Since the Colts feature a solid deep threat, a good tight end and a great quarterback, the Chiefs defense will have their work cut out for them. Unlike in previous weeks, it won’t be as simple as leaning on the pass rush. The Colts have a fantastic offensive line and a quick passing game, which should make life difficult for the Chiefs’ pass rushers.
But what do the Colts like to do in the passing game, and — more importantly — what can the Chiefs defense do to try to stop them?
Chiefs fans need no introduction to Andrew Luck. Coming off of a couple of injury-plagued years, Luck is having one of the best seasons of his career. A smart, accurate quarterback, Luck has modified his game to a shorter passing offense. His average depth of target is in the bottom third of the league — squarely between Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota — and his average time to throw is in the top ten in the league. When he does hang on to the ball, he’s continued to show the ability to avoid taking sacks by staying mobile and escaping the pocket.
T.Y. Hilton leads the Colts receiving corps. He’s been a deep threat throughout his career, and he still possesses that ability within this offense. Dontrelle Inman — formerly of the Los Angeles Chargers — lines up opposite Hilton in two wide receiver sets. With receiver Ryan Grant missing practice this week, expect to see plenty of Chester Rogers and Zach Pascal in the Colts 10 and 11 personnel.
As I covered earlier this week, Marlon Mack is not a significant pass-catching threat, but he is a good pass blocker. Nyheim Hines is their main pass-catching back — particularly when the Colts utilize an empty backfield.
Outside of Hilton, the Colts’ biggest pass-catching threat is former Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron. The Colts make him an even bigger focal point in the red zone, running rub routes to get him open, and forcing safeties covering him to sort through the trash.
Ebron is the primary red zone threat for the Colts, and they've forced safeties -- particularly against Houston -- to have to sort through trash in the secondary to cover him. A post-out combination makes the safety late to react and Ebron's wide open at the goalline. pic.twitter.com/N7BD23lU8p— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 8, 2019
How to defend
While Luck's average depth of target is on the low end this year, the Colts will max protect and take deep shots -- particularly against zone. A sixth OL and a blocking TE help buy time for Hilton to find the hole in the Texans Cover 3 for a 60 yard completion. pic.twitter.com/pa6Jc6ErHq— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 8, 2019
While the majority of the Colts passing game being short — think about the Oakland Raiders game plan, but with a better quarterback, running back, and receiving corps — Luck will take a few deep shots a game to keep the defense honest. The Colts are a little more risk-averse than your average NFL team in these situations, leaving lots of extra blockers in to help. With Luck’s injury history, I can’t blame them — but it is a tell for the defense, and it can make it easier for the Chiefs secondary to diagnose the play.
The above play has the Colts with two wide receivers, a blocking tight end, and an extra offensive lineman. With the heavy personnel, the Houston Texans are in their base defense to stop the run and match up better against the Colts blockers. More often than not, when the Colts do pass out of these formations, they have two- and three-man routes because of the maximum protection they are placing in front of the pass rush.
While that is a boon for the secondary — now with fewer routes to diagnose — head coach and play caller Frank Reich likes to let Luck take these deep shots against zone defenses. Hilton is fantastic at finding the seams in a zone defense as it is, but with the extra time to let plays develop — and with coverage defenders maintaining zone responsibilities — the Colts can exploit the defense for big gains.
The Colts will throw out of two TE formations with a sixth OL. They will also offer help to their tackles often against good EDGE. The Chiefs will need to alert to Allie-Cox, chip Ebron, and send extra rushers in the box this week to take advantage of the tackles getting help. pic.twitter.com/UUUvBQZHLr— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 8, 2019
The Chiefs will have to stay alert to these personnel packages — as the Texans were in the play above — and identify these developing long-ball plays quickly. With extra blockers staying in, this is a prime opportunity to green dog, sending extra rushers to speed up Luck’s internal clock and forcing him to throw the ball away — or throw it inaccurately.
In the secondary, quickly identifying the deep route with nothing on the back side can allow the back side zone defender to collapse on the play and rob the route deep. Sending pressure and robbing the deep routes in these situations can take them out of the playbook, and force the Colts to keep things short. If they’re having to play catch-up, that’s exactly what the Chiefs defense will want.
