It’s hard to believe the Indianapolis Colts were in serious trouble just 5 1/2 weeks ago.
The Colts began the season losing five of their first six contests, putting the level of concern in Indianapolis at a fever pitch. Perhaps quarterback Andrew Luck wouldn’t make it all the way back from his lingering shoulder injury. Maybe head coach Frank Reich wasn’t the right man for the job. And did Josh McDaniels leaving the Colts at the altar do short- and long-term damage to the franchise?
Four victories later, those concerns are a thing of the past. After their 38-10 trouncing of the Tennessee Titans, the Colts are back in the playoff hunt – and they’re playing some of the best football in the league.
Why the stunning reversal of fortune? It turns out Reich was the perfect guy to lead the Colts to respectability, particularly on the offensive side. He’s done that through creatively using one of the more interesting tight end groups in the league.
The Colts have three effective weapons at the position, allowing Reich to rely on multiple tight end formations during both running and passing plays.
NFL teams typically use the 13 offensive personnel grouping – consisting of one running back, one wide receiver, and three tight ends – four percent of the time, according to Sharp Football. The Colts have used that formation on seven percent of their plays this season, putting them behind only the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Washington Redskins, and Titans.
Reich’s team really thrives because of how it uses pass-catching option Jack Doyle in two tight-end sets, either with fellow tight end Eric Ebron or the versatile Mo Alie-Cox. When the Colts use 12 offensive personnel (featuring a two-TE package), Luck has a 125.5 passer rating with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Let’s look at how those usage numbers play out on the field.
On this play from the Colts’ Week 10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, they break the huddle using 12 offensive personnel. Doyle (No. 84) aligns as a fullback in the backfield, while fellow tight end Alie-Cox (No. 81) aligns on a wing to the left.
Due to the personnel and the offensive alignment, the Jaguars keep their base defense on the field and put eight defenders in the box:
Here’s the route design the Colts use.
Doyle gets lost in the shuffle, and Luck hits him for an easy gain:
Here’s another example of how Reich can use 12 personnel to bolster his passing offense.
On this play against the Oakland Raiders from Week 8, the Colts face a first-and-10 on Oakland’s 26-yard line. This time, Alie-Cox and Doyle align in a two-tight end wing on the left side:
As we saw with the previous example, the Raiders stack the box with eight defenders, but they’re in a nickel package with five defensive backs on the field.
Here’s the route design Reich installs:
Indianapolis runs a “scissors” concept, a vertical passing play with a deep post route and a corner route.
You expect to see speedy wide receivers executing that route combination. But here, Reich uses Doyle and Alie-Cox to run the scissors. That results in Alie-Cox being matched up against cornerback Gareon Conley (No. 21). He should be able to cover most tight ends on this route, but Alie-Cox beats him to the outside and Luck drops in a perfect throw over Conley’s outstretched arms for a touchdown:
The route design and alignment combine to give the Colts’ tight ends a vertical passing opportunity. Even though both Doyle and Alie-Cox are working against defensive backs, the formation creates some traffic and gives Alie-Cox a free release off the line of scrimmage, enabling him to beat Conley to the outside.
Perhaps Reich’s most creative use of multiple tight-end sets came in Week 10 against the Jaguars. That’s when he ran everyone’s favorite play – four verticals – out of a 13 offensive personnel package.
The Colts face a second-and-10 at the Jaguars’ 35-yard line late in the first quarter, and they break the huddle with three tight ends: Alie-Cox, Doyle, and Ebron (No. 85). Running back Nyheim Hines (No. 21), who was an elite sprinter for North Carolina State’s track team, is in the backfield:
The tight ends angle their alignment so they’re all eligible receivers. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have their base defense on the field, and with three tight ends to the left side, they put two safeties into the box. That forces Jalen Ramsey (No. 20), a cornerback by trade, into an unfamiliar role at free safety.
The Colts then shift Hines:
Hines now moves into the slot on the left, emptying the backfield. Safety Tashaun Gipson (No. 39), who had been in the box, slides outside.
Here are the offensive and defensive breakdowns:
The Colts indeed run four verticals, with two tight ends releasing deep on the right while Doyle runs a curl route. The Jaguars, with their base defense on the field and players in unfamiliar positions, run a basic Cover 3.
That creates a bracket on the two inside seam routes around Ramsey. Luck can look at one seam route, and then throw to the other one, all while manipulating Ramsey with his eyes. Which is exactly what he does.
The route from Doyle prevents the curl/flat defender from staying with Alie-Cox’s seam route. Then Alie-Cox is open up the seam once he passes the second-level defenders. Luck looks at Hines first on his left, freezing Ramsey in the middle of the field, before coming to his right and throwing the seam to Alie-Cox for a big gain.
Reich will also use these tight end-heavy personnel packages to create opportunities down the field for his wide receivers, especially T.Y. Hilton. On this play against the Jaguars, the Colts have a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter and need one more drive or big play to ice the contest. They start a series on their own 25-yard line and use 12 offensive personnel:
Here’s the route design working off a play-action fake:
Indianapolis sets up a two-level read to the right, with the tight end in the flat and Hilton working the middle on a crossing route. Jacksonville is in a zone, and you can see the linebackers – in particular, Myles Jack (No. 44) – bite on the run fake, allowing Hilton to get free behind them for a huge gain:
Jack tries to recover and trail Hilton, but the damage has been done.
Then there’s this play, which we already broke down as part of By Design from Week 11. This is another example of the Colts using play-action off of a multiple tight end package for a huge gain:
The situation and personnel plant the idea that a run is coming, which gets safety Kevin Byard (No. 31) reacting to the run fake. Hilton can then attack the middle on a post route, and the Colts score a fairly easy touchdown.
By using multiple tight-end packages when the offense might be expecting a run, Reich is creating opportunities for Luck and the rest of the Colts’ offensive weaponry to make plays. Using personnel groupings to keep a defense on its toes is a creative way to exploit mismatches, and Reich is showing a mastery of that art.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.