What a difference a year makes.
Last season the Indianapolis Colts sat at a 3-1 record through the season’s first quarter, heavily leaning on a power run offensive style. After a slew of injuries, the front office acquired former top three pick Trent Richardson for a first round selection to be the featured back, but you all know how that experiment worked out in year one.
This year, things appear to be going in a different direction for the offense. Despite a 0-2 start that has since become 2-2, the Colts offense looks like a completely different animal.
Through four games, the Colts average more points per game (34) than any other NFL team, the second-most yards per four quarters at 444 and 326 pass yards per game, which also leads the league.
In addition, quarterback Andrew Luck’s 1304 pass yards and 13 touchdowns are both league-highs. He’s done so while tossing just four interceptions.
According to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, Luck is on pace for a career year.
So, what has led to the offensive transformation during the 2014? Let’s take a deeper look at how the Colts have transformed into one of the best offense in the NFL.
A jump on the stats sheet
Looking strictly at the numbers, there is a clear-cut discrepancy in play call from last year.
Through four games in 2013, the Colts called 127 pass plays and 122 rush plays. Using a power run game plan, the aerial attack was designed for short-to-intermediate passing, using “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) on a frequent basis. The Colts managed just 894 passing yards through the first 16 quarters of 2013.
On the ground, the Colts racked up 601 yards. Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard were the featured backs for the first quarter of the season before a combination of the Richardson acquisition and injuries to both Ballard and Bradshaw ended their seasons.
In 2014, the balance in play call has heavily favored the pass thus far.
Opening the year with 53 attempts against the Denver Broncos, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has called 167 passes, placing more responsibility in Luck’s hands.
Oddly enough, the amount of run plays called is identical to the 122 last season, but the backfield tandem of Richardson and Bradshaw has racked up just 472 yards this season.
To this point, the Colts have 1,776 yards in 2014, which puts them nearly 300 yards ahead of the 1,495 last season.
An improved offensive line
The offensive line has been a weakness for the Colts since Luck arrived in 2012.
After selecting Jack Mewhort in the second round of the 2014 draft and claiming A.Q. Shipley—who was traded from the Colts to the Baltimore Ravens last season for a conditional pick—off of the waiver wire, the line has seen improvement at every position.
The starting unit of Anthony Castonzo, Mewhort, Shipley, Hugh Thornton—and Lance Louis, who was impressive against the Tennessee Titans while starting for an injured Thornton—and Gosder Cherilus have progressed as a unit, posting high efficiency rating in pass blocking per Pro Football Focus.
Last season, Luck was pressured on 37.5 percent of his dropback attempts, the 10th highest amount in the league.
So far this season, that mark is down to 23.1 percent, which ranks in the bottom four in the league.
His extended time in the pocket is a huge reason why the Colts offense has pushed itself into the top tier in the league.
Health at the skill positions
The Colts made two moves in the offseason, drafting Donte Moncrief in the 3rd round and signing Hakeem Nicks to a one-year “prove it” deal in an attempt to add talent and youth at receiver.
However, three key contributors have returned from injury—Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen and Ahmad Bradshaw—to make large impacts early opn.
Wayne has been his normal self, leading the teams in receptions (23) and yards (307) with one touchdown. He provides a reliable weapon for Luck and can make plays at all levels of the field.
Allen’s return has been monumental to the offense.
After a slow start, he has accumulated 11 receptions for 145 yards and three touchdowns, including a score in each of his last two games.
As a rookie in 2012, Allen was one of the best run blocking tight ends that the NFL had to offer. The struggles on the ground last season can partially be attributed to the absence of Allen sealing off holes on the outside in the running game.
For as good as he is at clearing running lanes, that’s not the only way that Allen makes an impact.
Similarly to his teammate and fellow tight end Coby Fleener, Allen is versatile and can create matchup problems in passing situations by lining up in the slot or out wide, like in the example below.
NFL Game Rewind
On the right of the formation, Nicks, T.Y. Hilton and Wayne are lined up in a bunch formation to the open side of the formation with Allen lined up wide left.
The Titans are running the Cover 1 with Bernard Pollard utilized as the single high safety.
After the snap, the Titans go to man coverage on the four Colts receivers with one defensive back, Michael Huff, jamming Wayne at the snap and blitzing off of the edge.
Because of the bunch formation the Colts are running, Pollard plays primarily to the open side of the field, leaving Allen in man coverage with a size advantage on Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
NFL Game Rewind
With Wreh-Wilson playing soft man and Pollard’s delayed change of direction, Allen gets a clean release on an out route to the sticks and hauls in a 14-yard reception.
Allen also creates mismatches when the Colts go to two tight end packages such as in the play below.
NFL Game Rewind
Here, Allen and Fleener line up in-line with two receivers on the opposite side of the formation.
At the snap, the two tight ends run vertical routes towards the boundary, where Luck is able to find Allen for a long reception.
Allen also stays in to block at times in these two tight end packages on designed pass plays.
Bradshaw, on the other hand, has provided a solid compliment in the backfield to Trent Richardson. Richardson sees time in some passing situations, but he is becoming the featured back when the Colts go to power run formations while Bradshaw comes in during passing situations.
Bradshaw is quick and agile, as he displayed in this touchdown against the Titans, he currently leads the team with four receiving touchdowns.
Having the amount of weapons at Luck’s disposal that the Colts do could lead to them making a deep playoff run this season. If they stay healthy, Luck could close in on the passing records that former Colt great Peyton Manning set last season with the Broncos.