With the NFL Playoffs looming on the horizon, the list of proverbial “teams nobody wants to face” seems to be growing. In the AFC, the Indianapolis Colts might be atop that list. Under rookie head coach Frank Reich the Colts have paired a young and growing defense with an offense triggered by Andrew Luck that has shown an ability to evolve over the course of a single season. Coming off a shutout victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Colts sit at 8-6 and currently on the outside looking in. But with two more wins and a little bit of help, Indianapolis can get themselves into the mix for the postseason.
When Reich took over the Colts this offseason, the conventional wisdom was that he would be installing an offense similar to what the Philadelphia Eagles operated in the past few seasons: An offense rooted in West Coast passing concepts, but one that incorporated some run/pass options as well as some schemed shots in the downfield passing game. However, in the first few weeks of the season there was some concern that perhaps there was more of an emphasis on the West Coast elements of the offense. Luck’s passes seemed focused in the short areas of the field, and it raised fears that either his shoulder was still injured, or worse.
For example, here is Luck’s spray chart from Week 1 of the 2018 season, courtesy of NFL’s Next Gen Stats:
As you can see, the vast majority of Luck’s passing attempts in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals came within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Now contrast that with Luck’s outing in Week 8 against the Oakland Raiders:
In this three-touchdown outing against Oakland, the Colts’ offense showed more balance in the passing game, incorporating more vertical-type throws.
How Reich has invigorated the downfield passing attack can be distilled into two categories: Personnel usage and T.Y. Hilton.
One of the offensive trends sweeping the NFL this season is the creative usage of offensive personnel to dictate defensive alignment and packages. From Sean McVay’s reliance on 11 offensive personnel to generate light boxes for Todd Gurley to run against to Kyle Shanahan using 21 personnel in the passing game to throw against base defenses, offensive coaches are dictating th defensive personnel and then taking advantage of weaknesses in those packages.
Reich is no different. The Colts have used a number of multiple tight end personnel packages this season to set up big plays in the passing game. Back in Week 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts broke the huddle with three tight ends, putting 13 offensive personnel on the field. Luck aligns under center:
Because the Colts have three tight ends in the game, Jacksonville keeps their base defense on the field. They start with eight defenders in the box, preparing for the run, and they put Jalen Ramsey (20), a cornerback by trade, deep as the free safety.
But here is the offensive concept:
Running back Nyheim Hines (21) shifts to the slot on the left, emptying the backfield. This forces the Jaguars to switch to a base Cover 3 defense, given the base personnel they have in the game. Then the Colts run a vertical concept designed to attack that coverage, and a player in Ramsey playing a somewhat unfamiliar position.
The inside vertical routes bracket Ramsey in the middle of the field, and Luck hits Moe Alie-Cox (81) for a big gain:
Creatively using offensive personnel packages forces defensive coordinators to make a choice. By breaking the huddle with three tight ends, the Colts force the Jaguars to make a decision. They can either go heavy themselves with a base personnel package, or they can decide to play light with multiple defensive backs in the game and try and prepare for the pass. Either way, the offense can take advantage of the decision the defense makes. With the Jaguars sticking with their base defense, the Colts then turn to a vertical concept knowing that Jacksonville will likely respond with a base coverage given their on-field personnel, and a concept they know has answers for that coverage.
Here is another example of the Colts using a heavy personnel package to set up a downfield shot. Against the Houston Texans back in Week 14 the Colts broke the huddle with a jumbo 12 personnel package, using an extra offensive lineman as a tight end:
Reserve offensive tackle Joe Haeg (73) aligns as a tight end on this play to the right side, with tight end Ryan Hewitt (45) in a wing to his right. The Colts have Luck under center, and put two receivers to the left, including Hilton (13). Seeing this offensive package on the field, the Texans have their base 3-4 defense in the game and put seven defenders in the box.
Hilton, however, is going deep:
Hilton’s post route is near-perfect. The WR shows the safety a break to the outside on a corner route before cutting inside to the middle of the field. Luck fakes a handoff, and with an extra offensive lineman in to block, as well as the TE Hewitt, the Colts handle the Texans’ pressure scheme. Luck uncorks a beautiful deep ball that Hilton catches deep downfield:
Again, a beautiful design and use of personnel leads to a big play downfield for the Colts’ offense.
The Hilton Factor
In addition to the creative use of personnel, Luck and the Colts have been able to turn to their talented wide receiver to also connect on some downfield shot plays. On the season Hilton has 67 receptions for 1,071 yards and six touchdowns, for an average of 16 yards per reception. As these plays will indicate, Luck and Hilton have rekindled their rapport in the downfield attack.
Back in Week 4 against Houston the Colts trailed 28-10 with under six minutes remaining in the third quarter, and they faced a third and 10 in their own territory. To put it mildly, the Colts offense needed a huge play.
They got one:
Hilton aligns wide to the right side of the field, and he runs a double-move on the outside, showing a quick slant route to the inside before breaking vertically up the sideline (sneaking in an extra out-and-up look along the way). Luck retreats into the pocket and then drops in a dime along the right boundary, giving the Colts a much-needed injection of offense. Two plays later they would be in the end zone, and their huge comeback was underway.
Last week against the Cowboys, Luck and Hilton linked up on another vertical route for a big gain. In the third quarter the Colts faced a third and 5 in their own territory, and aligned with Luck in the shotgun and Hilton aligned to the right, just outside of tight end Eric Ebron (#85):
Hilton’s vertical route has another double-move element to it:
The WR shows a speed out with a quick jab step to the outside shortly after his release, and that gets the cornerback to bite ever so slightly on the potential out route. That quick little step is all Hilton needs, as he accelerates vertically to get separation. Luck takes his shot:
The pass is slightly underthrown, but Hilton does a great job of adjusting to this pass and stacking the defensive back, putting himself between the DB and the ball. Another big play in the passing game, thanks to the ability of Hilton as a vertical threat.
The combination of Reich’s creative usage of personnel and Hilton’s prowess downfield has made the Colts offense effective in the vertical passing game. On the season Luck has thrown six touchdowns on passes attempted 20 yards or more downfield, and that trend looks to continue given what we have seen from Indianapolis this season.