This week’s Patriots game plan will focus on how Colts head coach Frank Reich stuck to his roots installing the same offensive system he ran as the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
When you look at the Indianapolis Colts roster, outside of quarterback Andrew Luck, the turnover from the last time the Patriots played against Indy is remarkable.
Due to Andrew Luck’s injury woes, the last time these two teams played each other was 55 games ago for the Patriots in Week 6 of the 2015 season, and you have to go all the way back to the 2014 AFC Championship Game to find the last matchup in this former rivalry that took place at Gillette Stadium.
In the three-plus seasons since, there are only four players that remain from the 2014 AFC title game on the Colts roster: quarterback Andrew Luck, left tackle Anthony Costanzo, tight end Jack Doyle, and kicker Adam Vinatieri.
And there’s an entirely new coaching staff in Indianapolis as well led by head coach Frank Reich.
Although the Colts are amidst a total overhaul of their roster and coaching staff, the Patriots ought to be somewhat familiar with the offensive system that Reich has installed in Indy.
The Patriots, of course, played against Reich last season in the Super Bowl when he was the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Doug Pederson disciple brought Pederson’s offense with him to his new team.
“Sure; yeah,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said when asked if he saw similarities in the two offenses. “They’re both west-coast based offenses. Yeah, sure. There’s a lot of carryover.”
As Belichick mentioned, Reich and Pederson’s offense, which Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is the architect of, is a west coast based system predicated on spacing and an efficient short passing game.
However, all three coaches have expanded the traditional west coast scheme to incorporate some of the college-style concepts we’ve seen take over the NFL such as the RPO and air-raid passing designs.
This season, the Colts are passing the football on 71 percent of their offensive plays, which is the second-highest rate in the NFL, and Andrew Luck is averaging over 46 pass attempts per game (43.3 if you remove last week’s overtime period).
But Luck’s average depth of target is a modest 6.4 yards which ranks 31st out of 36 qualified quarterbacks, according to Next Gen Stats.
In all, only seven percent of Luck’s pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards in the air.
The Colts may not be the vertical passing attack that they were at the beginning of Luck’s career, but the short passing game has the former number one overall pick making quick decisions and turning the ball over less this season.
Below, I’ll go over some of the Colts’ favorite passing concepts under Reich, and discuss some ways the Patriots can slow down the pass-heavy offense:
One of the staple zone-beaters of the Reid coaching tree is the dagger concept.
This passing scheme is designed to use a clear-out seam pattern to create space for an underneath dig route to convert at the sticks.
The Colts ran a dagger concept for a 15-yard completion on third and ten to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton last week. On this play, Luck’s first read is to Hilton on the in-cut, his second read is to the underneath receiver on the shallow crosser, and his third read or home run shot is the seam route. As you can see, wideout Chester Rodgers occupies two Houston defensive backs with a vertical route, and Hilton sits down in the vacated area for an easy completion.
The initial reaction to seeing a play like this is to defend it with man coverage, but it’s easier said than done to predict that they’re going to run a specific concept on any given play.
If you do get stuck in zone coverage against the scheme, the underneath defender needs to trust that the safety will defend the vertical route, and sit down underneath Hilton’s dig route.
The Patriots will have to identify concepts like this based on their film study, and key on route tells that declare this design early on in the play.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said that’s where playing the Eagles in the Super Bowl and the 2018 preseason could help the defense this week.
“There are some concepts that we talked about leading up to that game and leading up to the preseason game with Philly that show up, so that helps you,” McCourty said.
But the Pats captain then added, “understanding it is one thing, but going and playing it and playing it well will help us out Thursday night.”
Another route design that was all over the Colts’ tape from their matchup with the Houston Texans in Week 4 was the all-curls concept.
All-curls is another staple of the west coast system but was brought to Philadelphia by former head coach Chip Kelly.
This route scheme is pretty self-explanatory. The Colts send four receivers into the pattern, and strategically space them across the defensive secondary in a three by one formation. All four receivers run curl routes to the sticks and sit down against the Texans’ cover-3 zone to present targets for Andrew Luck. On this particular play, we see Luck’s ability to impact the game with his legs. The Texans left defensive end rushes past Luck, which allows him to get outside the pocket and shrinks the distance of this pass. Luck is lethal throwing on the move, and the Patriots will have to contain the athletic quarterback in the pocket.
One of the schemes that the Reid-Pederson-Reich trio has taken from the college game and brought to the NFL is the mesh concept, which originated from the air-raid system.
The Eagles ran the mesh concept on repeat in the Super Bowl, and the Jaguars also borrowed the scheme in Week 2 to torture the Patriots defense.
