Understanding the Indianapolis Colts’ Offense

In a recent interview former Colts’ backup quarterback Jim Sorgi said:

“I can give the playbook. There is not that many teams they’re going to play who don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s all about execution. Their coaches are like, ‘We’ll tell the other team what we’re doing. They got to stop us.’ That’s what they do. That’s what they’re all about. And not many teams have been able to stop them yet.

I can give the defense all the information that I can, and it’s, ‘Can we get to Peyton? Can we knock him down? Can we get to him before the ball’s out?’ You can know what route’s coming and still not cover it.

When it’s crunch time, they’re going to run the same play they ran 10 years ago in that situation.  They just feel they got the best quarterback, the best receivers, the best O-line, and they’re going to execute better than the defense will.”

This is how the Colts’ offense works.

It is a machine.  It is an unstoppable machine.  Every defensive coordinator knows what is coming, but that does not matter.  Manning is still going to roll right over you and put up a ton of points.

The Indianapolis Colts’ offense can be defined by three ideas:

1.) No-Huddle/Tempo

2.) Personnel

3.) Constraint Based Play Calling

I will go through how each of these concepts is essential in making the Indianapolis Colts’ offense the juggernaut that it is.

1.) No-Huddle/Tempo

A lot of announcers claim that the Colts run a no-huddle offense.  This is true if we use the most literal definition of a no-huddle offense.  The Colts do not huddle, but that does not mean that they rush to the line of scrimmage to run their plays.  So, if Manning is not rushing his plays then why go no-huddle?

First, going no-huddle allows Manning to force the defense to stay in one personnel package.  This means that unless the defense wants to either waste a time out or run the risk of giving five yards to Manning through penalties they have to keep the same defenders on the field for an entire drive.  This is a huge disadvantage for the defense.

The players the defense has on the field will typically get tired faster than the offensive players.  On each play each offensive player knows exactly where the ball is going and they know exactly where they need to be.  Whereas the defensive players have no idea where the ball is going.  This is one of the main reasons that players like Jamal Williams cannot play for an entire drive.  Therefore, a few plays into a Colts’ offensive series the Colts’ players will be running faster and playing stronger than the defense.

Also, by forcing the defense to keep one defensive personnel package on the field the Colts’ are preventing the defense from putting in special defensive packages.  This means that the defense must commit to what they want to do.  If the defense wants to put in a personnel package that is focused on the pass (say the defense uses an extra defensive back instead of linebacker) the defense cannot just use this personnel package on passing downs.  Instead, the defense must keep this personnel group on the field as long as Manning wants.  So, when teams do send out a personnel package based on defending the pass Manning will just drive down the field calling run play after run play.  This is what killed the Giants last Sunday night.

Most teams rely on specialized defensive players, “pass rushing specialist” and “run stoppers” and by using a no-huddle offense the Indianapolis Colts’ prevent teams from doing this.

Second, going no-huddle allows Manning to get a good read on the defense before the snap.  Most offenses will get to the line of scrimmage, find the middle linebacker, maybe send one guy in motion, and then hike the ball.  This usually takes under 15 seconds.  Manning however, will get to the line of the scrimmage and yell something like “set, set” and then stand back and watch. By waiting and watching Manning allows the defense to show their hand.  Most defenders will get anxious (especially when they hear a fake snap count) and show what they will do during the play.  Blitzers will sneak up to the line of scrimmage and defenders dropping into coverage will start sneaking backwards.  Most defenders just cannot maintain the discipline necessary not show their hand.  The signs or “tells” might be almost impossible for the casual viewer to see, but you can be sure that Manning sees them.  This means that in most cases Manning already knows what the defense will be and where the ball will go before the ball is even snapped.  This is not good for the defense.

Third, going no-huddle can force the defense to use less and simpler defensive plays.  This is more the case when the Colts’ are running a faster no-huddle offense.  When the Colts’ are moving at top speed the defense simply does not have time to setup a complex blitz.  There is not time for the coordinator to call in the play to the defensive player with the headset and for the defender with the headset to then pass on the play to the rest of the defense.  Instead, the defense has to play out of their base defensive plays.

Now keep in mind this does not mean that the Colts’ have to go fast for every play in a series.  Instead, by going quickly for just two or three plays the Colts’ are presenting the threat of going fast the whole series.  This is enough to scare defensive coordinators into calling simple plays.  This makes reading the defense even easier for Manning.  Again, this is not good for the defense.

