Peyton Manning (and Tom Moore)’s Indianapolis Colts Offense: How a Handful of Plays Led to a Decade of Success

For thirteen seasons — spanning three head coaches, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl victory, four NFL MVP awards, and countless incredible games — Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts. In eleven of those seasons, the Colts won at least ten games, including for nine straight seasons, not counting 2011’s disastrous Peyton-less year. But now Manning is a Bronco, in a new town, playing for a new team, and in a (somewhat) new scheme. I am not as confident as some that Manning’s injury won’t prevent him from playing at the incredible level he played at for so many years, and I am also not as sure of the Broncos coaching staff as some. As a football fan, however, I want nothing other than for Manning to take the field this fall, clad in Denver orange, and to light up the NFL all over again. But time will tell on all of that.

You know what I'm callin'

Yet what Manning accomplished during his time with the Colts cannot be undersold. The yards, the touchdowns, the records, and, most of all, the wins are testament to that. Yet what really interested me was how they did it. Specifically, how Manning and the Colts — for thirteen years — ran the same tiny little cluster of plays, from the same tiny little cluster of formations, with the most consistent personnel in the league, and brutalized NFL defenses year-in and year-out. The obvious answer was they had some pretty good skill players during that time, from Edgerrin James to Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokely, Dallas Clark, and Joseph Addai. And even more obvious is simply that the triggerman, who was constantly checking and audibling and gyrating at the line to get exactly what he wanted, was simply so good. But that alone doesn’t answer the question of why they were so good yet so simple; one could make a pretty good case that if you have the best, most experienced, and most in-tuned quarterback in the league you could out-complicate defenses.

That’s not the route the Colts went, however, and much of it had to do with the ornery fixture on the Colts sidelines who called Manning’s plays (though what they did was more of a conversation than traditional “play-calling”), Tom Moore. Moore, whose coaching experience goes back to the early 1960s, became a Colt the same year Manning did, and the two shared a symbiotic relationship until Moore semi-retired in 2009 and then fully left the team sometime later. And together, using the simplest tools around, Moore and Manning made great music.

“I can give the playbook,” [said former Colts backup quarterback, Jim] Sorgi. “There is not that many teams they’re going to play who don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s all about execution. Their coaches are like, ‘We’ll tell the other team what we’re doing. They got to stop us.’ That’s what they do. That’s what they’re all about. And not many teams have been able to stop them yet.” Sorgi said he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Colts’ offensive personnel. He was on the Colts longer than all but nine players on their current roster. He worked with Manning and former offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who installed the system that perennially keeps the Colts among the top teams in the league.

“Being there six years, I helped put in a lot of the information that they use,” Sorgi said. “But sometimes, how much you know doesn’t really matter. It’s about executing against him.
“I can give the defense all the information that I can, and it’s, ‘Can we get to Peyton? Can we knock him down? Can we get to him before the ball’s out?’ You can know what route’s coming and still not cover it.”

Jim Sorgi was not kidding.

The Colts’ offense was, structurally at least, among the simplest in the league for the entire time Manning was there. They used only a handful of formations — and almost always lined up Marvin Harrison (and later Pierre Garçon) split wide to the right and Reggie Wayne split wide to the left — ten or so core pass plays and just a couple of core runs. I know that sounds a little silly, especially since we’re constantly told that NFL playbooks are incredibly dense and huge and so on, but the Colts killed people with like fifteen, maybe twenty plays, and they did it for a decade. How?

It’s an obvious but true answer to say: with execution. Part of that execution was having great, veteran players who were very good at their jobs. Part of that was having a quarterback who could, because the formations were simple, identify weak spots in the defense and check into the right plays. (The story that Manning was always given “three plays” to choose from on every down was always a bit apocryphal, but he obviously had a lot of freedom and they did use a variety of “check-with-me” concepts where he could change the play at the line.) The way Indianapolis did vary its formations was generally by only moving around the two inside receivers, either two tight-ends, a tight-end and a slot receiver, or, more rarely, two receivers. In the diagram below, note how it is generally only Y and A who move around.

