Winners of the AFC South in 2013, the Indianapolis Colts will present the Eagles with a number of challenges on both sides of the football this Monday night.
Starting on offense, they are led by quarterback Andrew Luck. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, Luck is easily one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league right now and carries this offensive unit. One of the big misconceptions with this group as a whole, however, is that it is a precision-based, short-to-intermediate passing game. That couldn't be further from the truth. This is a vertical passing game that attacks teams down the field and there are a lot of plays made with Luck breaking the pocket, where he uses his mobility to to get defenders to leave their responsibilities in coverage. It will be imperative for the Eagles' secondary to play disciplined, assignment-based football on Monday night.
The first play I want to look at is one of the Colts' killer concepts in the passing game. This is a version of a play we broke down in preparation for the Wild Card playoff game against New Orleans. This is what many people call "flood," or in other words, a "three-level stretch."
This play's name comes from the fact that three receivers "flood" one side of the field, or attack the three levels of the defense.
One receiver attacks the deepest level of the field.
Another receiver attacks the intermediate level of the field.
And a third receiver attacks the short level of the field. This is the three-level stretch. Typically, the receiver most likely to get the ball in any type of vertical stretch play like this is the intermediate route. Let's see why that's the case.
When the receiver to the bottom of the screen gets vertical, he carries the cornerback to his side with him. Against man coverage, Cover 3 and quarters, that corner will always do this. When that corner follows the receiver down the field, it creates a void to that side, where the quarterback has plenty of room to get the ball into the hands of the intermediate route, in this case an over route from wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Teams such as the Colts run plays like this from a wide variety of formations and personnel groupings, with the routes coming from receivers placed all over the field. There are endless possibilities for combinations on how this play can look on a white board, but they all look to accomplish the same goal: stretch the defensive coverage vertically to create gaps for receivers to run into.
Now the Colts have something for that vertical receiver whom I noticed on tape. We are covering it in Eagles Game Plan this week as well. The receiver that runs vertical (often T.Y. Hilton) doesn't just run down the field in a straight line. Sometimes he runs a post route, other times he runs a corner route. What determines the route? A simple read on the part of the receiver. Let me show you what I mean.
Here's a shot of the Colts running "flood" against the Seattle Seahawks last year. I touched on it last week in talking about the Jacksonville Jaguars, but everyone knows that Seattle is mainly a Cover 3 operation on defense, with one single-high safety (Earl Thomas) almost always lurking on the back end. In the drawing above, you can see Hilton (the receiver closest to the bottom of the screen running a vertical route) is running a post. I put that there for show. This won't be a post route - this will be a corner route. And here is why.
At the top of his route, Hilton sees that Thomas is playing as a single-high safety on this play. So instead of heading to the post, he runs the deep corner route, where there's nothing but grass for him to run to. This is called a "Middle of the Field" (MOF) read for the receiver. If the MOF is open, he'll run the post. If the MOF is closed, he'll run the corner. Obviously, the latter was the case here, and he takes it for a long touchdown against what was the best defense in football a year ago.
Here's a shot from the Colts' playoff win against the Kansas City Chiefs last year. Again, this is a three-level stretch concept with Hilton getting an MOF read at the top of his route. The coverage that the Chiefs play will determine where he runs his route.
The Chiefs are in quarters coverage here, with four defensive backs covering the deep part of the field. That means there will be room to run in the middle of the field. Look at the way the safety's body turns at the top of Hilton's route - he's toast! Hilton runs by him, into the void in the deep middle of the field, Luck places a beautiful ball over the top of the defense and it's a touchdown for the Colts.
One thing I love is that the Colts often have some kind of a dig or deep curl route on the backside of this play. This route further entices the safety to run towards the line of scrimmage, creating even more space in the middle of the field. Just another twist on a play call that the Colts go to often as their primary "shot" call. It's a great concept, with a great MOF read from Hilton, and a beautiful ball from Luck.
One of the other concepts that the Colts use often is the "divide" concept. What does that entail? Well, it all starts with one of the oldest pass plays in the book, "Smash."