2.) Personnel

The Indianapolis Colts’ run the vast majority of their plays out of only two personnel packages Posse (3 Wide Receivers, 1 Tight End, 1 Running Back) and Ace (2 Wide Receivers, 2 Tight Ends, and 1 Running Back).  In fact they only use two more personnel packages for the rest of all their plays; Pro (2 Wide Receivers, 1 Tight End, 2 Backs) and Jet (4 Wide Receivers and 1 Running Back).

Here is the Posse Personnel in the Colts’ most common formation: Ace Doubles

Here is that same formation out of the Shotgun, this formation is called Gun Doubles:

Here is the Posse Personnel Package in the shotgun with the Tight End in the Backfield:

Here is the Colts’ Ace Personnel Package in their Ace Big Formation:

Here is the Jet (4 Wide Receivers and 1 Running Back) personnel package, used in a trips formation (three wide receivers to one side).  This formation can be either under-center or out of shotgun.

These are the five main formations of the Indianapolis Colts, but why?

First, this gets their best personnel on the field.  Dallas Clark is a nightmare to match-up with.  Against a linebacker he is too fast and against a defensive back he is too big.  In an interview with ESPN Teddy Bruschi said that, “you have to start with Colts tight end Dallas Clark.”

The slot wide receiver also causes a problem.  The Colts think of their slot receiver as a starting player in their scheme.  Most defenses do not think of their nickelback (the third cornerback) as a starting player.  This means the slot receiver is often a better player than the nickelback.  This gives the Colts two match-up advantages assuming all other players are equal.  However, most of the time not all other players are equal.  The Colts often have very good receivers and a good offensive line.

Second, their main formations Ace Doubles and Gun Doubles (the shotgun variation of Ace Doubles) present the defense with a numbers problem.  Let’s examine:

This imagine is from the last Super Bowl, a match-up between the Saints and the Colts.  The Saints have matched up every Colts wide receiver in man coverage and are playing with two deep safeties (you cannot see them in the screen shot) this is almost essential to stopping the Colts’ passing attack.  However, because the Saints are playing with two deep safeties and are playing man coverage against the Colts’ receivers the Saints only have six defenders in “the box” to stop the run.  This will not work.  The Colts have five offensive linemen plus one tight end they can run block with, this means they can block with six offensive players.  Each defensive player can be blocked.  The Colts will pickup easy yardage every time with this setup.

If the defense does not keep two safeties deep they can put one more player in “the box” and they will have one more player to defend the run than the Colts can block.  However, if the defense does this the Colts will almost always throw the deep ball and with a quarterback like Manning they have a good chance of completing the throw.

If the defense keeps two safeties and plays zone coverage they don’t need to line up a defender over the slot receiver.  Again they can have seven defenders in “the box” one more than the Colts can block.  However, as was said above Manning will almost always know what defense the defense is playing before the snap.  This means against zone coverage he will know exactly where the holes in the zone are even before the ball is snapped.

When Teddy Bruschi was interviewed about the Colts before last years Colts’ Patriots’ game he said:

“The other thing I’d say is that zone coverage should not be utilized in this game. Peyton Manning is too good. It seemed like he always knew what we were playing — Cover 3, Cover 2, whatever it was — and always found the right receiver to throw to.”

You cannot play zone against the Colts’ formations, you cannot play Cover 2 Man (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath), and you cannot play Cover 1 Man (one deep safety with man coverage underneath).

3.) Constraint Based Play Calling

The Colts do not use that many plays.  Instead the plays they have all build off of each other and form an unstoppable force.

Each play the Colts run punishes the defense for playing a certain kind of defense.  If the defense tries to sit back with two deep safeties and five or six defensive backs the Colts can run the ball.  If the defense brings seven or eight defenders into “the box” the Colts can pass.

Chris Brown at Smart Football wrote an excellent article where he described the idea of “constraint plays.” Here is part of what he had to say:

“At least in the most abstract sense, your “offense” is that bread and butter stuff you can draw on the whiteboard that should always work in a perfect world. It is the pass play that always works against Cover 3, it is the run that will always burst free against a “Bear” front. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world, right? Well the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible.