Chipping the edge rusher
IND will use their RB's to chip good EDGE rushers often. They don't like to isolate their tackles, especially when they kick Ebron out wide. This limits the RB's effectiveness as receivers.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 8, 2019
And yes, Luck's escapability will be a problem against inside rush moves. pic.twitter.com/r8kQDk7tCS
When the Colts stretch things out in the passing game, they still offer plenty of help to their tackles against the defense’s good edge rushers. The Texans have two in Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt — just like the Chiefs have two with Dee Ford and Justin Houston.
As I mentioned, Mack isn’t a significant pass catching threat, and a lot of that is because he stays in to help pass-protect. When he does run routes out of the backfield, they tend to use him to chip the pass rushers on the way out. This play shows a common occurrence when the Colts don’t have an attached tight end. Even though this isn’t a particularly long-developing set of routes, Mack still needs to chip Watt to keep the rush at bay.
On the other side, Clowney is able to find success with an inside move, as he’s one-on-one with the left tackle Anthony Castonzo. This, unfortunately, is where Luck showcases his ability to escape the rush; Luck is able to move out of the pocket and find Rogers on the scramble drill.
The Colts will put a focus on slowing down Ford and Houston by chipping them to the outside. This means that there will be less-dynamic coverage responsibilities for the inside linebackers — which in turn means the Chiefs can lean a little harder on Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland for coverage in the flats because after chipping the edge, the back will be getting out later. That’s good news, as coverage linebacker Dorian O’Daniel’s status for this game is up in the air.
Beating the tackles
The Colts don't give up much interior pressure, and Luck hasn't gotten sacked often in '18 -- zero with the starting OL -- but their tackles *can* be susceptible to speed and bend. Landry with a great get off is able to dip and bend under Castonzo and chase down Luck for the sack pic.twitter.com/RYXTSTWfHe— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) January 8, 2019
Everyone is aware just how good the Colts offensive line has been this year. When the starting group has been together — as it appears it will be on Saturday — Luck has not been sacked this season. The interior group of Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Mark Glowinski are adept at picking up stunts and strong enough at the point of attack to stymie bull rushes. Chris Jones could still see some success this week if he’s left one-on-one — particularly against Glowinski — by utilizing his quick arm-over.
If there’s one spot that the Colts offensive line can be beaten, it’s at tackle. Castonzo and Braden Smith are very good blockers, but in recent weeks they’ve allowed pressure off the edge from pass rushers with good speed and bend.
Here we see Harold Landry of the Tennessee Titans is able to get off the snap quickly, get to the outside shoulder of Castonzo, and use his ability to bend and corner with speed to beat him around the edge. With Mack chipping on the other side — and a fantastic identification of the chip by the opposite edge rusher, plus a spin move to beat Smith inside — Landry is able to close on Luck while he’s attempting to escape the pocket.
The Chiefs outside pass rushers likely won’t get many free looks at Luck this week — mostly because they won’t see as many one-on-one matchups with chipping running backs, extra offensive linemen and blocking tight ends. When they do get these matchups this week, they have to take advantage of as many as possible. Getting hits, pressures, and sacks on Luck early may force the Colts to change their strategy and leave more blockers in, which will help the Chiefs secondary.
The bottom line
The Colts have a very good — and very efficient — passing offense. It complements their rushing offense very well, with the ability to consistently pick up five or six yards underneath the coverage shells and move the ball methodically down the field. With Hilton, they also have the ability to take the top off of the defense, and with Ebron, they have a prime red zone threat.
And every Chiefs fan knows what Andrew Luck is capable of doing.
But while I came away from the film a little more pessimistic about the run defense, I am optimistic about the pass defense. Against the Chiefs outside pass rushers, Indianapolis is going to have to leave extra blockers in for the majority of the game. That’s going to limit their ability to stretch the field horizontally, and limit the routes to which Chiefs coverage defenders must read and react.
This season, the Chiefs have often struggled to defend the pass when offenses go with 10 or 11 personnel, forcing Chiefs safeties to read the field. But the Colts will be tempting fate by executing that game plan against the Chiefs, as it will open Ford and Houston to one-on-one matchups they can win.
More than likely, the Chiefs will see the Colts keep the passing game short, which will help keep Luck clean. If the Chiefs defense can get a stop or two early — or force field goals — while the Chiefs offense puts touchdowns on the board, that will play into the Chiefs’ hands by milking the clock and getting themselves into more third-down situations.
The defense has their work cut out for them this week, and I believe it’s going to come down to their ability to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups in the passing game. Fortunately for Kansas City, they’ve got the horses to do just that.