The 2018 Indianapolis Colts team was so much fun. The offense always seemed to be clicking and the defense stepped up late in the year during the playoff run. One of the most important parts of the Colts success that season was their efficiency in the red zone. Quarterback Andrew Luck threw 32 touchdowns to only one interception in the red zone that year and tight end Eric Ebron was his go-to target. Ebron caught 12 of those 32 touchdown passes and the Colts coaching staff made it a priority to get him the ball in those situations.
Fast forward to today and the Eric Ebron is now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers after a rough season in 2019. Replacing him in the tight end room is Trey Burton who spent time with coach Frank Reich on the Eagles during their Superbowl run. When I looked back on that 2017 Eagles film, I saw a lot of similarities in how Burton was used in the red zone, which peaked my interest into doing some research on this topic.
Before we get into it, I do want to say that I don’t think Burton can replicate that incredible season from Ebron in 2018. Ebron is a different animal athletically and he had a top tier quarterback throwing him the ball. My main goal today is to look at the ways both of them won in the red zone during their respective years and to discuss how those plays can leak over and help the 2020 Colts team in this area of the field.
Corner Routes/Goal Line Fades
The Colts absolutely loved to isolate Ebron in the red zone in 2018. Their go-to play had to be the tight end corner route as he scored at least five of his touchdowns off this route alone. With his great combination of size and athleticism, he was able to win at the point of attack and come down in the end zone for easy scores. Luck trusted Ebron to go up and get these passes and the connection worked extremely well. Here is an example against the Dolphins where Ebron wins the jump ball for the score in the corner.
Burton is built a bit different from Ebron. He is similar in size but not nearly as explosive or straight line fast. Where he was more impressive though was his route running as his routes are very precise and quick for a tight end. The Eagles had another dominant tight end that they differed to in the red zone in 2017 but Burton got his fair share of isolated looks. Here Carson Wentz throws one up to the big tight end who is able to high point it in traffic and come down with it for the score.
The great thing about having athletic tight ends is their ability to stretch a defense and open things up underneath while also threatening defensive backs with their size and speed. In the red zone, seam routes can be used as clear routes but also be good for timing routes just in between the linebacker and safety if the quarterback and tight end have that chemistry down. Here Luck is able to hit Ebron after the fake screen for a score. Ebron takes a big hit near the goal line but is able to hold on.
With Burton, his athleticism may not be what Ebron’s is but he can still test that vertical seam and beat linebackers over the middle. Here he wins inside early against the slot cornerback and is able to gain separation up the seam. Wentz hits him with a decent pass and he is able to adjust to make a play as two defenders close in.
Long developing plays/Double moves
While Ebron wasn’t used too often on double moves, he was the primary option on long developing plays with intersecting route concepts. Look at this example here from the game against the Texans late in 2018. He is lined up to the left with T.Y Hilton and they are essentially running an out/post route combo. He times up his route perfectly to lose the slot corner and get enough separation for the score.
With Burton, he wasn’t so much used on these types of plays but he did run a fair amount of double moves which are predicated on timing and anticipation as well. On this play against the Broncos, Burton sells inside beautifully to get the linebacker out of position before breaking back outside for the score.
Just straight up beating guys
I know this last point isn’t really a route or talking point but what is the main point of having a move tight end? It’s to create mismatches with a player who is faster than a linebacker and bigger than a safety. If you can isolate that in man coverage in the red zone, you have a good chance to take a shot. Here Ebron is able to beat the safety in off man coverage to the corner for the easy score.
Burton has this same ability. Here he destroys the slot corner off the line in an isolated press man situations and gets open down the seam for the easy score. Hard to not see some similarities in how these two tight ends were used for their respective teams in 2017 and 2018.
Again, I’d like to add a disclaimer that I don’t think Burton, or honestly anyone else on this team, is going to replicate Eric Ebron’s special 2018 season. I do think however that the Colts can create similar mismatches in the red zone by utilizing Burton’s skillset. He has good size and quick feet which allow him to separate easily in the short area of the field.
The Colts’ red zone offense was quite good last year (19 TDs/1 INT) but it can get even better if they have a threat at move tight end again. When Ebron went on IR after week 13, the Colts had a total of just one red zone passing touchdown. By adding Burton into the mix, I think they can emulate that success a bit and help new QB Philip Rivers find some success in the short area of the field.