"Smash" is a basic high-low read of the cornerback. Your No. 1 receiver (farthest outside of the formation) runs a hitch route (some teams may use a quick in-cut, a slant or even just a quick step and turn back to the quarterback). This route is your "low" read.
The No. 2 receiver (lined up inside of No. 1) runs a corner route. If the corner outside sinks with the corner route, then the hitch is the throw. If he sticks too long with the hitch, then hit the corner route over the top. This is a very simple read for the quarterback.
The Colts add on to this, however, by helping create extra space for that corner route with a "seam read" by the No. 3 receiver. This is another route where the receiver will read the safeties and that will determine which route he runs.
This is another MOF read. If the MOF is open, the No. 3 receiver (in this case, tight end Coby Fleener) continues down the seam and goes down the middle of the field. If the MOF is closed, this becomes a dig route. Either way, the idea is to keep any other defenders away from that corner route to help create a bigger window to throw the ball through.
Here, Fleener turns his route into a dig, keeps the high safety near the middle of the field. Luck throws a pump fake to the hitch, causing three Chiefs defenders to crash the short route, while Hilton is wide open for the completion down the field. Great design and great execution from the Colts.
Indianapolis has a diverse group of pass catchers and they added former New York Giant Hakeem Nicks to the fold this offseason. Hicks was a forgotten man for the G-men the last couple of seasons, but he was brought into the fold with a clear plan in mind. All preseason long, and again on Sunday night, he was utilized on short in-breaking routes such as slants, drive routes and crossers to get the ball in his hands quickly and gain yards after catch.
Nicks is very tough to bring down in the open field and his skills fit what Indianapolis likes to do. A lot of these in-breaking routes match up with what Indianapolis liked to do in 2013 to pair along with their vertical stretch game.
One new phase of their offensive attack I noticed more of this preseason was their empty set. The Colts ran a good amount of empty this summer, and that was something they didn't do as much of last fall.
In the top circle, you see tight ends Dwayne Allen and Fleener. Circled at the bottom of the screen is running back Trent Richardson. The Colts came out in 12 personnel and spread the defense out. Their wide use of personnel groupings will be something to watch for on Sunday. The Colts were in that same grouping nine times against Denver, and threw out of it eight times. To go along with that trend, they ran four plays with three tight ends on the field at once, throwing three times. What does that mean? Well, if Sunday set any precedent, just because the Colts employ multiple tight ends sets on Monday night, don't automatically expect a running play.
Let's quickly touch on the defensive side of the ball, where the Colts utilize a 3-4 defensive scheme. This is largely a man coverage team, and they are not afraid to play their linebackers and safeties in coverage on tight ends and running backs. There are times where they will take a safety on the field and replace him with nickel cornerback Darius Butler, but regardless I would be surprised if they didn't play mostly man on Monday night.
While they play man on the back end, expect a ton of pressure up front from a variety of different looks. Head coach Chuck Pagano is from the Rex Ryan school of pressure, so expect a wide variety of blitz looks from inside as well as off the edge.
On this play against Denver, the Colts line up in their base defense. Bill Davis talks all the time about how the beauty of a 3-4 front is that you can bring pressure from a number of different angles. It doesn't always have to be the same group of guys. From the protection, it is pretty clear that the Broncos are expecting a five-man rush, with both outside linebackers coming after quarterback Peyton Manning.
But that isn't where the rush comes from. Former first-round pick Bjoern Werner (No. 92) drops in coverage and middle linebacker Josh McNary actually blitzes up the middle. The right tackle is late getting over to pick him up, and Manning is taken down for the sack.
The Colts aren't afraid to use Butler, the nickel corner, as a pressure player either. Here you can see him line up as if he's in man coverage, disguise the blitz well and affect the pass that ends up falling incomplete. The point is, when it comes to this Pagano defense, expect consistent pressure from a variety of blitz packages. The Eagles will have to burn the blitz on Monday night to achieve success on the offensive side of the ball.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.