The mesh is a problematic route design to defend in man coverage because of the natural pick it creates in the middle of the defense, and is also hard for teams that are slower at linebacker to defend in zone coverage.
The Colts didn’t run mesh very often against Houston, but they did go to it in an eerily similar fashion to Zach Ertz’s fourth down conversion in Super Bowl LII on a third and short play late in the game.
As shown here, the mesh concept is a crossing pattern where two receivers typically aligned inside the numbers on opposite sides of the formation run across the field to create a natural rub in the middle of the defense. The Texans are in man coverage, and as you can see, the mesh works perfectly as multiple Houston defenders collide creating the space for wide receiver Chester Rodgers to pick up the first down.
The Patriots did a better job of communicating through crossing patterns in zone coverage against the Dolphins.
The coaching staff has made an adjustment on those types of plays to assign the safety playing in the “robber” position in the middle of the defense to pick up one crosser while they pass off the corresponding crosser to the boundary corner.
And if they are stuck in man coverage, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore perfectly illustrated how to avoid the rub/pick on a mesh design against the Lions in Week 3.
Gilmore sees the crossing pattern developing, and goes directly behind the intended target, wide receiver TJ Jones, to follow the route path of Jones to avoid a collision leading to an incompletion.
At this point, the Patriots have seen this concept many times, and need to diagnose it during the play to avoid a repeat performance of the Super Bowl.
Finally, although they don’t run it as frequently as the Eagles, the Colts do incorporate their fair share of run-pass options on offense.
The Colts ran a read-option concept on 11.6 percent of their plays offensively through the first four weeks of the season, and they have a few variations that they use with regularity, and they involve two new players that were acquired due to their scheme fit over the offseason.
First, is an RPO with a backside in-cut by a receiver out of the slot, which is one of the most popular run-pass option variations in the NFL.
The Colts signed receiving tight end Eric Ebron to play the Zach Ertz role in Reich’s offense, and Ebron has been a perfect fit with 150 yards and three touchdowns through four games.
On this play, the Texans are in man coverage, and the Colts catch Houston blitzing one of their linebackers with the other stuck in coverage on the running back. That leaves the middle of the field vacated, and Ebron has a one-on-one matchup with safety Tyrann Mathieu, and this play goes for a nine-yard gain.
Another weapon that the Colts selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft is receiving back Nyheim Hines.
Hines is an electric talent that ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February clocking in at 4.38 seconds and is used mostly as a receiver that can take the top off the defense and make defenders miss in the open field.
One of the schemes that the Colts have incorporated Hines into the offense with is a backside screen off of an RPO action. Hines is often used as the specialty player on these screens that are designed to create easy yardage for the offense.
Here, Luck is going to read the defense at the line of scrimmage to decide between handing the ball off to the running back or flipping the screen pass out to Hines on the perimeter. The Colts motion Hines into a bunch set split in the slot, and Luck reads a stacked box, so he quickly passes the ball out to Hines who then shows of his acceleration to get upfield on the play. The pass only goes for a modest nine yards, but you can see the explosiveness and big-play ability from Hines.
Last week, Patriots safety Devin McCourty told me that the key to stopping RPO plays is both patience and staying true to your assignment.
“You try to start reading it quickly and reading it too fast, and you read it wrong, then it really hurts you,” McCourty said.
The Pats captain then added, “we always say the run guys gotta play run and the guys that are there for the pass in that situation gotta play pass.”
With T.Y. Hilton likely sidelined this week with a hamstring injury, both Hines and Ebron figure to be a significant part of the Colts’ offense on Thursday night, as do the RPOs.
Colts head coach Frank Reich downplayed the impact that Super Bowl LII will have on Thursday night’s matchup with the Patriots.
“It’s been a little bit helpful, but yeah, I’d say a very small part of the equation,” Reich said to reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
Although the Colts coach doesn’t appear to be recycling the game plan from last year’s Super Bowl, it’s impossible to deny the similarities between his Colts offense and the offense he helped orchestrate in Philadelphia a season ago.
The roots of the two systems are identical, using the philosophies and terminology of the west coast system while updating the schemes to reflect where the game as a whole is now.
And while the Patriots didn’t re-watch the Super Bowl this week, head coach Bill Belichick said the team watched the tape of that game before they played the Eagles in the preseason.
“We looked at that game pretty closely before the Philadelphia preseason game this year,” Belichick said. “There were obviously things that came up in that game that we knew we were going to have to deal with as a carryover into this year.”
Execution is always more important than knowledge, but the Patriots should at least be familiar with the Colts’ system from playing against it and seeing it on film multiple times.
But as Devin McCourty put it, “we probably shouldn’t play how we played in the Super Bowl.”
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