For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big gains up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you go play action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers may cheat in for the same reason. You throw the bubble screen and the bootlegs to make them pay for their impatience. The defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. So you have to do these “constraint plays” to keep them in check. Once they get back to playing honest football, you, in essence, go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

Now, in a given game your offense might look like it is all “constraint” plays: all gimmicks, screens, traps, draws, fakes and the like. Maybe so. If the defense plays too aggressively, so what. But a coach must not lose sight of how his offense is truly structured. A great offense is structured around a core idea or a few core ideas that puts the players in position to succeed every time. The triple option can be this for some teams, a well designed dropback pass game for another. The constraints are alternatively given too much and not enough weight. But they nevertheless are what make an offense go.

So the better you are at dropback passing, the more you need these constraint plays because teams will go out of their way to prevent you from chucking it all over them. Similarly if you’re a great run team. Safeties and linebackers will all cheat by formation and post-snap effort to stop your run game. You must have the counters, the screens, the bootlegs, and the quick passes (because quick 3-step passes, at core, are most effective when used to simply take advantage of a loose defensive structure). All this comports well with a game theory approach to football. Similarly, these constraint plays will be even more important against the best teams because they will put the biggest premium on stopping your primary threat.”

I believe that the Colts want to end up running nothing but the “levels” concept and the Outside Zone run.  Every other play is called just to force the defense into coming out in a defense that allows an easy gain from either “levels” or the Outside Zone run.

Let’s examine these plays and the “constraint plays” in the Colts’ offense.  I have tried to organize these plays both by type and by which part of the field they attack.

a.) Outside Run (The Outside Zone)

The Outside Zone is by far and away the Colts’ most common run.

Here is a shot of the offense and defense before the snap.  You should notice two things; the offense has a numbers advantage and the offense has a personnel advantage.  The offense has 7 blockers and the defense has 7 defenders in “the box” (you can click on the image to see the numbers better).  This means that every defender can be blocked.  The defense also has two defensive backs in “the box” these defensive backs stand no chance in runs support against a tight end much less an offensive lineman.

At the snap all of the blockers who are not “covered” by a defender take a step to their right.  This quick sidestep allows the offensive linemen to block the defenders at a better angle.  The defenders are in a position where they can be blocked out of the play due to the advantage in leverage the offensive lineman has.

The “uncovered” offensive linemen will drive toward the defender’s inside leg initially (this is the defender who is covering  the “playside” offensive lineman).  Once the offensive lineman has reached where the defender’s inside leg initially was he will then either continue his double team of the defender or, in most cases, head up field to block a linebacker.  This should take only two steps, one to reach the back leg and one to continue the double team or head upfield.  The offensive lineman will help with the double team as long as possible before attempting to head up field to block a linebacker.

The offense now has an advantage in leverage, weight, and numbers.  This is not good for the defense.

In this image we can see the defense using all three of these advantages numbers, personnel, and leverage.  There are three double teams and the offense is blowing the defense off the line of scrimmage.

Now we see the offense reap the rewards of these efforts.  The running back’s lane (the black arrows) is being blocked off by a tight end blocking a defensive back (advantage offense) and a double team of a defensive end (advantage offense).

b.) Inside Run (The Inside Zone)

Once the defense starts sliding out to cover the Outside Zone runs the Colts can hit them with the Inside Zone run.  Let’s look at the tape to see the Inside Zone in action.

At the snap Manning counts that there are only six defenders in “the box”.  This means that the offense again has a numbers advantage in the running game.  The offense can block each defensive player.   The Colts have called a run to take advantage of this.

Also, since this is a zone run, it is important to note that the left tackle (#74) and the center (#63) are “uncovered” (the right tackle does not have a defender directly over him, but he is the only one who can account for the defensive end to his right), they do not have a defender directly over them.  This means they will help double team a defender and then go block a linebacker.

At the snap the entire offensive line takes a quick step to the right to get a better angle on the defense.  The tight end, left guard, right guard, and right tackle all block the defender directly over them.  Meanwhile the left tackle helps the left guard double team his defender and the center helps the right guard double team his defender.  This causes two double teams right at the point of attack.  The double teams are circled in red.

At this point the left tackle and center are beginning to disengage from the double team and head for the linebackers (see the black line blocking the linebackers).  This will create a huge lane for the running back (this lane is outlined in yell0w).

