NFL Film Breakdown: From LA to Indy – What to Expect From the Rivers & Reich Reunion

After 15 years with the Chargers, Phillip Rivers is an Indianapolis Colt and he reunites with Frank Reich who worked with the quarterback as the offensive coordinator with the Chargers in 2014 and 2015. Rivers might not be the quarterback he was five years ago but he is certainly still capable of being a top 10 quarterback in the NFL. His deep ball and arm strength have taken a hit but for most of his career he’s relied on anticipation throws, quick rhythm passes, big receivers that allow him to place the ball accurately on backshoulders, and using his running backs in the pass game. In fact, Rivers targeted running backs 177 times and on 29.6% of passes last year in LA. In comparison, the Colts targeted running backs just 91 times or 17.7% of passes. This isn’t a one year anomaly either. Even when Reich was the OC with the Chargers in 2015, Rivers targeted running backs 25.6% of the time. The Colts rely heavily on their running backs in their dynamic run game as I previously covered but they lacked a true receiving threat out of the backfield with Nyheim Hines being their lead guy with 44 receptions for 320 yards. Part of that is due to the scheme and personnel of the Colts versus that of the Chargers, but it’s still a big disparity between the two systems and their personnel. There are a couple ways where Rivers aligns perfectly with what the Colts do but also a few of these types of misalignments. We’ll take a closer look here at what Rivers’ strengths are and how he might fit into the passing game designed by Frank Reich.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

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Reich definitely tailors his offenses to the personnel he has. When with Rivers in 2015, he designed a lot of short, rhythm passing that emphasized getting the ball out fast and into the hands of receivers and playmakers. This fits Rivers’ quick decision making style and his penchant for throwing to running backs. Lots of shallows, slants, hooks, and flares by the RB and TEs keep the chains moving and allowed for the Chargers best weapons like Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen, and Danny Woodhead to get the ball in their hands.

Now, 4 years later, Rivers likes to throw a lot of those same routes to a similar cast in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler. Despite interim OC Shane Steichen not having the most polished and cohesive offensive system after inheriting what Ken Whisenhunt had started during the 2019 season, Rivers was still able to find his comfort zone and rely on his most trusted receivers.

These short rhythm and anticipation throws have been what Rivers has lived off of these last couple seasons. He shows incredible touch and anticipation on deep outs, corners, curls, and backshoulders. And to be honest, he kind of has to. His ball has definitely lost some zip and seems to hang in the air for what feels like an eternity on some throws. Because he can’t push it quite as much anymore, he relies on trusting his receivers to be in the right place and often he’s starting his throwing motion before they even get to their break – something that can take years of reps to develop.

These chemistry throws might take a little while to develop with the Colts’ receivers but here he is again throwing the ball to where his receiver will be before they’ve broken out of their route. The ball is 10 yards downfield by the time the receiver even turns around. These throws are incredibly hard to defend when the quarterback and receiver are on the same page.

While River does do a great job of throwing with anticipation to outbreaking routes, he doesn’t really do it with in breaking routes or based off of defender keys and this is where he can leave plays on the field or where his diminishing arm strength can cost him. Rivers doesn’t read the linebacker in man coverage which opens up a window for the dig behind it. The receiver has leverage but he struggles to get enough on the ball to get it up and down fast enough which allows time for the safety to react for the interception.

Here instead of working from the dig to the post which is wide open after the LB doesn’t drop underneath it, he wants to immediately check down to his running back who falls on the play and ends up getting in trouble and sacked.

Here he doesn’t read the linebacker again as the dig is opening up with space in the middle zone of the field. These are throws he makes consistently and with ease to the outside, but he struggles to do the same anticipatory throws off linebackers in the intermediate passing game.

Part of the reason for this is his penchant for using running backs in the passing game. While they can be lethal and great mismatches, sometimes there is an overreliance and he skips over reads to immediately check down to his running backs.

If he doesn’t love it immediately, he goes to the checkdown. There really isn’t anything between his first and second read. It’s his rhythm throw or anticipatory throw and then immediately the checkdown to a running back or underneath route. Here he looks right at a dig coming open in zone and passes it up to throw the flat route by the running back.

Involving your running backs in the pass game isn’t the worst way to run the offense and Rivers had a career high in yards with Reich in 2015 running that very style of offense. When you can get a mismatch and you have guys like Danny Woohead, Darren Sproles, Austin Ekeler, or LaDainian Tomlinson it can make your offense go. It opens up windows for everyone else and creates yards after catch and open space opportunities with natural ball carriers in the open field. The Chargers this year largely used their running backs as immediate release options where they’re part of the initial designed play versus having them check release for blitzes or help in pass pro before releasing. When your running backs are some of your best players, it’s a great way to get them involved and Rivers does it super well with good touch and decisiveness.

