When the Indianapolis Colts first hired Pep Hamilton, one of the things that was immediately discussed was the effect it would have on the Colts' tight ends. Hamilton was known for his heavy personnel groupings and effective use of tight ends at Stanford. Of course, it didn't hurt that he had two prolific college tight ends to work with in Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener, but that's besides the point.
After drafting Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the 2012 draft, the Colts already had their bookend tight ends, they just needed somebody to let them free. While Bruce Arians was not averse to using tight ends, Hamilton's scheme, which centered around power-running to set up the play action, was tailor-made for flexible tight ends.
Unfortunately for Indianapolis, Allen was lost to a hip injury just three quarters into the season. Losing Allen—who was the Colts' best rookie not named Luck in 2012 and one of the league's best all-around tight ends—changed the entire picture for the Colts' offense in 2013. Gone was their best weapon for power sets, gone was one of Luck's most reliable targets over the middle.
While Hamilton would still use multiple tight end sets with Jack Doyle, Weslye Saunders and Dominique Jones getting looks as the second and third tight ends, it wasn't used nearly as much as it would have been. Jones, Doyle and Saunders played just 413 snaps combined, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2012, for comparison, Allen played 925 snaps.
Now, with Allen returning, those two-tight end sets are likely going to be back with a vengeance.
To examine what that might look like, I took a virtual trip back to the Colts' season-opening win over Oakland, a game that I've tracked closely in the past. Last season, I examined Coby Fleener's passing routes, then revisited the game in March to track Allen's usage.
But in those reviews, I really focused on the difference between the two tight ends, especially in the passing game. One thing that I hadn't broken down closely was how Hamilton used the two tight ends together, so I went back to the tape and tracked each snap that the two were on the field together before Allen's injury kept him from playing in the fourth quarter.
Here were the numbers from the charting:
- Total plays: 19—38 percent of the total 42 offensive plays
- The most common personnel group involving the two was a "22" (two running backs, two tight ends), with 11 plays. The "12" grouping (one back, two tight ends) was used five times. The other three plays involved one or both players split out wide. At one point, a formation with two tight ends and a fullback split out as wide receivers was used:
- The Colts gained 90 yards on 19 plays, for a 4.74 average. Their average on all other plays: 5.41 yards.
- The Colts ran (on purpose, QB scrambles not included) 11 times for 43 yards, a 3.91 YPC. That was 55 percent of their handoffs on the day. The other nine runs in the game gained 46 yards for a 5.11 average.
- Andrew Luck dropped back eight times, resulting in 47 yards gained for a 5.88 average. All other dropbacks averaged 5.66 yards per play. Five of those were pass attempts, with Luck going 4-of-5 for 51 yards, a 10.2 average. All other pass attempts gained 7.06 yards per attempt. Fleener was targeted once for a five-yard gain, while Allen's lone target was an incomplete pass.
- On the 19 plays, Fleener lined up as an in-line tight end 15 times, in the slot twice, wide once and as the H-Back once. Allen lined up as an in-line tight end 14 times, in the slot twice and as the H-Back three times.
- Allen went into motion on the plays three times, Fleener never did.
It was quite clear that using the power run to set up the pass, was at work here. The Colts dropped Luck back just twice from the two-tight end groups in the first half, and six times in the second half. Did it work?
Well, we could say clearly that it did, with their yards per play average being nearly two yards higher. But, that's usually true for dropbacks versus traditional runs. The dropbacks with two tight ends on the field did yield a slightly higher average than the rest of the game's dropbacks, but I don't think 0.22 yards per play is significant on such a small sample size.
In reality, the results here were mixed.
On one hand, when Luck dropped back and was able to attempt a pass, it was usually one with a high success rate. The formation, combined with a lot of crossing patterns, resulted often in wide-open players for easy connections and yards after the catch. A YPA of 10.2 is incredibly efficient.
On the other hand, more tight ends—and often more running backs—meant that there was less true playmakers on the field. The slower tight ends and/or fullbacks weren't as elusive, in route running or after the catch, as the receivers who were on the bench. This had two effects.
First, the players had a hard time getting open on their own. If the play didn't get them open by design, the players were stuck. When your quarterback doesn't have anybody to even attempt a throw to on three of eight dropbacks, well, let's just say that's not an ideal ratio.
Second, while the passes that did come out of the personnel group were efficient, there wasn't any real big-play threats coming. You often think play action would be used to get the defense up so you could throw over the top of them, but the Colts' passes out of these plays were very conservative, and the receivers weren't the playmakers who would get more yards after the catch than what was laid out in front of them.
The Colts' largest gain came on this pass to Reggie Wayne:
So, there's definitely some trade-off when using the formation for passing plays. But I expect we'll continue to see some similar trends from Hamilton in using the runs early and then using the two tight ends together in passing plays more frequently down the stretch.
Last season, according to Scott Pianowski of Yahoo Sports, Luck's YPA was 7.5 when no tight end was on the field, 6.0 when one tight end was on the field and 5.0 with two tight ends on the field. Football Outsiders found similar results. The Colts' second-most common personnel grouping, "12" (one running back, two tight ends) was also the least effective at negative 22.3 percent DVOA.
But, with Dwayne Allen back, the effectiveness of those sets should increase dramatically, making it less irritating for fans to see the power sets.
Speeding it Up
One of the more notable instances in the two-tight end sets came in the second quarter, when the Colts had the two tight ends on the field and decided to go into the no-huddle to speed things up a bit. The results were decidedly favorable.
It started with a Power O run to the right side in "22" formation. Donald Thomas pulled to the right side to take out the defensive end (yellow), while Gosder Cherilus and Dwayne Allen went to the second level (green). FB Stanley Havili followed right into the hole vacated by Cherilus to take on the linebacker and Vick Ballard followed right behind for a seven-yard gain.
The Colts then went right to the line and ran a very similar play, except with Fleener on the right side with Allen to create an imbalanced line. Thomas again pulled, but he got the linebacker this time, as Allen and Cherilus attacked the man in front of them. It went for seven again.
Lining up quickly again, this time the Colts went to the air and caught the Raiders flat-footed.
The linebacker who iwas supposed to cover the underneath zone got caught looking in the backfield, and Reggie Wayne was wide open on the shallow drag. He took the pass 10 more yards for another first down.
Three plays, 27 yards. Two plays later, the Colts would score a touchdown on a 20-yard reception to Dwayne Allen on another play action where the linebacker got caught looking.
The Colts and Pep Hamilton got more comfortable with the no-huddle as the season went along last year, and they may be looking to use it more in 2014. While we commonly associate the no-huddle with shotgun formations and two-minute drills, using it with two tight ends to be able to run power sets and play action could be a staple of the Colts' offense next season.
While nobody wants to see playmakers like T.Y. Hilton taken off of the field, there will be times where scenarios like this will be extremely effective. Hamilton did it with great success at Stanford, and now that he has Allen back in Indianapolis, we'll see if he can do it once again.