Week seven went worse than any Colts fan could have hoped for. The defense played their hearts out, and while the true “play of the day” came on that side of the ball, I’m an offensive guy at a spiritual level. So this play could more accurately be called the week 7 play design of the game because this design is a lot of fun.
Let’s take a look at Michael Pittman Jr.’s catch on 3rd and three in the second quarter:
This play is so cool
MPJ moves the sticks!#Colts#ForTheShoe#Titans#INDvsTEN pic.twitter.com/ED2d2Yvdno— Chris Shepherd (@NFLscheme) October 23, 2022
Right off the bat, you might be wondering why I’m so excited about a play where two guys run into each other behind the line of scrimmage. And, yes, the timing wasn’t great, but the design itself is exciting. Let’s take a look at why I’m so jazzed up.
This is an RPO
October 26, 2022
How can I tell? This play starts at the 45-yard line, if the offensive line were purely pass blocking Ryan Kelly wouldn’t be blocking three yards downfield:
You can watch as Kelly hesitates before getting up to get a block on the linebacker. This hesitation was an attempt to give Matt Ryan time to get a pass off without him being illegally downfield. Kelly has no idea what has happened behind him, and despite his best efforts, he was illegally down the field, but it didn’t get called, so we’ll take it.
If you’ve taken Colts University's RPO 101 course, you know that on most basic RPOs, a single defender will be put in an impossible situation. The QB’s job is to read that defender and either hand the ball off or pull the ball and throw based on what that defender does.
What we didn’t discuss in that very real, very important online course is the read option. We didn’t discuss it because the Colts (sadly) don’t have a QB like Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen, and even if we did, I wouldn’t want them running the read option.
Hypothetical Read Option
If the Colts were to dial up a traditional read-option run, it might look like this. The QB would take the snap, and his eyes would go to the highlighted defender. The running back would step forward. QB and RB meet at the mesh point, and the QB reads that defender to decide what to do.
Here we see Matt Ryan take the snap and his eyes go directly to that defender. Why that defender? The point of this play (and every play) is to force a numerical advantage for the offense. That is the force defender. He is responsible for setting the edge on this play. If someone gets outside of him, it’s a race to the outside, and the offensive player has the advantage, assuming it’s not Matt Ryan in the race.
If you don’t block him, the offense has another blocker to use on all of the other defenders at or near the line of scrimmage (obviously), which gives the offense a numerical advantage. This play would mean that the Colts would have six blockers, blocking five defenders, even though there are seven defenders in the box right before the snap. A safety #37 initially looks like he’s going to fill the C-gap between the LT and LG. Instead, he drops out to take away any in-breaking route from the Colts' stacked receivers lined up on the left side of the formation. The stacked receivers prevent tight man coverage (to avoid picks/rubs), and defending a stack on 3rd and three is much more effectively done with a third defender, so it makes sense that the safety would run out to take away the easy slant. The force defender, in this instance that Edge defender, is left unblocked, so the offense has to make him make a decision, and they have to make sure he’s wrong no matter what.
If the defender crashes near the line of scrimmage, he’s playing to stop the running back. If that defender runs upfield to the outside, he’s playing to stop the quarterback. And if Matt Ryan is your QB, no unblocked force player will be worried about Matt Ryan running around the edge, so the smart play is to force the QB to pull the ball out. Crashing down takes away Nyheim Hines’ running lane, and Matt Ryan has to pull the ball and go to his left. That defensive end has done his job because now Matt Ryan has the ball outside the pocket on third and three; what’s he going to do, win a foot race to the edge against the defenders scraping over the top, flowing to the ball to stop him?
In a traditional read option, that would be exactly what was happening, and Matt Ryan would have to win a foot race. Instead, the Colts built in something else to give them an even bigger numerical advantage, and it ensured Ryan wouldn’t have to show off his 5.6-second 40-yard dash. The Colts added a receiving option to this read option party, making this an RPO. By bringing Michael Pittman Jr. from right to left behind the line of scrimmage while the QB is potentially handing the ball off to the RB and the offensive line is firing out, it means that the defender who is supposed to be covering MPJ on this play is going to get lost in the wash. MPJ should pop out from behind the line wide open.
Oh look at that, a receiver with no defender near him and a lot of grass in front of him. Had he and Hines not run into each other in the backfield, MPJ wouldn’t have been regaining his balance, and Matt Ryan could have thrown him the ball right now. Given the fact that the unblocked edge defender realized he has been tricked and is now running at Ryan, Ryan would really like to not be holding the ball anymore. Instead, he has to fade to his left and wait for Pittman to get his feet underneath him, which also allows Titans defenders to get closer to him. Had this ball been able to come out quicker, MPJ might have been able to get moving north and south and building a head of steam quicker which would have allowed him to pick up a few more yards than he did. Either way, the Colts picked up enough to move the chains.
You’re probably wondering whose fault it is that MPJ and Hines ran into each other, and I am too. I imagine MPJ was supposed to come in behind Hines, but MPJ can’t slow down to do it. Hines has to be out of the way. So either MPJ should have waited for another tenth of a second to start his route or Hines should have gotten out of the way quicker, somehow. And either way, it just means that this play was executed at less than 100%, and it still resulted in a wide-open receiver that moved the chains.
You still might not be as excited about this play as I am, so why am I so excited? Because of all the things they can do with this look moving forward. I don’t know if you heard, but the Colts announced a fairly large change at quarterback this week, and now the much more mobile Sam Ehlinger will run the show. So how will that change things for this play specifically? For starters, it means that defenders will be more worried about Ehlinger running, so they’ll be more inclined to stay wide and force a handoff to the back. But it also means that defenses might start to change the way they play this look when the Colts bring that backside receiver from right to left. I’ll do my best to show you what I mean.
Here’s the all-22 from the sideline:
Sideline pic.twitter.com/NqXX1hou3i— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2022
Keeping #37 Inside
If the Titans keep 37 inside for him to cover MPJ, you’re giving a slant an inside release for a quick-hitting first down throw. That’s too easy.
Drop out a ‘backer
If either linebacker drops out and moves over to account for MPJ sliding across the formation, it creates an even bigger numbers advantage and huge potential for a massive rushing lane for the back.
The Colts might have to adjust if defenses start giving this look, but they easily can. Bringing either of those backers over and crashing the force defender would usually mean that the QB would pull the ball, and both MPJ and the QB’s running lane would be taken away. If that happens, the Colts can replace MPJ with a tight end and turn this into a split-zone run, having the tight end block the crashing edge defender, meaning there would be a massive hole on the right side of the line for the back.
This play has a lot of potential built into it, and with Sam Ehlinger stepping in, we should probably expect to see this concept used a lot moving forward, and that’s why it was week 7’s play of the game.