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So the formation system was very simple; that was apparent to anyone that watched Manning and the Colts play. But the plays couldn’t really be as simple as all that, could they? It is so. I’ve broken down the Colts plays many times for myself, but to better illustrate exactly what plays the Colts used and a flavor of how they used them, there is no substitute for game study (or, in annoying football patois, watching the “tape”). In that vein I went through several games from Indianapolis’s 2006 Super Bowl winning season and cut-up the all-22 film for their games versus the Giants and Titans by specific play concept. As diagrammed below, the Colts not only had just a handful of passing concepts, a shocking amount of the production and calls came from just three: the “Levels” pass concept, a three-verticals play where the receivers could break off their routes short, and a deep crossing concept. The other pass plays typically — which were almost all very traditional, standard concepts — were only called one, maybe two times at most a game, whereas the above three were called repeatedly, almost regardless of opponent.

And in terms of the running game, things were even simpler — at least in a sense. The Colts running game really consisted of about three, maybe four plays. One play not included in my breakdown is their quick inside trap play; they used that situationally but not in the games I broke down. But the core of their run game consisted of their base zone plays and their “pin-and-pull” outside zone, which used zone principles involved pulling linemen at the point of attack. Below are the cut-ups, organized by concept, with diagrams and explanation of each (with the exception of runningback screens, the mesh and flood concepts, and the goal line passes), in the order they appear in the video, following thereafter. (Note that the images that the plays were drawn on were just representative formations and it’s not necessarily that the Colts ran that play at that particular point in the game, though obviously you can see all of these plays in the clips below.)

Quick Slant

This is your normal quick slant concept. Typically — though not always — the Colts combined a Cover 2 beating “double slant” concept to one side with a Cover 3/Cover 1 man beating “slant/flat” concept to the other. Manning could then look to see how many safeties there were and, depending on their alignment and the leverage of the underneath defenders, could choose which side to work. And for specific coaching points on running the slant concept, you can’t do better than Bill Walsh:

- Slant pass is a big chunk play.
– 12 yrd split – 5 to 7 steps and break.
– Slant is best weak.
– Throwing strongside you should use dropback and weak flow.
– Throw ball to middle of receiver and above his waist – if anything slow him up to catch it.
– Receiver should always be aware of relationship between corner and safety.
– Hop inside and come under control in hole.
– Ball should be caught 1 ft. in front of receivers numbers.
– Vs corner inside – go full speed and break across his face.
– Always practice 1/2 as many throws to outlet as primary.

Three Verticals

Once the Colts had established the run (or at least even just the threat of a run), Manning and Moore liked to go to the “three verticals” play, typically off of play-action. Against a true Cover 2, two-deep look, the idea was for the inside receiver, often someone like Dallas Clark, to split the safeties while the outside receivers stretched them by running down the sideline. But each receiver had the freedom to break off his route — the inside receiver to bend his post into a square-in or curl, and the outside receivers to convert their vertical route into comebacks. Very often in the clips above you can see Manning actually check into this concept against what appeared to be a two-deep look from the defense, only to see them shift to a single-safety deep defense… and then for Manning to nevertheless hit one of the outside comeback routes essentially one-on-one for a fifteen to eighteen yard gain. Never flustered, that Manning guy.

Levels

I’ve referred to this as Peyton’s favorite pass play, because it is shocking how often they run it. I’ve described the play before in a few places, but it’s a very simple play that puts a high/low strain on the underneath zone defender who is second from the outside in a Cover 2, usually the outside linebacker or sometimes a nickel player.

But what makes the play even more intriguing is the Colts typically packaged it with a basic “curl/flat” concept to the other side (discussed in more detail below). As was the case with the quick slants shown above, in this single play, Manning would identify the coverage by looking at the number of safeties: if there were two-deep safeties, he could work the Levels side; if there was only one-deep safety, he could work the curl/flat combination to the other. And with the tight-end or slot running the seam route, the curl/flat combination was also the best option against Cover 4 (also known as “Quarters”), as the seam route receiver would pull the safety, and all Manning had to do was read the flat defender for the curl/flat.

Fin (Inverted Levels)

This is not a distinct concept in and of itself, but “Fin” (my terminology; I’m actually not sure what the Colts called this) is simply the same concept as Levels except with the inside receiver running the short five-yard route while the outside receiver runs the square-in behind him. I actually like this concept more than Levels itself, but both are very trusty concepts.

