Editors note: I recognize how unrealistic this idea is, but it sure is fun to think about.
A little over a week ago I wrote a post where I mentioned that I would soon be breaking down what makes next year for the Colts exciting. One of the things that I’m stoked about is that it sounds like Bob Sanders is healthier than he has been in a long, long time. This post though (as you can guess from the title) is about the offense, and honestly the magnitude of firepower that the Colts have on the offensive side of the ball is enough in itself to have me excited about next year. However I received some inspiration to probe a little more thoroughly into the possibilities that this gives us when I read this quote from Jim Caldwell:
“We may go four wides. That’s a strength. You think I’m kidding. But I’m also half serious about it, too, because if that proves to be the case, maybe that could happen in some cases. But obviously we’re not going to take (tight end) Dallas Clark off the field, either. Obviously it’s a great situation to have. We feel at some point we’re going to have some competition to see who fits where. And that’s what we’ll do. I anticipate some good healthy competition. We’re in a situation we haven’t been in since (2004) when we had three receivers over 1,000 yards, Brandon Stokely, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. That was a good group. This group is as talented. As much as we throw the ball, we’ll find a place. If they’re all healthy and ready to go, we’ll find a place.”
When I read this quote my mouth started to water. The thought had crossed my mind, of course, but actually hearing (well, hearing in my head, I guess) the head coach talk about it simply made my mind race. I’d also like to mention that the year he spoke of (2004) was when Peyton threw for 49 TDs and had a record passer rating of 121.1 for the season. Like I said, my mouth is watering. When my mind started to race, as I indicated, it ran off with all sorts of crazy ideas and I thought I’d share the one I enjoy the most with all of you. I said in the editor’s note at the beginning that I don’t think this is going to happen but I feel the need to emphasize that again. There is no way the Colts will actually do this, but it will at least give you an idea as to what it will look like in those “cases” that Caldwell mentioned.
As I thought some more about it, I realized that this seemed like a good time for my second WMD (Weller’s Musing and Divination) post, the first of which was about March Madness. This one, unlike the last one, is indeed a double meaning, because the way I see it, the Colts offense could indeed be a weapon of mass destruction next year for the opposing defenses that will have to face it. I’d go so far to say that the Colts offense will be almost unstoppable. (Teaser: the reason I only say “almost unstoppable” will be revealed in an upcoming post.)
What has been the Colts notorious weakness on the offensive side of the ball? The running game. Everyone knows it. In terms of yards per rushing attempt, the Colts haven’t been ranked in the top half of the league or averaged over 4.0 yard per attempt since the 2004 season, when we ranked 13th with 4.3 yards per attempt. That’s five straight seasons with a sub-par running game, and the last two have just been horrific. In 2009 we had 3.5 yards per attempt, which was 30th in the league and in 2008 we had 3.4, ranking worst in the league.
My solution? Stop running.
Okay, not entirely, but on the whole, yes, just stop running the ball. We have Reggie Wayne who is one of the best wide receivers in the league, Dallas Clark, who is one of the best tight ends in the league and we have three other receivers (Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garçon, and Austin Collie) who are all good enough to be the solid number two receiver for almost any other team in the league, or at the very least would be competing for that spot. Oh, and of course the man throwing them the ball is arguably the best quarterback in the history of the world. So my question is, why not have them all on the field at the same time for most of the time? It would essentially be the NFL version of the spread offense.
One of the most commonly debated topics among Colts fans seems to be who is to blame for the sub par running game; the backs themselves or the line that’s blocking for them? It’s likely a combination of the two but this post isn’t here to figure that out. We know a few things that are for sure and those are that the passing game is phenomenal and the running game isn’t. The offensive line seems to struggle on running plays but does a great job of protecting Peyton Manning on passing downs so I say line up four-wide with Clark in tight and Peyton in the gun. Yes, everyone would know we were passing, but would they be able to stop it?
