difficult on the defense and making them choose who they’re going to cover. In the end Luck knows that T.Y. Hilton has one on one coverage on the outside while everyone who could help that corner (who was definitely worried about getting beat deep) was working toward the middle of the field.

This is a quick throw and an easy decision to make (you’ll sense a theme soon).


Mesh

There have been literal books written about the mesh concept. I linked to one above when I talked about Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and their Air Raid offense. I’ll spare you the history lesson but the research and development that went into creating this concept is truly fascinating.

For a long time it was considered (by its creators) to be indefensible. The purest form of the mesh concept is rife with option routes for each receiver on the field that ends up creating a play that looked unique to a defense on almost every snap no matter how many times it was called during a game, even though to the quarterback and receivers, it was the same exact play.

The NFL has adopted this concept, though it’s usually a little less complex. At its core there are two crossing routes that are run near each other with a third route that sits down somewhere in the middle. It’s designed to create traffic and confusion for the defenders in the middle of the field. One thing to note about this specific play are the running backs that are sent on wheel routes in an attempt to create space for the crossing routes in the middle of the field.

Once again, this concept almost always creates an open receiver for a short, high percentage throw.


The Screen Pass

Colts fans seem to have a love/hate relationship with the screen. On one hand, I get it, before Frank Reich, the Colts never seemed to be able to effectively use the screen game. Since Reich has gotten here the Colts have used it with more success.

I’ve seen some talk that advanced analytics show that the screen is a relatively ineffective play and you may be thinking “I could have told you that, without any math at all.” but Reich (and a lot of people who get paid to coach football) disagree.

I don’t think I really need to explain what a screen pass is, it’s pretty self explanatory, with that said it fits perfectly with Reich’s goal of throwing to an open receiver for a short, high percentage throw.


Run-Pass Option or RPO

I went back to take a peak at what I had written about the RPO before the 2018 season to see if there was anything that might have value here. While this play isn’t identical to the gif that is above, it’s very close, just flipped with a slightly different formation. This is directly from the article I wrote about Reich’s coaching influences while in Philadelphia:

I’ve noted above that the center, left guard, left tackle and tight end will all block for a zone run, the guard and tackle in a few of the RPO’s I saw the Eagles run, simply pass block. ...I didn’t align that linebacker anywhere specifically I just plopped him down in the general area you’ll normally find him and that’s the guy the quarterback has to key on.

If that linebacker follows the running back, the quarterback should pull the ball out and throw the slant. If the linebacker falls into coverage the quarterback should hand the ball off. This creates a simple read that needs to be made quickly, but should result in positive yardage.

In the NFL the RPO always uses zone blocking concepts which require lateral movement before vertical movement, due to the NFL’s rules regarding illegal receivers being down field. Linemen can be no more than 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage when a pass is thrown. So because of this it means linemen can’t simply fire out in a more traditional run play that uses gap blocking.

At times it makes it tough to tell the difference, but at the end of the day with an RPO, the offensive linemen will always get vertical like they do in the play shown directly above.

Why did Andrew Luck throw to the outside receiver instead of the receiver I said he should, running the slant over the middle? I’m not sure. Could be that they noticed the Texans cheating the safety down to fill in the hole voided by the linebacker when he bites on the run. Could be Luck just wanted to feed T.Y. Hilton. Both seem like good things to do, but I’m not sure.

The RPO is yet another way to hit an open receiver for a short, high percentage throw.


Max Protect

Max protect isn’t a passing concept as much as it’s just a concept. The idea is to keep 7 to 8 players in pass protection and only run routes with two or three receivers. Usually these tend to be deeper downfield throws and on these plays were some of the only times we saw Luck hit a 7 step drop in 2018.

Reich used max protection fairly often in 2018 when the time was right to push the ball down field. I assume he would dial it up when he was fairly confident he knew what coverage would be called. I believe this, due to the fact that it can be difficult to find an open receiver when you only have two options, so knowing what combination of routes to call against specific coverage schemes, is obviously very important.