All the defenders are blocked and the running back runs free into the secondary.

c.) Play Action (3 Verticals and Deep Crossing Routes)

Eventually, the zone running game of the Colts proves to be too much for the defense and they must comprimise their pass defense to stop the run.  This is when the Colts’ play action passing game comes into play.

The Colts use two primary passing concepts in the play action passing game Three Verticals and some kind of Deep Cross.  Both of these passing concepts are similar at their core.  Both concepts seek to stretch the defense horizontally at the deepest level of the field.  In both cases the concepts seek to spread the deep coverage towards the sidelines with go routes and then attack the middle of the field with a post route or another deep crossing route.

Let’s look at some game film.

The Giants’ defense has manned up on all the Colts wide receivers, they have two deep safeties, and seven defenders in “the box”.  However, since the Colts have been destroying this look with the run all night one of the safeties (circled in red) is keyed in on the run (the red arrow is where he is looking).

This is how the play is developing immediately after the fake hand-off.  The safety is charging down hill to stop the run.

Now I have also added the receivers’ routes.  The two go routes are meant to keep their defenders and the safeties near the sideline.  Notice how the safety who is not circled is staying near the sideline.  The route run by the slot receiver is meant to then attack the middle of the field deep.

The safety keyed on the run has just run past the tight end leaving the middle of the field wide open.  The other safety is recovering, but it is too late.

Here the slot receiver has gotten behind the entire defense and has caught the ball.

Nothing but grass between him and the endzone.

d.) Outside Pass Against Single Coverage (the Go-Route)

Whenever Peyton Manning sees single man-to-man coverage on the outside he has the option of audibling into a play with a go-route.  He can then take his chance deep down the field in a one-on-one situation.  Let’s take a look at the tape

Before the snap Manning identifies that the Jets are in a man defense with a single high safety.  Each receiver is in single coverage.  Manning sends the far right receiver on a go route.

At the snap Manning looks left (they yellow lines are where he is looking, what can I say I am an amazing artist) the single safety looks to the same side of the field in an attempt to jump Manning’s pass.  However, Manning’s target is really on the other side of the field.

Manning now looks right.  The single safety is out of position and there is a huge empty area on the field for Manning to abuse.  By this point his receiver has beaten the defensive back.

Manning makes the throw and the receiver makes the catch for a huge gain.

Lets look at one more example.

Again, Manning sees the defense is in a man-to-man defense with a single high safety.  He puts his outside receiver on a go route.

The receiver breaks inside beating the defensive back.  Manning throws the ball into the empty part of the field (the yellow circle) and again the safety is out of position.

Another easy throw and catch for the Colts.

e.) Inside Pass Against Single Coverage (the Levels Passing Concept)

When the defense starts to defend against the run by loading “the box” and blitzing to stop the “go route” Manning has yet another weapon.  Manning can call on another passing concept, levels, his favorite passing concept. Let’s look at it on the tape.

The Colts have come out in Posse personnel (3 Wide Receivers, 1 Tight End, 1 Running Back) and in their typical Ace Doubles formation.  This formation is essentially a four wide formation as Dallas Clark can be used as a receiver.  In a four wide set where their are two receivers on either side of the field the levels concept will only be run on one half of the field, only by two of the four receivers.  The inside receiver (Dallas Clark, the tight end in the image above) will run up straight up the seam, as if he were running a go-route, for about 10 yards.  Then he will cut towards the opposite sideline at a 90 degree angle.  This is called a dig route.  Meanwhile the outside receiver (the receiver on the far right in the image above) will only five yards upfield before he too cuts at a 90 degree angle towards the opposite sideline.

Against zone coverage defenders tasked with covering the center of the field will commonly drop back to prevent the deep pass to the receiver running the deeper dig route, but this allows the very easy five yard completion to the outside receiver running the shallow dig route.  However, as soon as the defender drops down to cover the shallow dig the deep dig is open for a 10-15 yard gain.  The beauty of this passing concept is that it all occurs right in front of the quarterback (the receivers are running right across the quarterbacks field of vision) and that the defense cannot make a good decision.

