The 2019 Indianapolis Colts’ passing offense was rough to watch as they failed to hit on many big plays and faltered big time down the stretch. In hopes of improving upon last year’s horrid results, the Colts went out and signed veteran QB Philip Rivers who has enjoyed a successful career with the Chargers and has already played under Colts’ Head Coach Frank Reich when he was the Chargers Offensive Coordinator from 2015-2016.
While Rivers certainly is an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett, he likely isn’t the quarterback that he was when he last played under Reich. I have made it a bit of a mission this offseason to look back on those Chargers days and see what concepts and aspects of that offense could translate and help Rivers in 2020. Today we will be focusing on the drag route, particularly out of a stacked formation, and look at how this play could translate to the 2020 Colts.
Background and Why the Drag Route works
A little background is needed before we start this section of the piece. Frank Reich was promoted to Chargers’ Offensive Coordinator in 2014 after Ken Whisenhunt left to become the Head Coach of the Tennessee Titans. Though Reich was fired prior to the 2016 season (for Whisenhunt to return strangely enough), I did want to highlight some plays from this season as Reich does use a lot of similar concepts that Whisenhunt likes to use from their time working together in San Diego.
To summarize Whisenhunt’s style of offense in a fairly basic sense, he likes to spread it out. He likes to get four or five guys wide and find those mismatches across the line. Another standard in the offense that goes with that is the emphasis on run after catch ability and having play designs that get playmakers in space. Reich has certainly taken elements of this for the Colts over his two years with the team.
One more thing I want to add here is that after Reich was fired in 2016, the Chargers did keep now Colts Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni on as a Wide Receivers Coach. In this video I’m going to link below, Sirianni actually broke down a drag route from the 2016 Chargers if you want more of a reason why I am using that team in this piece rather than the Chargers teams that Reich was a part of. Skip to the 3:58 second mark for Sirianni’s break down of a drag route:
The 2016 Chargers Offense
Looking some of Whisenhunt’s Chargers’ plays, I really like how he utilizes stacked formations to create separation for his receivers. The NFL is a game of space and creating split seconds of space by stacking receivers and confusing defenders and their assignments does make a world of difference. Here the speedy Tyrell Williams gets lost in the zone and picks up a big run after the catch.
When you lined up in bunched or stacked formations, defenders tend to lose assignments due to the congestion of the offense and how they rub routes off each other to create space. Here Williams is again able to get loose on the wide side of the field and take a simple drag route for a huge gain.
One last look at a drag play from this Chargers team before we move on but the route from this formation is even more effective against man coverage. Watch as Williams is able to beat his man over the middle and even gain more separation once his defender gets caught in the traffic on the mesh play. These plays were quick and effective plays for Philip Rivers in 2016 and the Colts should deploy some of them in 2020 to help their new quarterback.
Similarities in the 2018 Colts
While I didn’t go game by game and grab a ton of examples of the Colts utilizing this route from this formation in 2018, it was something they liked to do with Andrew Luck under center. Here are two examples using T.Y. Hilton from that year. In clip one, Hilton is able to lose his defender crossing the field for a solid gain.
The next one is a beautiful play design from the Colts in the red zone for the easy score. They have a stacked formation to the bottom of the screen with Hilton running the drag to the right. The stacked formation allows him to get free completely uncovered as he is able to catch the wide open pass for the go ahead score.
How, and who, this helps in 2020
Obviously this a play call that the Colts like and Rivers is familiar with and I fully expect to see routes like this run out of this formation in 2020. While I do think we will see some success for guys like Marcus Johnson and T.Y. Hilton on this, I’m particularly looking at Parris Campbell here.
The biggest knock on Campbell’s game was his low aDOT (average depth of target) in college as he mostly caught underneath passes. What if that isn’t necessarily a bad thing though? The Colts can utilize him underneath and try to free him up for quick hitters that he can create big yards on. I think a role similar to what Tyrell Williams had for the 2016 Chargers, one that is predicated on quick hitters that run after catch and the occasional deep shot, could be in the cards for Campbell in 2020.
Obviously all this a mute point if Campbell can’t stay healthy in 2020 as well but I do love his potential with Reich, Rivers, and this offense. Here is a very quick video analysis I put together that compares Campbell and Williams and how the Colts can facilitate the ball to the young speedster going forward.
While the drag route isn’t a unique concept, I do like the similarities I’ve seen with this route from the Colts the last two years and what Rivers’ liked to do with the Chargers. The Colts have filled their offense with speedsters with players such as T.Y. Hilton, Marcus Johnson, Parris Campbell, Nyheim Hines, and Jonathan Taylor on the team. With Reich’s known background with coaches such as Ken Whisenhunt and Doug Pederson (and his own affinity for the quick game), we know he likes to run a quick game with the ability to make defenders miss and make things happen.
With Philip Rivers, the Colts know what they are getting. A veteran quarterback who takes some chances and can make some things happen for your team. With the Colts’ dominant offensive line and run game though, he doesn’t have to play hero ball. Giving him short pas concepts that get the ball to his playmakers, like drag routes, can help him and this offense be more efficient in 2020. I personally believe Reich already has many plays like these ready for 2020 (if we have a season that is).