The Indianapolis Colts are heading for a tough match-up in the first round of the playoffs this weekend as they square off against the number two seed Buffalo Bills on the road. While the Bills are one of the more complete and well-rounded teams in the league, there are a few ways that the Colts can have success in this game and pull off the first-round upset.
One way is by effectively running the ball and the numbers do somewhat favor the Colts here. The Bills’ rushing defense graded out as the third-worst in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (with a season grade of 40.4 overall). The Bills are also 27th in explosive run rate and allow opposing rushers to gain 4.6 yards per carry on the ground.
Flip to the Colts and they have been red hot on the ground lately. After a sluggish start, they finished the year with 11th most rushing yards in the NFL (Taylor finishing third among running backs in rushing yards) and with an average of 4.3 yards per rush.
So today we are going to look at how the Colts can attack the Bills’ rushing defense in this one and what kind of plays could be the most beneficial to call in this match-up.
One of the more beautiful run calls in the entire sport, the Colts love to use wham. This run play is when a front side blocker, typically a tight end or sniffer back, peels back and chops the backside defensive end who is left unblocked on the play. The backside defensive end is left unblocked by the tackle so the tackle can either combo block inside or climb to the second level and take out a linebacker. This play is perfect for teams with explosive running backs and reliable enough tight ends to secure the backside.
The most perfect example I have of this play is from the Colts’ in 2019 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Backup running back Jonathan Williams was in the game and the Colts ran the wham play to perfection with tight end Mo Ali-Cox cutting off the defensive end. Williams cuts it inside, makes a defender miss, and is off for a big gain.
Its no secret I’ve been on the Jonathan Williams bandwagon for a while now. Hes an excellent running back who just happened to be buried on the Colts’ depth chart. On Sunday however he got his chance, with 14 touches for 147 yards on the day. My film drops tomorrow @StampedeBlue pic.twitter.com/o45YxMWLna— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 19, 2019
Here are a few examples of teams using this play against the Bills this season. Notice how these offenses are able to win at the point of attack. The Colts’ offensive line is going to have to win their match-ups in the trenches to create space on this timing play.
A couple examples of teams running wham well against the Bills this year (wham run plays are on of the staples in the Colts' rushing attack under Reich) pic.twitter.com/NPGNFKxZXk— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 6, 2021
Space it out
Another way that I saw a few teams find some success against the Bills’ run defense was by spacing out the offense. Keeping just one running back in the backfield and having either three wide receivers and a tight end spread wide (11 personnel) or four receivers (10 personnel). Spreading out the defense gets the Bills out of their base personnel and unloads the box for the offense to run the ball.
While the Colts prefer to run with power at opposing defenses, they have had success in the past with Nyheim Hines out of the gun while spacing out the defense. With the elite speed and quickness of Hines, he is tough to catch with limited personnel in the box. As long as everything is blocked up front, it is usually a good chunk gain.
This is the advantage of having a speedy back like Hines. LB Rashaan Evans aggressively shoots the A gap which leaves the B gap vacated. Hines hits the hole quickly and gains 12 yards. Should have been a facemask call on top of this too pic.twitter.com/oeu6gfgg0R— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) November 15, 2020
Here are a few examples from when the Bills matched up with the Chiefs earlier this season. The Chiefs obviously can do this a bit more effectively because teams have to respect the weapons on the outside but the same basic principle applies. We could see a few nice chunk plays for Hines out of this formation/look on Saturday.
The Chiefs had some success spreading everything out and running against some lighter boxes against the Bills. Given the Chiefs basically demand you to go light in these situations but I could see the potential for a few chunk runs by Hines out of these looks. pic.twitter.com/01GmG7dLuH— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 6, 2021
Get it in space
The Buffalo Bills have built a pretty impressive defense but at least to me, they are more of a power defense rather than a speed one. They do have some really impressive athletes at all three levels, notably Tremaine Edmunds at linebacker, but they are susceptible to being beat on the outside. Part of this is due to their aggressiveness but another part is because they don’t have a high-level athlete at every single position like some teams across the league. This does leave them a bit vulnerable to tosses, sweeps, and end arounds to the outside.
The Colts luckily have two of the fastest running backs in the NFL in their backfield in Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor. Taylor in particular has been on a tear lately and has been able to find success inside and on the outside. When the Colts have been able to get the ball out in space to him though, he has been able to turn the corner like very few backs can in the league.
If the Colts are going to find consistent success on the ground this week, they are going to have to use their speed to their advantage. There are opportunities here to attack this defense on the perimeter and the Colts have the personnel to win on the outside.
Best way that the Colts can attack the Bills' defense on the ground is by utilizing designed sweeps, tosses, and end arounds. The Bills gave up quite a few chunk plays to the outside this year. With two track athletes like JT and Hines, Indy should attack the outside all day pic.twitter.com/VjZAYWxY2i— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 6, 2021
Overall, the Bills’ rushing defense isn’t nearly as bad as they seem in this article or in these clips. When they have to, they can buckle down and stop opposing rushing attacks (like they did against the Raiders and the Titans this year). The key is understanding how to attack them though.
If the Colts are able to supplement the run game with an efficient pass game, they should be able to have a healthy yards per carry and stay ahead of the sticks in this one. If the passing game falters, then the Bills will just stack the box like the Steelers did in the second half and shut the Colts down. In the end though, Indy has to use their speed advantage to create big plays in the run game on Saturday.