While the Indianapolis Colts sit at 4-2 on this young season, there are still a few things this team can stand to improve upon. Most notably, the run game. The team currently sits last in the NFL with 3.6 yards per carry. These struggles are concerning and has led to some fans to criticize the Colts' uses of heavy sets, such as 13 personnel (three tight end sets).
So today we are going to do a deep dive into what this personnel grouping is that the Colts like to run so much (Colts currently have run this on 7% of their offensive plays which is the fifth highest mark in the NFL) and will see how it can be both effective and detrimental to the offense.
The Base Stats
As I mentioned above, the Colts line up in this personnel package 7% of the time, which is the fifth-highest amount in the league. I charted 24 plays that I saw the Colts run out of this formation and came away with a few observations from these logs:
~ On four passing plays out of 13 this year, Philip Rivers is 4-4 for 49 yards and a touchdown. That is a passer rating of 157.3 (just shy of a perfect passer rating).
~ On the ground, it’s a different story. The Colts have rushed 19 times for 68 yards for an average of 3.5 yards per rush.
~However (and this will be one of the talking points in this piece), the Colts have rushed 14 times for 63 yards (4.5 yards per carry) with the main trio of Trey Burton, Jack Doyle, and Mo Alie-Cox on the field. With one of them off the field? Six rushes for just five yards.
~ Last fun fact is that the Colts are 4-6 in short yardage situations (three yards or less to go for a first) from this personnel grouping.
Struggles without top three tight ends
I get why people would be concerned about the Colts running too many jumbo sets, because in four of the six games the team has played this year it hasn’t worked. The Colts have only had their top trio of tight ends in the games against the Browns and Bears. In the other matchups, the Colts have averaged just 4.2 yards per play on this formation and a measly 0.8 yards per rush.
The main issue is that without one of these top three tight ends, it forces the Colts to use either UDFA tight end Noah Togiai or backup guard Danny Pinter at the spot. Togiai isn’t near the blocker that the other three are, and when Pinter is on the field the defense can easily key on a run play happening. With Pinter on the field, everything has to be blocked perfectly because teams are crowding the box in these situations. On this play, Jack Doyle misses his one-on-one block and the result is a big tackle for a loss. Even though this is on Doyle for missing his assignment, the loss is a result of the defense stacking the box with Pinter being on the field.
These are the types of plays the Colts need to avoid in 13 personnel. Danny Pinter is a fine backup lineman but it keys the entire defense on the run play. It makes it so every player has to be perfect with their assignment. Jack Doyle misses a block and it leads to a loss pic.twitter.com/HsrDtihIPS— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
These plays from 13 simply do not work with this personnel grouping on the field. Defenses key on the run way too easily and Togiai is not a good enough blocker to hold up in his assignments. Luckily, the Colts do recognize this, as they have only called eight plays out of 13 personnel in the four games in which they haven’t had all three of their top tight ends. It is not effective without all three of those players and the film shows it.
Colts shouldn't have 13 personnel in the playbook if any of the top three tight ends are out. Togiai just isn't good enough at the point of attack and Pinter alludes too much at a run play. Running 13 personnel with this grouping is like running into a brick wall. pic.twitter.com/rSly5LdWIr— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
Taylor and the Trio
Where this grouping finds success is when the top three tight ends are all healthy and playing and Jonathan Taylor is in the backfield running the ball. For instance, the Colts ran the ball 12 times against the Bears out of 13 personnel. They averaged 4.8 yards per carry on those plays and were successful on almost every run. The key is running behind the trio and using the stacked box against the defense. This is a heavy look, but it doesn’t mean the offense has to use a power run. This run is a simple dive up the middle but because the tight ends hold their blocks, Taylor is able to use his speed against the stacked box and get to the corner for a solid gain.
Where 13 personnel can work is when the top three TE's are healthy and Taylor is in the backfield. I'm usually a fan of spacing out a defense to run but this works too. If the TE's can hold up on the outside, Taylor can use his speed to outrun the stacked box to the sideline pic.twitter.com/dr23X41poQ— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
The play doesn’t even need to be to the strong side to generate a good gain. The Colts utilize the heavy tight end set to their favor here as they counter up the gut rather than running to the far side. The Bears have to respect the receiving and blocking ability of the Colts’ tight ends and as a result, the cutback lane to the weak side is left wide open. Taylor gets a good gain on this play and draws another 15 yards on the facemask penalty.
The Colts are also able to run counters and dives away from the strong side of tight ends in 13 because the defense has to commit players to watch these three capable receivers at tight end. Here the Colts run a counter dive which results in 8 yards plus a facemask call. pic.twitter.com/9A21HOW2DP— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
Overall, the Colts can be effective from this personnel grouping like they have been in years past. The key, though, is to not force it with the wrong players on the field. This can work with Taylor’s speed and the ability of the top three tight ends but not really in any other situation or set. This power run is successful because of those factors. It’s a beautiful pin-pull combination where the three tight ends pin the outside while Quenton Nelson pulls around to secure the boundary. Taylor is then able to turn the corner for a huge gain. Running from these stacked jumbo sets can work for this offense with these players and I expect to see a lot of it going forward once everyone is healthy.
Beautiful pin-pull here from the Colts out of 13 personnel. Tight ends pin the outside lane as Quenton Nelson pulls out and levels the CB. Same play the Colts iced the Falcons game last year on. More outside runs from this please pic.twitter.com/trG3tp3Lhn— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
Passing from 13 personnel
Last thing to cover is how effective the Colts are passing the ball from this set. Like I mentioned above, Rivers has a near perfect passer rating when throwing out of 13 personnel. The main reason is because this is a run heavy set that gets the defense committing to the run. Offenses can use this to play off those tendencies and create big plays. Here, the Colts are facing a fourth and one and bring out 13 personnel. Jack Doyle starts like he is run blocking, which makes his man commit inside on the play fake. He then turns back outside and is wide open for the easy big play conversion.
Colts have some fun with passes out of 13 personnel. On this fourth and one, Doyle climbs like he is run blocking. Defense bites as he comes off this look and sprints out for the big catch and run pic.twitter.com/rOjj4AWshN— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
Different play but a similar situation here. Colts start Jordan Wilkins out wide but then motion him back into the backfield to read the defensive coverage. When the defender follows, the Colts know this is man coverage. Knowing this, Rivers then audibles to their man-beater out of this personnel. He motions Doyle to the other side and has both Alie-Cox and Burton run in-breaking routes in the vicinity of Wilkins’ defender. This essentially causes a pick play that leaves Wilkins wide open on the swing route. While this personnel grouping is mostly a run-first package, the Colts can design clever pass plays to create big yards.
Even better play here out of 13 on 3rd and short. Colts motion Wilkins into the backfield to identify man coverage. Then they essentially run a pick play on Wilkins' man to free him up for the big swing pass completion pic.twitter.com/1OurPuID2y— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 28, 2020
13 personnel is not something you hear often in today’s NFL. The game now is all about spreading things out and attacking through the air. This package, though, does have value if you have the right players for it. The three tight ends have to be capable blockers while also having the ability to catch passes to keep the defense from loading 9+ players in the box.
The Colts can be efficient from this personnel group, if the major players involved are all healthy. We saw in the Bears game, where they ran 13 of their 24 calls from this personnel, that they want to involve this in their offense. They can even have success from it, too! All it takes is everyone playing healthy and finishing their assignments. From what we saw from that Bears game and what we have seen from this very good tight end group this year, I think it is fair to say we will be seeing more 13 personnel down the stretch of this season.