You can compare that now to the very different way that the Colts used their running backs this last year. Now that may change as Rivers arrives and Reich adapts what they’re doing, but the Colts running backs were largely last resort outlets on check releases or used in the screen game. Extremely rarely would the Chargers ever keep their backs in for pass protection because of Rivers penchant for throwing to them and exploiting those mismatches on linebackers and you can see how the Colts differ by running different route types and chipping defensive ends.

They do have immediate releases in the playbook and I’d expect them to use it a lot more with Rivers. Nyheim Hines definitely seems like the guy to get it to with surprising speed but the Colts now have a pretty crowded backfield with Jonathan Taylor drafted out of Wisconsin and added to the mix of Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines.

The Colts ran a lot more intermediate passing than the Chargers did which isn’t entirely Rivers’ forte. Until they drafted Michael Pittman who physically is very similar to Mike Williams in LA – the Colts largest receiver was 6’2” Zach Pascal. The intermediate and play-action / deep game was a lot more effective with the speedier, smaller guys that the Colts have and the shorter, possession, anticipation throws fit the skills of the Chargers receivers who were larger and had more range. The Chargers only attempted 90 play-action shots but on those rivers completed 74% of his passes and had a 113.2 QB rating so expect the Colts to utilize their strong run game to play-action and open up intermediate and deep windows that Rivers can take advantage of despite his previous avoidance of them.

Based on the way things have shifted from when Reich was with Rivers in San Diego to his time in Indianapolis now, he clearly tweaks and adjusts his offense to fit the quarterback he has behind center. Noted by Reich this offseason was that they needed to get more chunk plays off play-action and emphasize concepts and plays where there are higher-percentage throws. Rivers absolutely helps with both of those and can keep the ball moving underneath with his love of running backs out of the backfield, rhythm throws on slants and curls, and some intermediate anticipation throws that can develop on play-action like deep crossers and comebacks. I’m not sure he’ll be able to use TY Hilton’s speed to it’s fullest capabilities and I worry a bit about the deep ball but with such a strong run game and Rivers knowledge and experience and Reich’s ability to tweak the system to match personnel, the Colts may be just fine attacking underneath and in intermediate zones off play-action to sustain the offense instead of having big explosive plays and long touchdowns. Rivers isn’t the quarterback he used to be, but he absolutely should raise the level of play in Indianapolis and give the Colts a chance to win the AFC South.

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NFL Film Breakdown: Reich Has Indy’s Run-Game Rolling

The Indianapolis Colts racked up 2,130 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per attempt and boasted the #3 ranked offensive line according to PFF. Marlon Mack went over 1,000 yards rushing and added 8 touchdowns on the ground. Their guard Quenton Nelson has the best two-year run-blocking grade and what used to be a weakness for the Colts has been totally revamped in the last few years. Nyheim Hines adds speed and a receiving threat out of the backfield with 320 yards receiving and the scheme run by Frank Reich since coming over from Philadelphia has really set the Colts up for success. Reich’s diverse run game creates lanes and different looks similar to the way that Shanahan does in San Francisco and the Ravens have done with Lamar Jackson.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Coming from the Andy Reid and Doug Pederson coaching tree, Reich differs from Shanahan and McVay mainly in his lack of pre-snap motions and shifts and using multiple schemes as the foundation of the run game. There definitely is still some window dressing but Reich largely attacks in the multitude of ways he asks his linemen to block. Many teams subscribe to slight variations of inside zone or outside zone. A few sprinkle in power and pin and pull schemes – Frank Reich does it all. The change in the Eagles run game without him has been the most telling as they have shifted to an almost exclusively outside zone team with Miles Sanders since he left.

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We’ll start with their use of the outside zone and stretch and then progress to the multiple looks that the Colts gave defenses. The big difference between outside zone and stretch is the aiming point and track of the offensive line and running back. In outside zone this is typically off-tackle. In a stretch scheme, the aiming point is the force defender outside – usually an outside linebacker or strong safety. The basic concepts are the same though. The 49ers run it a ton with Raheem Mostert as do the Raiders with Josh Jacobs. The Colts offensive line is impressively athletic and fast though and can really reach and seal on stretch looks to the outside.