Deep Cross

The last of the big three, the Deep Cross is another one I’ve written about previously. There is some nuance, as described in the link, but we’re not talking about the most complex passing concept ever here. It’s about either trying to get one of the two playside receiver free on a deep post or, barring that, the deep crosser from the other side. The crosser generally is taught to go “under Sam and over Mike” or “under Will and over Mike”, meaning flat underneath the outside linebacker but behind the middle linebacker, to help the defense lose track of him. And then you just hope those other defenders are sucked up on the play-action as you have no flooded that zone. But often, as you can see in the game cut-ups, the defense does a decent job not being fooled and Manning dumps it off to the runningback on the check-down — who is himself often wide open.

Smash Concept

The smash concept, or the high/low of the flat defender in a Cover 2 defense, is one of the all-time great and simple concepts. The other reason it fits well into the Manning’s Colts attack was how it lined up with the Levels concept they used so much of: the outside receiver is still running a five-yard hitch to square-in route, but the inside receiver, instead of breaking inside, instead breaks outside. The safety playing over the top, who has been squeezing down on the square-in against Levels, now is out of position for the corner route. It’s all constraint theory.

China Concept

The “China” concept (again my terminology, not theirs) is simply the same smash concept but with the roles reversed: the inside receiver to the flat and the outside receiver to the corner, using a “burst-corner” technique where the receiver stems inside for five yards before pushing vertical and then back out to the corner. The purpose of that technique is to directly threaten the wide safety to open up space and leverage for his break to the corner. As with Levels and Fin, the Colts have another wrinkle but the exact same pass concept — we’re basically halfway or more through their passing game and have examined maybe four different concepts.

“Anchor”/”Mills”

The “Anchor” or “Mills” concept is one of my favorites, and is probably the best Cover 4 beater out there. The inside receiver runs to ten or twelve yards and either runs a curl or a square-in, while the outside receiver runs a post route behind him. The idea is to suck up that safety to hit the big play behind him; if not there is always a steady completion there to the inside receiver.

Four Verticals

The old favorite, four verticals. It’s actually not a huge centerpiece in the Colts’ offense for a couple of reasons. First, they tended to get a lot more two-deep looks on defense than one-deep looks, as defenses (especially the Titans in the footage above) played the pass against the Colts and not give up the big play, while four verticals is more of an anti-single safety play. Second, unless there was a built in hot throw as with Levels, the Colts preferred to keep a tight-end in to block along with the runningback for a seven-man pass protection scheme, which means you can’t easily immediately release four receivers for four verticals. It’s still a great play, and you can see the Colts hit it a couple of times in the cut-ups. They also convert the outside routes to comebacks as with three-verticals.

All Curl

The All-Curl concept — where the outside receivers run twelve yard curl routes, an inside receiver runs a ten-yard curl over the middle, while two other receivers check-release into the flat — is one of the oldest pass concepts in football, going back at least to Sid Gillman. The play is the best horizontal stretch of all: five receivers (once you account for the curls turning and facing the quarterback), stretched across the field. The point is to run it against some kind of Cover 3 scheme, which will only have four underneath defenders. As Homer Smith said, four defenders can’t even defend five trash cans spaced properly. I’ve discussed how fundamental this play is in the context of teaching young quarterbacks how to determine where to throw the ball.

Deep Play-Action Two-Man Routes

This isn’t the most scientific play in the world: it is a “shot” or homerun play designed for Manning and the offense to fake run and to try to get a receiver deep. They typically ran this once a game — as they did in the clips from the cut-ups above. One outside receiver would run a post which he could bend back inside a bit under a very deep safety; the other would run a streak he could convert into a comeback. Two interesting coaching points. First, the Colts often used a pulling guard on their play-action, which is one of the best ways to confuse defenders, even though they are primarily a zone-running team.

Second, what the Colts did and I had never seen before is they had their slot receiver, who was split wide, fake like he was blocking behind the line before check-releasing. I’ve seen receivers go downfield and mimic a stalk-block before releasing downfield on “pop” type passes, but just watch the technique in the video — like nothing I’ve seen, but it seemed to really help sell the play.

Shallow/Dig

This is not a high-volume concept in the Colts offense, but is nevertheless a very common one in pro-style and spread offenses generally. (See also this piece.) The idea is to pull the defense deep with the seam route and the post from the other side, and then to stretch the weakside linebacker with the shallow cross and the square-in behind him. The Colts don’t complete it in the one clip they show — Manning kind of forces it in to the outside receiver on the square-in — but it’s a steady, ball control pass. It’s interesting that the Colts, although they used some concepts like shallow/dig and some mesh plays, were never much of a shallow-cross type passing team. Instead most things were off of vertical stems by the receivers, often off of play-action, as has been shown above. Even the Levels play looks like four verticals, at least for the first five-yards of the receivers’ routes.