This is one aspect of the 2018 Colts offense that wasn’t necessarily setting up a short, high percentage throw.


Play Calling

This is something that deserves its own section. This, like the rest of this article, isn’t all inclusive. It’s not giving you every aspect of every play Reich called. Instead this is an anecdote I found on accident while pulling gifs for this article.

Beyond the system itself is how Reich dials up the plays. The next five gifs are all from the same game, and if you notice they all share some version of the same passing concept, the “spot” concept. This means once the ball is snapped it is essentially the same play for at least three pass catching options.

Just to get you familiar with the concept, this is what I wrote about the spot concept in the article I linked in the section about RPO’s (the drawing isn’t great, I know, if any graphic designers want to help me improve on my MS Paint skills, let me know in the comments):

...The idea of the play is to create a simple read for the quarterback and an almost guaranteed open man. As you might imagine this concept creates quite a bit of traffic for defensive backs to try to fight through and it isn’t uncommon to see a receiver run a route seemingly at a defender in an effort to get his teammate open.

The plays below aren’t identical to the play I drew up last year and that’s part of the point.

Pitter patter let’s get at ‘er:

This was the third pass of the game, at the end of the first quarter and the first time Frank Reich called a play that featured the spot concept. This play stresses the defense like it should. Had there been a safety over the top, he likely would have taken Ebron’s route away and Luck would have been left throwing to Pascal, who was open underneath. Either way, the play worked in creating open options.

Spot 3

So this was actually the third called spot concept of the game. I didn’t catch the second time it was called when I was pulling gifs (and really, another gif of a spot concepts seemed like overkill), but the second called spot concept was a nice gain to T.Y. Hilton that gave the Colts the ball at the one yard line and would turn into six points on the next play.

This play came in the third quarter. Once again it stresses the defense the way it’s supposed to and T.Y. pops open just long enough to make this catch.

Spot 4

This spot concept came two plays after the last spot concept.

Once again, T.Y. sits down in a hole and Luck fits it in.

Spot 5

Again, two plays later.

Andrew Luck throws to the backside of this play but you can see the three pass catching options at the bottom of the screen run yet another spot concept.

Spot 6

This was the very next play.

The spot concept can be seen at the bottom of the screen and the Dolphins defense bites hard to cover the routes they know are coming. As a result it frees up the middle of the field so that Dontrelle Inman can sit down at the sticks and make an open catch.

This is when Frank Reich knew that he had them.

See the Dolphins had seen some form of the spot concept six times already in the game and four (4) times on this drive alone and they were biting on it, hard. He knows he’s got them but he can’t just exploit it the very next play.

So he hands the ball off to Nyhiem Hines. Three yards.

Then he hands the ball off to Marlin Mack. Zero yards.

Then Frank Reich draws up this play:

And, that’s football.

No this play didn’t work because this was one of only 18 sacks the Colts gave up all year. But the design was beautiful. At the snap of the ball this play looks just like the same spot concept that the defense has seen a handful of times on this drive.

The Dolphins institute a lot of pattern matching coverage, which is what it looks like they’re doing here. I wrote about it some in the Opponent Scouting Report I wrote on these Dolphins last year:

...the Dolphins will not only use traditional coverages (cover 0-6) but will also use pattern matching. Pattern matching coverage looks like a zone at first and then quickly becomes man coverage after the wide receivers have shown their routes. It works much the same way switching on defense in basketball does. It’s such a simple concept that took football coaches decades to figure out. If you want to take a deep dive into this coverage concept this is a great place to start.

Frank Reich saw they were matching his bunched receivers running the spot concept. The play that Reich dialed up is nothing short of perfect. The defensive back that ended up covering Inman on this play had outside responsibility, meaning that he was supposed to cover any receiver that broke toward the sideline.

The defensive back that covered T.Y. Hilton had inside responsibility, meaning he would be covering anyone who broke to the inside.

