The Indianapolis Colts are coming to Arrowhead Stadium to play the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday Night with hopes of avenging their playoff loss last year. The Chiefs were able to jump out on the Colts early in their AFC divisional round matchup, scoring 24 points in the first half of the game.
The Colts defense had done a fantastic job in 2018 of limiting big plays and baiting offenses into throwing shorter passes, allowing their team speed to rally to the ball. They took the gamble that most NFL quarterbacks wouldn’t have the patience to chip away for all four quarters and would eventually start trying to force things.
The Chiefs were able to find the small holes in the Colts’ Cover and Tampa Two variants and move the ball seemingly at will. The Colts defense forced opposing teams to throw passes into tighter windows if trying to push the ball further than 10 yards downfield. The high hole — between the two deep safeties — usually has a linebacker carrying deep while the high-low coverage of the cornerbacks and safeties on the outside make for tight throws.
For a little more in-depth reading about the Colts particular Cover 2 zone and how the Chiefs could look to attack it — again — this gameplan piece from last year still holds water. The Chiefs were able to exploit the safer style of defense the Colts were playing in 2018. Early in 2019, the Colts have taken that lesson to heart and added some wrinkles.
This game plan will talk through some of the Colts’ key pieces on defense and a new concept they’ve heavily utilized this year that could cause some issues for the Chiefs and how the Chiefs can overcome it.
Indianapolis Colts defense
The Colts helped their defensive line this offseason by bringing in Justin Houston to lead their charge at defensive end. Outside of Houston the Colts’ defensive end position is mostly a rotation of guys that have specialties and are used in specific packages and roles. The interior defensive line for the Colts surprised a lot of people last year, as Margus Hunt and Denico Autry both had breakout seasons. Autry, in particular, has carried that success over to this year and has been a highly effective under tackle for the Colts.
The linebacker group had been led by All-Pro rookie Darius Leonard last year, but he’s battling injuries and won’t be available for this game. In his place, rookie Bobby Okereke steps in alongside Anthony Walker. While Okereke is a very athletic linebacker similar to Leonard, the overall coverage of the unit as a whole definitely takes a hit with Leonard out. With the heavy zone coverage looks, the linebackers are protected from man to man, but there are still times in which the lack of Leonard is noticeable.
The secondary — like the linebacker group — is without a top-tier player in Malik Hooker who also missed the playoff game last year. A major surprise in the Colts secondary is rookie Kahri Willis, who has been excellent alongside and as Hooker’s replacement. Willis and fellow rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin will certainly be challenged more this week than they have so far this year.
The Colts had one of the safer defensive schemes in 2018 running Cover/Tampa 2. They stayed over the top using team speed to rally underneath, anticipating teams won't stay patient for 4 quarters.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 4, 2019
To help dial up the aggression in 2019, they've heavily used slot and zone blitzes pic.twitter.com/COTEZ68fR2
Something the Colts have done this year to up their aggressiveness as a defense is utilize a ton of corner blitzes from the slot. Most of the time, these blitzes are coming from either a tighter wide receiver split or from the boundary side of the field, but they will mix it up and bring it from anywhere.
Their cornerbacks are well coached and don’t show their hand too early and often time the snap very well. If an offense is trying to call up shots into those intermediate to deep zones, bringing these cornerback blitzes is going to force the offense to get the ball out quicker than anticipated.
While the Colts will bring the pressure off either side of the field, they prefer to bring it off tighter splits to the boundary side of the field.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 4, 2019
Out breaking routes from the slot receiver with the outside receiver pushing vertically is near impossible to defend for a deep S pic.twitter.com/nrmDTBWscW
Offenses can take advantage of this blitz and get players out in space if they identify it quickly enough. Using quick outs from the slot, as long as the outside CB is being occupied, makes it nearly impossible for a deep safety to roll down and prevent a moderate gain. Whether tagged with these quick outs, a curl, of even just running up the seam but opening up early for the ball, the Chiefs wide receivers and quarterbacks have to be on the same page.
When that slot cornerback blitzes, the wide receivers have to know what hot route to adjust to and Patrick Mahomes has to make the same adjustment. Not a single alert — like the speed out — can be used but rather multiple based on the down and distance and over-the-top coverage being shown.
The Colts like to utilize the slot blitz as a pseudo run blitz on early downs trying to drive another defender into the box.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 4, 2019
A counter is quick screens - whether bubble or tunnel - to push the ball out in space away from the extra box defenders & force difficulty closing angles pic.twitter.com/VMD6wrJHIr
Another way the Colts use this slot blitz is as a run blitz on early downs. They do this to essentially steal gap control by allowing a defensive end to play into an interior gap while a player not in the box is attacking outside of the tackle. The quick passes will counter these early-down run blitzes, but another tactic is to use tunnel or bubble screens. The plus side to the screens is that the play can still function even without a blitz just requires well-executed blocking. When the blitz is dialed up, the screen only becomes more effective while still acting as an extension of the run game.
The Colts will also mix in zone blitz looks with DEs dropping into shallow hook zones to cut off hot reads as well as the slot CB still rushing.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 4, 2019
The Chiefs will have to make sure they are on same page with these route alerts. Whether a quick out, curl, or even just opening up pic.twitter.com/ZaoT5ko4mZ
Another wrinkle used more frequently this season for the Colts is the use of zone blitzes. They will mix in the traditional blitz — bringing multiple second and third-level players — but also use zone blitz rules by dropping defensive linemen back in their place. The goal is to eliminate the hot routes coming in behind the blitzer and catch the offense off guard with an unlikely defender.
If an offense becomes stagnant in their attack behind the cornerback blitz, a defense can predict the adjustment to the blitz and call the zone blitz to help stop the adjustment.
The Colts will zone blitz to attempt to stymie an attempt to hit a hot route in behind a blitzing CB.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 4, 2019
With a DE dropping to a hook zone on the boundary side, the LB is allowed to try and stretch his hook zone over the top of the slot WR in case a quick slant or curl is coming. pic.twitter.com/gVNzrK1em8
Given the offensive alignment on this play, the Colts can drop a defensive lineman into a hook zone on the boundary side of the field and essentially bracket the only wide receiver to that side. This allows the safety to slide to the field side, as well as the linebacker to stretch out underneath the slot receiver in case a quick pass was coming out to him with the blitzing defensive back.
The isolated wide receiver provides some extra comfort in dropping a defensive end into coverage, as he won’t be stressed quickly in coverage and allows the Colts to shift better coverage players into place behind the blitz. The isolated wide receiver still wins on a slant, but the Colts will gladly take a quarterback forcing the ball between the two defenders under that kind of pressure.
The bottom line
The Colts defense is largely the same as the one the Chiefs saw in the 2019 divisional round of the playoffs—mostly the same coaches, the same core of players and a very similar scheme is still in place.
The Colts have gone out of their way to be more aggressive and force the offense’s hand earlier in plays this season, and it will take excellent communication for the Chiefs to counter the Colts’ favorite blitz combinations.
The slot cornerback blitz and variations of a zone blitz will be seen plenty by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in combination with the “protect the deep ball” mentality of the Tampa and Cover Two zones the Colts call their home.
The pressure will be on a young quarterback and his equally young wide receivers — perhaps even in younger if Sammy Watkins injury limits him — to be on the same page and make the proper adjustments.