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Film Room: How the Colts use the sniffer tight end in their offense

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Colts utilize a unique tight end set in their rush offense

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC at AFC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is the perfect time to reflect on the past season and study up on tendencies and what worked for the Colts in 2019. Today, we will be looking in depth at how the Colts deploy the sniffer position to assist their run game. The sniffer, or tracer as some call it, is a hybrid tight end/fullback position that lines up behind the line of scrimmage. This blocker can be used in a multitude of ways but is primarily used as the lead blocker in the run game.

Today we will look at all the ways that the Colts deploy this sniffer position in their run game and look at the stats to show that the run game was most efficient with this type of position deployed.


Statistical Efficiency

I personally charted every single designed rush attempt by a Colts running back or receiver in 2019. The Colts utilized a sniffer on 49.3% of their total run plays this past year. On those runs, they accounted for 55.8% of the rushing total on the season. Here is how the numbers break down:

  • w/ sniffer: 200 rush attempts for 1,060 yards (5.3 yards per carry)
  • Total: 406 rush attempts for 1,900 yards (4.68 yards per carry)

Variety of ways to use a sniffer

As I mentioned earlier, the sniffer is used in a variety of ways while mostly being deployed as the lead blocker. The position usually lines up in the “C” gap behind and in between the tackle and guard. The Colts like to deploy the sniffer both there and in the “D” gap located outside the tackle position. For more information on this position in general outside of this article, I highly recommend reading Utilize the Sniffer Fullback by Tony Shiffman and How to Add Tags to your Sniffer by Seth Galina.

The problem with the sniffer position is it is easy to key on and identify for defenses. The Colts know this so they deploy the position on many different run concepts and plays to disguise their playcalls while still using this position. Let’s look at a few ways this is used for them


Inside Counter

This big run by Jordan Wilkins is a good way to start this piece. Jack Doyle motions to the C gap between the tackle and guard. The Colts call the counter play as every linemen starts down blocking to the right of the screen (the left side of the line). Doyle reaches the linebacker and drives him down the line as running back Jordan Wilkins counters up the middle behind Doyle for the big gain on the play.


Inside Trap

This is a bread and butter concept for the Colts’ rushing attack. On these inside trap concepts, the Colts typically leave a defensive tackle or end unblocked on the interior of the formation. As the tackle or end gets penetration while being unblocked, it is up to the sniffer to time the block right and reach that linemen before the running back gets to the hole. Here Doyle is able to seal off the defensive tackle and open a lane for Nyheim Hines up the middle.

The key to this play concept working is not to overpower the defensive tackle or drive the tackle out of the play necessarily (although that would be nice). The main goal for the sniffer is to open a lane up the gut and seal off that inside defender so the running back can squeeze by. Tight end Mo Alie-Cox gets great contact here on the inside trap to spring Marlon Mack for a good gain.

It is a rather simple concept but it works to perfection when the sniffer lines up the block correctly, the running back hits their landmark, and one or two defenders over commit on the motion. Running back Jonathan Williams nearly scores on this play off of the great block from Alie-Cox and the over commit from the linebacker.


Backside Trap Contain

The other staple of the sniffer in the Colts offense is to use them as the backside contain on inside run plays. In a way that differs from the last section, this time the sniffer is the backside blocker rather than the play side lead block. The backside defensive end or rushing linebacker is typically left unblocked and the sniffer is responsible for coming across the formation and taking care of that defender. Doyle tends to chop this block while Alie-Cox tends to treat it like a typical run block. Here Doyle stops the progress of the backside defender to allow for the big gain.

This block can even turn into the lead block depending on the running back and where the hole develops. Here, Wilkins reads that the backside lane is open and runs right off Doyle’s backside block for the first down. This play doesn’t happen without that key backside block by the sniffer position.

The key to executing this block is timing and physicality. Technique doesn’t need to be perfect, the sniffer just has to seal that backside for a split second while the running back hits the hole. When it all lines up in sync, it is a beautiful play. Here Alie-Cox takes out the backside defender just as Mack hits the hole, leading to the big gain.


Iso Blocks

Now this one is pretty unique to the Colts offense. Not saying that other teams don’t trust their tight ends in one on one iso blocks on the outside. Just that the Colts have a clear advantage here as they have two of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL in Doyle and Alie-Cox. This allows them to not always have to get pretty with their motion when using the sniffer and sometimes just have them line up and drive the defensive end or linebacker off the ball. Here, Alie-Cox blocks the defensive end down and out of the play, creating a nice lane to the outside.

Alie-Cox is a pure brute on the end and it is great having a player like him in this type of role. He has the ability to contain the backside and perform the basic functions of those plays but he can also line up and dominate blocks like he does right here. He is a true asset to the offense in this role.


Lead blocker in space

Now Doyle has the ability to iso block on the outside and control those blocks but that is typically where Alie-Cox dominates. Where Doyle is efficient is how he blocks in space and can be a lead blocker on sweeps and stretches. He has the ability to get out in space and block out a corner or a safety while also being strong enough to combo on the defensive end before climbing to the second level. Here he drives the nickel corner to the sideline and out of the play on the sweep.

This last blocking clip is just how elite Doyle is as a blocker summed up. He helps Braden Smith control the outside block with a great punch at the point of attack before climbing to the second level and running the linebacker out of the play. If everything about the sniffer position has gone over your head in this piece, at least enjoy how good Doyle is in space as a blocker and how good Alie-Cox is in the phone booth in this area.


Use them is the passing game as well?

I mentioned earlier in this piece that the sniffer is mostly used in the run game. While that is true, the Colts like to slip in a few passes to keep defenses honest. With defenses keying in on the run once the sniffer motions into the backfield, this leaves a few openings backside that a genius like Frank Reich can easily exploit. Here Doyle fakes like he’s blocking before wheeling up the backside for the touchdown grab.


Final Thoughts

So I know this article had a lot of information to process and it isn’t the typical article you would expect from us here at Stampede Blue. The overall point I was trying to highlight with this piece is that the Colts use their tight ends heavily in the run game from this hybrid position and it is a big reason why they were one of the top rushing teams in the NFL last year.

With the additions of a true fullback in Roosevelt Nix and a more balanced tight end (compared to Eric Ebron) in Trey Burton, I expect the Colts to get even more exotic with how they use this position next year. There could more heavy sets and pass plays stemming from the sniffer in 2020. Who knows? Overall though, the outlook for the Colts running game looks pretty good with the same returning offensive line and the use of these very talented tight ends blocking in this unique role.