How do you approach that as a defensive coordinator? It obviously depends on the personnel that you have available to you but the point is that there isn’t a team in the league that is talented enough and deep enough in the secondary to match up well against that group. They would really only have three options: a standard 4-3 or 3-4 defense, a nickel package with five defensive backs or a dime package with six. This is where you’re probably saying to yourself, “well no kidding, those are basically the three options a defensive coordinator has no matter who or what they’re facing.” Ok, that’s true, but let’s dive a little deeper and break down what would be going on with each package.
If a team tries to face this offense with their basic 4-3 or 3-4 defense then they would only have four defensive backs to defend four receivers, which means that all four would either have to be great shut-down defenders in man coverage or they would need to have huge range in zone coverages. They would also need to have one of their linebackers on Dallas Clark or in a zone as well. The benefit this would give the defense is that they would have six players to rush the quarterback with and there would only be five blockers. Then it’s a race between if they can get to Peyton before one of his weapons gets open. It would be highly unlikely that a defense would take this approach because it would be a very high risk scenario for them with a very small percentage for success. It’s simply not enough DBs to cover that many receivers.
If a defense goes into the nickel then they could use four defensive backs in man coverage and one as a safety to play deep center field, while still having a linebacker on Clark. The problem here is that they’re still banking on all four of the DBs in man coverage to be able to consistently shut down the receiver they’re guarding, as well as the linebacker being able to stay on Clark. If any of them get beat on a short or medium route then the safety wouldn’t be able to help. If two of them get beat on deep routes then the safety would only be able to help on one of the receivers. This also decreases the number of pass rushers. There would be at most five, and five blockers to stop them. Granted teams get to quarterbacks all the time with only three or four pass rushers, but with that many legit targets on the field, it is highly likely that one of them will be open before the defense can get to Peyton. In this situation the team could also use zone coverage and have a standard four-man rush with three linebackers playing zones across the middle, one DB playing deep middle, one deep on each of the sidelines and one short on each of the sidelines but that still leaves a lot of soft spots for Peyton & Co. to attack.
The final option is the dime. If a team tries this they would have six DBs. Unless they did something weird they would have three down linemen and two linebackers or four down linemen and one linebacker. They would likely opt to have four corners in man coverage on the four receivers, two safeties in a zone, and one linebacker on Clark with a four man rush. If they have two linebackers then they could use one in a zone or as a spy with the three linemen being the only pass rushers. This scenario certainly makes it more difficult for the receivers to get open but it’s also likely going to give Peyton Manning all day in the pocket. That’s dangerous. Somebody would end up getting open. Oh, and did I mention the defense would still be putting a lot of their chips on having enough corners capable of stopping all four of the receivers? The other option here is to have four safeties and two corners – or three and three, I suppose. This would be the more likely scenario if they wanted to try to use a zone coverage. This would be interesting. I’m guessing the two corners would play shorts zones on the side lines, the linebacker (or two) would play a short zone across the middle and then the four safeties would divide the middle and deep levels into quadrants, with each being responsible for one of the four sections. This would again give the receivers a hard time to get open but I think it would be susceptible at the middle level and short across the middle.
There is one more option that I didn’t mention before and that’s a quarter defense. This has seven DBs, one linebacker and three down linemen. In a man coverage scheme they’d probably have four corners, one on each of the receivers, the linebacker on Clark and three safeties in a zone and pass rushing with the three down linemen. I think this would just give Peyton entirely too much time and is a situation in which Clark would thrive. He’s too fast for most linebackers to stay with him and he’s too big and strong for a safety or corner to be able to cover him. They’d also be able to do a pretty thorough zone with this personnel in. Two deep safeties, three middle level safeties, still having a corner short on each sideline and the linebacker short over the middle. This may work, but I still believe that it would give Peyton enough time to find a weakness.
This could also set up for some excellent play action opportunities. Opponents would assume that if we brought a running back into the game then surely we’d be running the ball, which would greatly increase them biting on a fake hand off. It could also make it easier for the running backs to run the ball, for a multitude of reasons. The defenses would still need to be respecting the pass which would make for some great draw plays. The running backs would also be more fresh at the end of the game when we would need to be running down the clock.