The defenders were asleep at the wheel, they thought they knew what was coming. Chester Rogers was going to the flat. Inman was going to run the corner route. Hilton was going to sit down inside. Spot concept, nice try, Reich.

Except Reich had each receiver use a double move to trick the defenders into putting themselves into a really bad position. Had Luck not been hit, this is 6 points.

The endzone angle:

Short of blown coverage, that is as open as it gets in the NFL and Frank Reich made it happen with great play calling.


Final Thoughts

This team isn’t as good today as it was before Andrew Luck rode off into the sunset. It’s just not. With that said, it’s still really good. Jacoby Brissett probably won’t ever be able to make the types of special plays that Luck could. Andrew Luck was great escaping the rush, throwing on the run to a receiver who had broken free 40 yards downfield and putting the ball in the absolute most perfect place anyone could have put the ball. That’s what made Andrew special in this system.

Jacoby Brissett doesn’t have to be that to run this system effectively. He has to understand these concepts (he does, they’re all pretty basic if you’re an NFL quarterback). He has to understand what the defense is giving him and he has to be decisive.

Those last two things are what some folks are worried about and I understand why. In 2017 we saw Jacoby Brissett often struggle to make quick decisions. He held on to the ball and he took a beating for his troubles.

In my opinion, the Jacoby Brissett you will see in 2019 will look like a completely different quarterback than the guy we saw two years ago. I believe that in no small part, due to the fact that a 23-year-old quarterback out of N.C. State who was a year removed from being the 91st overall pick in the draft was traded two years ago today; September 2nd 2017. Just 8 days later Jacoby Brissett would play in his first game for the Colts and 7 days after that, start at quarterback for the first time for our Indianapolis Colts.

At 23 years old, Brissett had his third offensive coordinator and third offensive system in three years and his latest playbook, from superstar OC Rob Chudzinski, had been jammed into his head in 15 days.

When you combine that with the offense that Frank Reich has installed and you factor it with his seemingly innate ability to call plays and I have no doubt that Jacoby Brissett will have success in this offense.

With all of that said, all 3,400 words of it so far, there will be concepts that Brissett likes more and less than Luck. Maybe Jacoby doesn’t like the spot concept, maybe he doesn’t like levels. Maybe he’s more comfortable with mesh. Maybe he loves trying to innovate with tweaks to different RPO looks. We won’t know but ultimately the offense isn’t going to look that much different. It doesn’t have to.

What Andrew Luck was able to do was special. What Frank Reich is able to do, is make good players like Jacoby Brissett look like special players. Chris Ballard hasn’t had an easy go as general manager of the Colts, which is amazing considering he drafted two all pro rookies for the first time since the AFL/NFL merger, but I am convinced that at the end of their run together the best thing that will have happened to Chris Ballard will be when Josh McDaniels convinced him to hire Frank Reich instead.


If you’re unsure of any of the terms that were used above most (probably all) of them can be found on the following websites:
Inside the Pylon Glossary
Syed Schemes
X’s O’s Football
I’ve used Inside the Pylon for years and their glossary is an amazing tool. Syed Schemes has become a favorite of mine more recently and is packed full of great stuff. X’s O’s Football isn’t necessarily one of my favorites but they do a good job of blending football scheme and information for people who play Madden.
I want to give another disclaimer, I’m no expert. I didn’t spend a decade in the NFL. I didn’t play college football. I don’t coach. I don’t know everything. What I do know is that I’ve spent thousands of hours watching tape in addition to the countless hours I’ve spent watching like everyone else on Sunday. I’ve read hundreds of articles and breakdowns of football scheme and strategy, I’ve read actual books about football philosophy. I’ve spent more time learning about football than anyone who doesn’t work for a team, should. I told all of you that to say this; the knowledge I have isn’t unattainable for the average guy (or girl) with an internet connection and a library card (go to the library, mine is really nice). It is possible I’ve gotten something wrong, I try hard to get it right and I try hard to admit when I just can’t figure out what I’m looking at, but mistakes happen. If I got something wrong, let me know (like a decent person) and hopefully we can both learn something.