Movie Theater: Why do the Colts do so well in early outings?

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The Indianapolis Colts under head coach Frank Reich have consistently produced positive offenses. Even with the constant turnover at quarterback, the team rarely finished ranked outside of the DVOA’s top 15 in terms of offensive production and efficiency.

One area in particular where Reich’s teams have excelled is in disc opening. According to Warren Sharp (of Sharp Football), the Colts lead the NFL with 15 opening touchdowns since the start of 2020. Notice on this list how the Colts are the only team over 11 to have had two different starting quarterbacks during this period :

With the Colts leading the league in a stat that is very indicative of good play call, I decided to take a look at Reich’s success in this area. Today, I’m diving into a few reasons why it’s a strength in Reich’s play call repertoire.

Why an Aperture Reader Is So Important

I spoke with a friend of mine who once had a relationship with Reich when they both worked with the Eagles. He wishes to remain anonymous, but he gave me some insight into the process coaches go through when writing an opening player.

He said it best in a statement… Opening practices are basically a Q/A with the opposing defensive coordinator. It’s the perfect way to describe the start of a game. Reich is a talented forward scout who trusts what he sees on film. The opening practice basically serves as a test to see how well he spotted this opponent.

If his reading on an opposing defense is that it’s a heavy press team that likes to blitz (for example), he’ll write an opening script that incorporates a ton of running and passing plays that benefit from it.

Opening practice is the best time to take advantage of the pre-match scouting report as the opposing defense hasn’t had time to adapt. The first drive is purely reactionary, and a talented playmaker/advanced scout like Reich can easily use it to his advantage. That’s why his Colts teams have thrived in this area.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here are some of my favorite examples from the past two years to illustrate the point:

Week 16 2020: Pittsburgh Steelers

By far, Reich’s best work in a first game in the last two years came against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 2020 season. The Colts ultimately lost that game, but that first practice was class. master against a tough defensive unit.

To set the stage, the Colts were reduced to their backup offensive tackles (Chaz Green and Will Holden) against one of the best passing runs in the league. The Steelers were an aggressive defense in 2020, blitzing at the third-highest rate in the league (a 40.3% blitz rate). Reich’s pregame reading was that this is a defense that likes to attack and be aggressive up front.

So what does Reich do? He wrote an opening script that used the Steelers’ aggression against them. He incorporated a ton of misdirection, like a back throwing game, and some wham/trap runs that allow the defensive line to get some penetration.

In the passing game, he used pick plays and drag routes to create quick outlets against the blitz. It worked for two tracks on the player, one for Michael Pittman Jr and one for Zach Pascal. The end result was an easy, no-go score for Jonathan Taylor in the red zone.

Week 4 of 2020: Chicago Bears

Sometimes it’s a lot easier than going up against the Steelers’ vaunted defense. This was the case at the beginning of the year against the Chicago Bears. Now the Bears had a solid front-seven in 2020, but their secondary was quite young and inexperienced.

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Reich apparently thought the Bears would be sitting in men’s coverage at the start of this outing, as he rounded up quite a few man-beaters to start the day. The first pitch to Zach Pascal is one of his favorite timing routes against the man’s cover and the second clip is just a phenomenal double call on the outside against a rookie corner.

The ride is topped off with a nice mesh road in the red zone that gives Mo Alie-Cox an easy touchdown. While Reich likes to keep his balance in his early practices, he’s certainly ready to exploit a weakness in the secondary, like he did in this game.

Week 8 2021: Tennessee Titans

Another example of Reich taking the lead against a team in the air came in Week 8 against the Tennessee Titans last year. The Titans had one of the best passing rushes in the league, but were responsive to quick passes with mesh/pick concepts.

The best example was the opener of the game against Jonathan Taylor. It was a beautifully simple design for popping a superstar player into space with the ball in their hands. The whole play was just swinging Taylor out of the backfield with the outside receiver executing a tilt to draw the outside corner inside.

After that, Reich followed with excellent road design whipped out of the pack and an RPO pass to Pittman Jr along the sideline. These are perfect play calls to take advantage of man cover defense who likes to stay aggressive. The result was a well-deserved score on fourth down in the red zone.

2021 Week 11: Buffalo Bills

It’s hard to write an article about Frank Reich’s game without talking about his masterclass game against the Buffalo Bills. The Colts soundly beat one of the best teams in the league, and Reich’s game plan (along with Taylor’s dominance) was a major contributing factor.

Reich added a simple wrinkle to his opening drive in this game, but it was one that had an immediate impact on the running game. In the game’s opener, the Colts ran the ball seven times. On six of those runs, the Colts sent someone on the move before the snap.

While it seems like an obvious thing to do in today’s NFL, the Colts have traditionally ranked in the bottom half of the league in pre-snap motion for the past two seasons. However, that didn’t stop Reich from incorporating a ton of it into this opening player script.

The result was that the Bills defense was absolutely confused and disorganized after the snap, and that half second of hesitation was all Taylor needed to have a monstrous day. It was the perfect start to what ended up being a massive victory for the team.

The essential

While Frank Reich is far from a foolproof caller in the NFL, he has a great process that generally produces good results. His forward scouting is among the best in the game, and the success of the Colts’ opening practice illustrates that.

With the addition of a talented and experienced quarterback like Matt Ryan on offense, I expect that number to remain among the best in the league. NFL defensive coordinators know Reich is an exceptional play caller, and it’s easy to see that early in games. It’s an advantage the Colts will always have with Frank Reich as head coach.


Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.

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