Pin-and-Pull Outside Zone

The pin-and-pull was Manning and the Colts’ best run play for over a decade. It’s called the pin-and-pull outside zone because it uses zone blocking rules — Am I covered or uncovered? Which way is the play going? — but instead of true zone steps in one direction, the offensive linemen either “pin” a defensive lineman inside or “pull” around to block a linebacker. The idea is that with the speed of linebackers on the second level, true outside zone steps won’t get to the perimeter.

Indeed, this play shows the roots of the Tom Moore Colts offense more than any other, an origin it shares with the old early 1990s Colorado Buffaloes offense run by, among others, Eliot Uzelac. That offense was a one-back, two-tight end, power-based offense, as exemplified by Heisman trophy winner (and future NFL bust) Rashaan Salaam, who put up over 2,000 yards rushing at Colorado, with a great many of them on the pin-and-pull outside zone.

So what are the specific rules for the pin-and-pull? They vary, both in general principle and by the gameplan for the specific week, but in general terms, one way to think of it is that uncovered linemen pull while covered linemen reach or block back — i.e. “pin” — the defensive linemen. And, depending on the alignment of the defensive linemen, two linemen can swap assignments to get better leverage, with the uncovered linemen pinning the defensive linemen inside while the covered one pulls around. It all depends how you teach it. Here are some more detailed sample rules:

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The aiming point for the Single Back is one yard outside of the tight-end. If the Center can reach the Nose he will make a “you” call to the strongside guard telling him to pull and block the middle (“Mike”) linebacker. The strongside tackle and tight-end will “tex” — i.e. an exchange: the tight-end blocks down while the tackle wraps around. The tight-end down blocks to prevent penetration; the tackle pulls and runs to reach the strongside (“Sam”) linebacker.

If the center cannot reach the nose he will make a “me” call to the strong guard telling him to block the nose and the center will pull to block the “Mike.” The strongside guard blocks down and to disallow the noseguard from penetrating. The strong tackle and tight-end will “Tex” as described above.

For additional details on the rules for the pin-and-pull outside zone, check out this link as well as the video below from Xs and Os labs.

Traditional Zone Runs

When not using a pin-and-pull scheme, the Colts used more traditional inside and outside zone concepts. I’ve explored these in detail both great and small elsewhere. The takeaway for now should just be how much mileage the Colts get out of just these two run plays; they ran them even more in the games I cut up, I just didn’t include every single one for space reasons.

While all the above is great, it doesn’t answer the burning question now that Manning is no longer a Colt, but a Bronco: Can his former success be duplicated? I am not sure. I am a big fan of the elegance and simplicity of Manning and Moore’s old Colts playbook, and I think that simplicity should be a big lesson to the NFL coaches who expect rookie and first-year starting quarterbacks to memorize and execute 700 page playbooks. (And which often haven’t been converted to iPad yet, complete with interactive presentations and film? Come on NFL.) But it is easier when you have an amazing veteran quarterback who can put you into the right one of these plays on every play and knows how and why it will or won’t work. It’s difficult for coaches to trust their players, and that lack of trust usually manifests itself in the form of lots of bells and whistles calling in from the coaches box upstairs. Trust may have been Tom Moore’s greatest skill, though it’s obviously easier to have that trust when your on-field general is named Peyton Manning.

Yet, while Manning hasn’t forgotten any football during his year away from the game, he won’t be surrounded by a bunch of veterans of the same system, all on the same page. And Tom Moore won’t be on the Broncos sideline either. The Broncos coaches are fine, but they still have to develop a rhythm and relationship with Manning’s modus operandi all while figuring out who, if any, of the players on their roster can be consistent playmakers. Assuming Manning stays healthy, however, it will be fun to watch.

Regardless of how things turn out in 2012 or beyond, this fact remains: The Colts offense of the first decade of the millenium was the simplest, best, most efficient machine in football. There are college offenses that did some amazing things, and the Patriots with Tom Brady certainly had seasons where they decimated the rest of the league, but, year-in and year-out, no offense was more dependably deadly than Manning’s Colts. And that they did it with such a limited number of instruments, each one precision designed for maximum damage, makes it all the more impressive.