Dallas Cowboys strong safety Jeff Heath (38) moves to tackle Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (25) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Here, the Colts run outside zone weak away from a tight bunch formation with #84, Jack Doyle and two receivers. This causes some alignment issues for the Jaguars as they’re now strapped to maintain a numbers advantage to either side. They have 6 on 5 to the strong side with a corner off the screen and 4 on 4 to the weak side with a middle field safety. Simple math says to run weak and that’s just what the Colts do. Since the defensive end is playing in a wide 9 technique, the play-side tackle doesn’t even try to reach and scoop him and instead drives him up and out of the play. Quenten Nelson #56 does a great job of fighting to get his hips square and keep the defender inside his frame which allows the running back to get outside. Once he’s outside, it’s the running back on the safety 15 yards down the field. This isn’t anything wild or schematically crazy. Reich just set up a formation to put the defense in conflict and then took advantage of the numbers.

When the outside does get walled off and that aiming point outside the tackle or force defender is taken away, all of the Colts’ running backs do a good job of reading and cutting underneath flowing defenders. Since the Colts are so effective at reaching and getting outside, it forces linebackers to scrape over the top more aggressively which then opens up some comeback lanes backside which is exactly why the outside zone scheme can be so effective for backs with good vision.

They’ll also run outside zone out of a split back formation which isn’t something you see a ton. The 49ers will do it with Kyle Jusczyk or Kittle at fullback or H but rarely will they line up in a true split back formation. This again gives the Colts the numbers advantage. There’s 4 defenders on 4 blockers and it’s the backside linebacker that ends up having to scrape across all the traffic and make the play downfield.

Sometimes, the Colts line doesn’t even need the formational help. They can straight up just be more athletic and seal off linebackers and defensive ends.

A small wrinkle to add to the outside zone look is to put in a split flow with the H back coming across to attack the backside defensive end. This allows for more space on cutbacks in case defensive end or outside linebackers stay tight to the line of scrimmage and hold contain.

If defenses are falling asleep on that backside crunch action, the Colts will just hand it off to the H coming across on a jet action.

A less common addition to that outside zone look that I absolutely love is the power pitch underneath it. The track of the running back stays the same but the play-side defensive end is left unblocked now and the backside guard pulls around as if he’s running power. If the unblocked defensive end comes upfield, the guard should go underneath him and lead up the field on the pitch option to the H. If the end stays flat or comes down the line, you give it to the running back. I’m also a big fan of shifting into a split back formation with one of their receivers Pascal to give a different look and to then hand it to him on the outside zone look with Ashton Dulin, another one of their receivers, being the pitch option.

You can also see another shovel option with a normal split back look and Jack Doyle running the shovel track.

The Colts also like to run pin and pull action with their athletic linemen. They’ll even trust smaller receivers like #14 Zach Pascal to wall off and pin defensive ends when they’re in tight splits close to the offensive linemen. This makes it tough for linebackers and defensive tackles to scrape across the pin and allows for bigger guys to get in space and block smaller defensive backs. The rest of the line runs a stretch and seal concept where they sprint to get leverage to the play-side and then wall off defenders almost like a punt return or kick return to one side of the field. They run it both with and without a receiver and it’s just as lethal with the tackle pinning as a wide receiver in a tight split

One of my favorite window dressing plays is a simple down-block concept that has everyone on the line attack and seal the first person to their inside shoulder with the H coming across on a crunch that works almost like a single person counter action. It was super effective and opened up gaping holes. Both times, Reich runs it off of a shift which forces the defense to communicate before quick snapping it and coming back across to the same side the shift came from.

Throw in some jet sweep or orbit motions and now you’ve got defenses totally out of position with linebackers tracking the jet and filling incorrectly which allows for the Colts offensive line to take good angles and open up huge holes for Mack and company to take advantage of. Watch the linebackers and see how many of them track and go with the orbit motion instead of staying play-side with the running back.

So now if you’re a defensive end or linebacker you can get stretched and sealed on outside zone, kicked out by an H on split zone, run underneath on a shovel option, or pinned by a receiver or an offensive tackle. It makes their jobs incredibly tough and gives false read keys for linebackers as well. Add some window dressing and flare on top of it and you’re asking a whole lot of every single one of the defensive players in the run game. Receivers can end up in the backfield, at H, motioned, released on play action, and the list goes on.

Reich has completely transformed the Colts’ running game. The diversity in looks that they give teams every single week make them difficult to prepare for and with a stable of capable backs in Mack, Hines, Wilkins, and now Jonathan Taylor taken in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Colts are going to be a tough team to stop on the ground. Throw in Philip Rivers to keep defenses honest and the Colts could absolutely win the AFC South. Frank Reich has built that offense to live off the run game. Now that they have a quarterback again, they should give the Ravens and the Chiefs a run for their money to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on YouTube for video breakdowns and Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

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