After the snap we see that the linebacker in the middle of the field has dropped back to cover Dallas Clark (the defender is circled in red and pointing at Dallas Clark).  This leaves the center of the field open (it is circled in yellow).  The receiver is running right in front of Manning into the open area of the field.

The receiver makes the easy catch and gets a good gain.

The image above shows how well this concept works against man coverage.  In the image aboves, as in the play shown above the defense is in a man-to-man defense.  Here we see a Colts’ receiver running the quick “china” route.  Notice how he already has 3-4 yards of separation.  Also that corner just so happens to be Darrel Revis.

Let’s look at the concept on film again.

The Jets’ defense is in man-to-man defense with a single high safety and is crowding the box in an attempt to blitz.

Again a pair of receivers are running the levels concept.  This time it is the receivers on the left.  The receivers on the right are running deep routes.  The slot receiver is running a divide route.  This means that after he gets a certain distance down field he can choose whether to try to cut across the field or not.

After the snap the middle of the field is wide open again (again it is circled in yellow).  Notice the two defenders circled in red.  Both these defenders have been pulled from the center of the field by the routes they are defending.  Lastly, notice how much separation the receiver running the “china” route has gained (the red line shows how far he is from the defender manned up with him).

Another easy throw and catch.

f.) Attacking the Deep Middle of the Field (the Seam Route)

When the defense is playing a two deep zone shell (they have two deep safeties) and Manning cannot afford to run, either because of the down and distance or the time on the clock, he can turn to the seam route another staple of the Colts’ offense.

Let’s look at the tape.

Here the Colts are again coming out in the Posse personnel package, but they are in the Gun Doubles formation.  They are running the four verticals concept in an attempt to attack the seams down the middle of the field.

Four Verticals is a simple concept.  By sending four receivers down field the offense hopes to overwhelm the defense by forcing the defenders responsible for deep-zones to cover two receivers at once.   Most defenses are Cover 2 shells and these defense simply do not have enough defenders covering the field deep to defend this concept.  But, even against Cover 1 (where there is a single deep safety) or Cover 3 (where there are three deep defenders, often one safety and two cornerbacks) there are not enough defenders to cover four receivers running deep routes.

Manning simply has to choose a side of the field and throw the ball where the defenders aren’t.

After the snap the linebackers (they are circled in red) are sucked down towards the line of scrimmage by a play action.  The deep safety on the left (also circled in red) is cautiously staying deep to try and cover both receivers running deep routes.  The defense is then leaving an empty area between the linebackers and the safeties (this area is circled in blue).  This is the area of the field that the seam route is meant to attack.

Manning drops the ball over the linebackers and in front of the safeties.  Dallas Clark makes the catch for a nice gain.  Notice though, if the safety had dropped down to cover the tight end on the seam route that Manning could have attacked the defense deep (look at the blue circle at the top of the image).


The Colts use tempo, personnel, and constraint based play calling to run their offense.

Manning will force the defense into simple defenses and simple defensive personnel through the use of an up temp no-huddle offense with simple personnel groupings.  Often due to the temp the defense will also show their hand before the play.  Manning will then count the defenders in “the box” and decide if he has a favorable match-up either in the running or passing game.  He will then take what the defense gives him.  If the defense does not come out in a defense that Manning would like he will audible into a constraint play and punish the defense until they show him what he wants.  Eventually the defense will be forced to give him either the “levels” passing concept or the Outside Zone run on a consistent basis.  At this point Manning and the offense get in a grove and run the same two plays up and down the field racking up an endless amount of points.

Again, I apologize for the typos.  Feel free to point them out and I will go back and fix them.

I should be putting something out going over a few staple plays of the Broncos’s Offense soon.  If not I will be breaking down the Broncos’ defense.  Depends on what people want and what kind of response this article gets.


3 Responses to “Understanding the Indianapolis Colts’ Offense”

  1. Paul Says:

    good post, I appreciate the effort

  2. blueblocker Says:

    Appreciated your breakdown in this article. Have often wondered what is going on in Manning’s head as he prepares to snap and this shed quite a bit of light on that.


  3. Madden 13 Offensive Approach - Page 4 Says:

    […] Peyton Manning run, Tom Moore one back attack. This is the offense I have ALWAYS run in Madden. http://understandingthetrickeration….colts-offense/ http://smartfootball.com/offense/pey…-colts-offense The simplicity is bananas and coming out with […]

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