Many people didn’t know what to think of this Indianapolis Colts offense coming into the season. Head coach Frank Reich was installing a new scheme. Andrew Luck hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game in seemingly forever. There are two rookies in the backfield and a couple of new names at wide receiver and tight end. The offensive line was still viewed as a work in progress. How would it all come together? Watching this team through two games, they are absolutely forming an identity, and I think it’s a formula that will work for them over the long haul.
From a philosophical standpoint, this is a team that wants to get the ball out quickly. The Colts will take their shots downfield (and I expect that they will in this game) but that’s not really their identity right now, even with an explosive guy like T.Y. Hilton at wide receiver. Reich wants to give Luck as much information as possible before the snap so that when he drops back he can get rid of the ball at the top of his drop and move the chains. The Colts will mix up their use of personnel (they love lining up in 12 personnel packages), formations (they work in a lot of empty looks with five eligible receivers spread out across the width of the field), and pace (they’ll mix in some hurry-up modes here and there). They made a killing the last two weeks in attacking the flats with short, quick passes, and I think they’ll go that route again on Sunday.
Schematically, there are a good amount of similarities to the offense here in Philadelphia. Not that that should be a surprise with Reich patrolling the sidelines after two years and a Super Bowl win here with the Eagles. Conceptually, there are a lot of familiar plays and some added twists as well. First, let’s start off with plays that I’ve watched dozens of times before.
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These are three concepts we’ve seen a lot over the last couple of years here in Philadelphia. First, you see a mesh concept, a play that was extremely prevalent in the Super Bowl. The play works so well because it’s effective against both man and zone coverages (with the ball going to a crossing route against man or the sit route in the middle of the field against zone), and has the ability to turn into a big play with the wheel route out of the backfield serving as an "alert" for the quarterback.
Next, we see the dagger play, a concept that worked extremely well for the Eagles in the first two seasons under Doug Pederson. The Colts have only run it once so far in the first two games, but it’s another play that works against both man and zone coverage and attacks the intermediate area of the field. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Colts work this play in if they get behind early in this game and need to pick up big chunks of yardage.
Finally, the Colts incorporate a concept that we’ve seen a lot from the Eagles in years past, as well as this season, a simple drive play with a receiver running a shallow crossing route from one side as the coverage gets lifted on the opposite side of the field. Nelson Agholor went 50 yards on a catch-and-run last week against Tampa Bay on a very similar play as that third snap in the clip above. Here, tight end Eric Ebron pulls in the reception for the first down. The Colts love running concepts just like that to both Ebron and Hilton to get them the ball in space on the move.
Reich and his staff do a great job using pre-snap motion to give Luck information about the defense. They love sending running backs and tight ends in motion, whether that means they cross the formation, get flexed out wide, or go from the outside back in. What clues do they provide for Luck? It allows him to get some kind of indication of whether it’s man or zone coverage.
Think about it. If a running back goes out wide and a 'backer lines up across from him, it’s going to be man coverage (because a linebacker wouldn’t be able to run downfield as a "deep third" player in Cover 3 or know the responsibilities of a Cover 2 corner). If a corner matches up with him, that signifies zone (because a coach would never waste the top cover corner on a running back if the best receiver is in the slot). Reich knows this, and they use motions to try and reveal that information before Luck has four defensive linemen chasing after him.
These are two outstanding examples of the Colts using that pre-snap motion to get a man or zone coverage indicator, especially the first one. The Colts come out in 12 personnel - one back, two tight ends - against the Bengals in Week 1. Cincinnati responds with their base defense on the field, with three linebackers. The Colts motion running back Nyheim Hines out wide, and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick runs with him. Alarms go off in Luck’s head. This is going to be zone coverage.
By film study, the Colts know that this is likely going to be some sort of Cover 2, with two safeties in the deep part of the field splitting the field in half. How do you attack one defender in zone coverage? Send two receivers in his direction! Indianapolis sends both of its tight ends, Ebron and Jack Doyle, down the field on vertical routes, forcing the safety to choose. He runs with the inside seam route. The linebacker in underneath zone coverage is left in no man’s land, running with Ebron down the seam with no safety over the top. It’s like stealing as Luck hits him for a touchdown.
The next play works the same way, just with the opposite read. A running back is matched up by a linebacker. Luck knows he has man coverage against Washington, and he throws a fade to Ebron in the end zone to attack the man defender.
The Eagles can’t stop Indianapolis from doing this, so it will come down to executing their assignments and being able to win one-on-one matchups in space to keep them out of the end zone.
The Colts are one of the best in the NFL at possessing the ball and sustaining long drives. They lead the league right now on third down (converting at a 60.6 percent clip), are tied for second in the league with four five-minute drives, and tied for third with five 10-play drives. Note that the Eagles' defense has not allowed a five-minute drive this season. The Colts move the chains on a consistent basis, and one of the big reasons why is their use of rub concepts on the outside.
Here are three examples of these rub or pick plays, as Reich designs simple one-read concepts for Luck to drop back and hit a receiver after he runs through traffic for a first down. They ran a ton of these last week against Washington, and I’m sure we’ll see at least a couple of them on Sunday at the Linc.
One wrinkle we’ve seen a lot from the Colts through two weeks is the use of the Jet Sweep and all of the action off of it. The Colts drafted Hines in the fourth round this spring out of N.C. State, and they are using him as their moveable chess piece. More often than not, he’s their Jet Sweep rusher, and they do a lot with him.
Whether Hines gets the ball on these Jet Sweeps or not, he’s going to be a reliable role player for this team for a long time. He reminds me in a lot of ways of Washington's Chris Thompson. A versatile ball carrier with a receiver background, Hines can be a potential mismatch problem for the Eagles' defense.
Indianapolis is using Hines in a lot of the ways I imagined he would be back in the spring. He’s a player that the Eagles must contain on Sunday afternoon.
Wrapping this up with the run game, the Colts have a very deep playbook in terms of their run schemes, just like the Eagles. Zone runs, gap runs, misdirection runs, you name it, the Colts have it! There’s one scheme, in particular, that I love and that I expect to see on Sunday.
This "trap-wham" scheme is a favorite of the Eagles as well, and was used often last year to get LeGarrette Blount on a roll downhill. The scheme works great against aggressive defensive linemen, who fly upfield and don’t have time to react to blocks coming from outside of their peripheral vision (allowing a tight end to block a defensive tackle). I am sure they’ll run it a couple of times against the Eagles and their explosive defensive linemen.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.