The Colts do things their own way. It goes beyond Peyton Manning’s orchestra-conductor routine at the line of scrimmage. The Colts Method, on both sides of the ball, is tactically different from anything the other 31 teams do. And in a league full of copycats, the Colts have inspired no real imitators, despite winning about a dozen games every year.
The Colts Method is all about extremes. The Football Outsiders have been tracking dozens of team tendencies — personnel groupings, blitz frequencies, and more — for five years. The Colts are at the top or bottom of the same lists, year after year. Other teams bob up and down in the rankings, changing tactics based on situations or fashions. The Colts don’t.
The Colts use single-back backfields on 90 percent of their snaps, the most in the NFL. The team doesn’t even employ a fullback; when they want an extra blocker in the backfield, they turn to tight end Brody Eldridge or defensive lineman Eric Foster. The Colts lead the league in three-receiver formations, going three-wide 70 percent of the time.
The Colts are pass-oriented, of course: they pass on 67 percent of all of all first-half plays, the second-highest percentage in the NFL (the Cardinals were higher last year). In the second half, the Colts run a little more because they are usually protecting leads, which is how they managed to run the ball more often from three-receiver sets (30 percent of the time) than any team but the Jets. For all of his talents, Manning is no scrambler, which is why the Colts only throw 3 percent of their passes from outside the pocket, the lowest figure in the NFL. You can watch the Colts for a month and never see a rollout.
The Colts also had the second fastest-paced offense in the NFL, averaging 28.2 seconds per play in normal situations (Football Outsiders data weeds out two-minute drills, clock-killing final drives, and so on). Manning’s preseason frustration about how slowly the umpires were spotting the ball wasn’t just a tantrum. The Colts' offense is predicated on pressuring defenses, not just with multi-receiver formations, but with quick snaps that prevent opponents from bringing in fresh personnel or planning intricate blitzes.
None of this is new. In 2007, the Colts used single-back sets 91 percent of the time and averaged 28.3 seconds per play. Teams like the Jets or Seahawks (who beat the Colts in offensive pace by a heartbeat last year) may rank ahead of the Colts in some categories for a year, but the Colts Method stands the test of time. Nothing about their system, not even the time left on the play clock when the ball is snapped, is left to chance.
The Colts balance their daring offense with a conservative defense that rarely blitzes. When Tony Dungy was coach in 2007, the Colts rushed exactly four defenders — no more, no less — on 84.8 percent of opponent’s pass plays, making them the least blitz-oriented team in the league by a wide margin.
Jim Caldwell is a little more aggressive, but not much. The Colts rushed four defenders on 73.4 percent of their snaps last year, the second highest percentage in the league, but they blitzed that fifth defender a few more times than they did in Dungy’s day. Still, Rex Ryan and Gregg Williams have nothing to fear. The Colts sent six or more defenders just four percent of the time, the second-lowest figure in the NFL. Opponents may have to account for a marauding linebacker, but they rarely have to worry about two of them.
The Colts' defense can usually succeed by slowing defenses without stopping them because Manning and the offense provide a cushion. The Colts rarely stop opponents with three-and-out drives, recording three-and-outs on just 20.1 percent of possessions last year, the lowest figure in the NFL. Those sustained drives yield a few points, but the Colts don’t give away many freebies: teams threw deep against the Colts just 16 percent of the time last year, which was (repeat after me) the lowest figure in the NFL. That’s how the Cover-2 defensive principle works: with no one blitzing, the Colts always have a deep safety or two to take away the bomb.
The Texans ran the ball straight into the belly of the Colts’ undersized front seven, but interior run defense hasn’t been a major problem for them since 2006. Their defense allowed 4.2 yards per rush between the tackles last year, a league-average value that fits the team’s bend-not-break philosophy. Even if the Colts' run defense has fallen to its 2006 depths (2,766 yards and 20 touchdowns allowed), it’s important to note that the team finished 12-4 that year.
The one weakness of the Colts Method that the Texans really did exploit was the special teams. The Colts usually field mediocre return and coverage units because so much of their personnel resources (and payroll) is tied up on offense and defense. Sure enough, the Colts had a kick return touchdown called back by a penalty, did nothing special with their other returns, gave up a 33-yard punt return to set up a Texans field goal, and let two punts roll into the endzone that should have been downed near the goal line. The lack of special teams prowess is usually no big deal — it’s like worrying about a NASCAR champion’s ability to parallel park — but it makes a big difference when Arian Foster is rushing for 231 yards.
One loss doesn’t spell the end of an organizational philosophy that has dominated the league for nearly a decade. The Giants will try to use Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs the way the Texans used Foster and Steve Slaton. They will look to gain any edge they can in the kicking game, and they’ll use their pass rush to slow down that revved-up offense.
Meanwhile, the Colts will do what they always do. And it will probably work.
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