Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Indianapolis Colts Edition

Happy Chanukah, readers. TC Fleming here. The Cowboys will travel to play the Indianapolis Colts this week.

The Colts do a lot of fun stuff on offense. One place to start is that they don't employ a fullback. Every once in awhile they'll deploy two tight ends, but most of the time it's some arrangement of three wide receivers, one running back and a tight end. In key situations (your two-minute drills, your trailing-late-in-a-game situations, etc.), they switch almost exclusively to their regular three-wide formation with wide receivers on either side, the tight end either on the line or just off it with a receiver in the slot on whatever side the tight end is not. This helps them operate faster in the no-huddle since everyone already has an idea of where to line up immediately after the play finishes, and it increases to a degree the precision with which they operate since everyone is so familiar with their spot on the field and things of that nature.

For the rest of the game, however, they mix it up a little more. One of the ways they do that--the way we're going to look at today--is with the bunch formation. That consists of taking three wide receivers (or two wide receivers and a tight end who's being split out) and putting them all right next to each other. Bunching them up, if you will. This puts the defense in a bind that can be exploited in a number of ways. Let's illustrate three of them now.

This first play came in a goal-line situation against Philadelphia. The bunch is a very nice concept for use in goal-line situations. It allows for picks and screens and such for the wide receivers, which is useful anywhere on the field but all the more so when a team only needs a few yards.

This is probably idea one when deciding what to do with the bunch formation. Have two of the receivers block on a screen for the third wide receiver. The Colts have their receivers who are blocking start out with some cuts, which makes it look like they might actually be going out on a route. On this play, they're just blocking. Tight end Jacob Tamme, No. 84, runs behind them as he waits for Manning's pass. Once he catches the pass, he runs behind them into the end zone. With the end zone only three yards away, it doesn't take much more than catching the pass, which is incredibly easy to do with your teammates walling off any defenders from making that catch at all difficult.

Also notice that Reggie Wayne is the lone receiver on the other side. Wayne and Manning can be lethal in the red zone, accounting for a team-high 11 receptions in the red zone this year for four touchdowns. The Eagles react by doubling Wayne, giving a numbers advantage to the bunch side. Either way, the Eagles face a tough situation.

So yeah, that seems like a pretty obvious (and for the Colts, effective enough) way to use the bunch. It's certainly on the mind of the defense whenever the offense lines up with a bunch. On their first play fo the season against the Texans in week one, the Colts used that to their advantage. Double-screen!!!

Peyton Manning first takes the ball and fakes a hand-off to Joseph Addai. He then pump-fakes in the direction of Reggie Wayne, who has two blockers in front of him. Both of those motions are to get the defense out of position for the actual play, the screen to Addai. This goal, of getting the defense out of position, is also accomplished before the snap. The safeties are naturally going to cheat to the side with four of the five receiving options, especially given that the only receiver on the other side is Dallas Clark. Dallas Clark is really good, but if you put a corner on him, he's probably not going to just reel off a 70-yard touchdown on you the way an elite receiver might. With the actual intent of the play, however, Clark works perfectly since he's a good blocker and can take the cornerback out of the play.

Despite all these advantages, the play doesn't work this time. Right from the snap, Mario Williams whips the right tackle and is on Manning. That forces Peyton to speed up his fakes and makes him throw the ball before the blocks are all the way setup for Addai. As a result the left guard is out of position and whiffs on the block, allowing linebacker Zach Diles to tackle Addai after a one-yard gain. That said, Addai did have a blocker for each defender in his way and had real potential to pick up some yards if the Colts had been given a few more seconds to set up the play.

The final play shows a non-screen-based way to take advantage of the bunch. Even without receivers looking to throw blocks, the bunch creates traffic in a small area of the field that the offense can use to frustrate defenders.

In their game against the Patriots, the Colts used this play to pick up a first down in the third quarter. The basic idea is to use the receivers to clear out space, then a player from the other side into that vacated space. With all that activity going on, it's probably going to be difficult for a defender to stick with the player as he's coming across the field, and once the player is there, all of the defenders that started the play on that side are out of there, chasing after the receivers. Every time those bunch defenders are exploding out on their routes, there's an open space on the field where they used to be, and the Colts exploit this opened space. On this particular play, the Patriots were in a zone defense, so the bunch had the defenders in the zones around them dropping back pretty deep.

And that's another thing. It puts the defenders in a bind in terms of the levels that the offense is attacking. When the linebacker sees Austin Collie hooking back and readying for the pass, he drifts back to cover him. That opens things up for Tamme, who is running the shallow cross in front of that linebacker. Were the linebacker to make the other choice, there would be a threat to allow Collie to make the reception.

Also, notice Donald Brown (31). With the bunch on the left side and the one receiver from the right side running to the left, it would be very easy for the Patriots to bail on their zones and chase Tamme across the formation, covering up that option for Manning. But with Brown attacking that area, he keeps the Patriots honest. If they cheat too much towards Tamme, Brown is open with room to run.

So yeah. Those are some of the ways the Colts use bunch formations. Watch out for them early in the game as the Colts are settling in. Bunch formations demand defenses to have a firm grasp on their responsibilities (When the receivers are spread out, it's fairly clear that the corner is responsible for the receiver they're line up across from. The bunch removes that clear-cut-ness.) and force them to process information quickly. So see if the Cowboys can do that.

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