It is much more likely however that our typical formation will stay the same, with two receivers out wide, one in the slot, and Clark in tight with Joseph Addai and Donald Brown rotating in at running back. This would allow for the receivers to rotate in and out as well to keep them fresh for the end of the game in case we need to come back by throwing the ball rather than seal a victory by running the ball. So as I said, lining up in the four-wide the majority of the time is highly unlikely but it sure is fun to think about.
In the 2009 regular season Peyton Manning had 571 pass attempts with 73 of those being when there were four or more wide receivers on the field. Joseph Addai had 219 rush attempts, four of which came with four wide receivers on the field. Donald Brown had 78 rush attempts, none were with four receivers. Peyton Manning also got sacked ten times, all of them were with three receivers on the field. I’m not going to include plays where Curtis Painter was in at quarterback or when Chad Simpson or Mike Hart were in at running back because for the most part that was garbage time (or when we pulled starters in the final two games) and it would just skew the data. This means that 77 out of 878 plays were ran with four wide receivers on the field, which is about 8.8% – for only passing plays it was approximately 12.6%. That fourth receiver was Hank Baskett, who was the only receiver to catch a pass last year (other than Wayne, Garçon and Collie) and he only had four receptions. I think it’s a safe assumption that Anthony Gonzalez will be a huge increase in production in 2010 from what Baskett provided in 2009.
Let’s briefly look into those 73 pass attempts Peyton had with four wide receivers in the game. He completed 51 of those attempts for 503 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions and he was never sacked. That’s a passer rating of 111.8 and we’re talking about situations where the defense knew he was going to pass but couldn’t stop him. I’m not saying that if the Colts had 584 passing plays and all were ran with a four wide receiver set (eight times more than the 73 from 2009) that Peyton would have 408 completions, 4024 yards, 40 touchdowns a 111.8 rating and no picks or sacks, but those numbers aren’t unattainable either (other than the no sacks or picks). That would only be a career high for Peyton in completions (393 is his current best) so those numbers aren’t out of the realm of possibility. Teams clearly struggled to stop the Colts four wide receiver set last year when the fourth receiver was Baskett, why not run it more when it would be Gonzalez instead?
According to one of my new favorite websites, Advanced NFL Stats, where they use a statistic called WPA (win probability added) – explained here – which essentially “measures each play in terms of how much it increased or decreased a team’s chances of winning the game.” This can then be applied to individual players to determine how much he, as an individual, increases or decreases his team’s chances of winning a game. For 2009 all three receivers for the Colts – Wayne, Garçon and Collie – ranked 4th, 18th, and 32nd respectively in the entire NFL among wide receivers, and Anthony Gonzalez ranked 29th in 2008. To put that in perspective, there were 12 teams that didn’t even have a single receiver in the top 33 this past year. Oh, and did I mention that Clark ranked third among tight ends, behind Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. And let’s be honest, is anyone surprised that Peyton was ranked first among quarterbacks, and that it wasn’t even close? For all of 2009 Peyton had a WPA rating of 7.44, the second closest player to him (at any position) had a rating of 5.19. That’s not even kinda close.
Oddly enough, using that same statistic, the Colts running backs – Addai and Brown – ranked 6th and 13th respectively in 2009 among running backs. This shows that the blame for the poor running game is more so on the o-line than the backs, which proves that they have good reason for gutting the o-line and going bigger. That’s why they’re the coaches (and team President) and I’m a fan. It’s my job to dream about crazy schemes that would be extremely fun to watch and they’re job is to make the right decisions. I have a post coming for you tomorrow (that I hinted at earlier in this post) that will look at another team in the league, and I’m also planning on writing a post similar to this one by Paul Kuharsky but looking at all the teams on the Colts 2010 schedule (and a select few others) rather than just the divisional opponents. I know you’re excited.
Let me know what you think about this post and the idea of the Colts going four wide in the comments below.
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