Colts Offense Poses New Challenge

The Colts made a significant change to their offense on Sunday, deploying a more troubling attack for NFL defenses than the record-setting three wideout approach of 2004.

During the first three weeks of the season, it appeared that teams had figured out how to slow down the passing game of the Indianapolis Colts. And the buzz around the league was that the Achilles Heel of the Colts offense had finally been found.

Defenses all around the NFL were anxious for their opportunity to payback the Colts for previous humiliations by delivering a dose of frustration to the Colts' all-star offensive cast.  And the formula was simpler than anyone could have imagined; overwhelm the Colts' stellar wide receivers by dropping seven and sometimes eight players into pass coverage. And then sit back and chuckle as the tension and frustration grew in the eyes of all-pro quarterback Peyton Manning.

It worked fairly well for the Ravens in week one for the first half with the Colts only scoring a field goal in the first thirty minutes. But when the Jaguars held Colts wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley to a collective eight catches for 79 yards and no touchdowns in a 10-3 week two loss, defensive coordinators on the Colts' 2005 schedule breathed a sigh of relief.

And when the Browns followed that up by allowing the Colts to score just 13 points in week three, they had proof that the nut had been cracked. Teams other than the Super Bowl Champion Patriots could stop the Colts' offensive juggernaut after all.

 The Colts' trio of wide receivers, who each posted more than 1,000 yards receiving and at least ten touchdown passes last year, were being smothered. Harrison had the only touchdown catch by a wide receiver in the first three weeks. Wayne was averaging less than eight yards per catch if you excluded one short pass that he converted into a 51-yard catch-and-run. And Stokley was dropping off the radar altogether; his receptions dropping as the games progressed to just a single catch for nine yards in week three against the Browns.

"You know if we don't play well for a couple of weeks, people are going to think we can't get it done," Colts center Jeff Saturday said during the drought. And boy, was he right. The media inundated the Colts offense with questions about whether Manning & Company would be able to resume the legendary and high-powered offense of 2004.

And most of the answers seemed to reflect a passive resistance more characteristic of a gentle giant than the offensive Goliath of the past two seasons.

"If that's what we're going to see, a bunch of teams doing what the New England Patriots have done in the past, then it's something we're going to have to get used to," said Colts offensive tackle Tarik Glenn.

"We're going to take what teams give us," said Stokley.

Colts head coach Tony Dungy put a slightly more aggressive spin on it.

"We're not going to sit back and let people dictate to us, but we're going to have to take advantage of what they're doing," he said.

Against the Titans, the Colts abandoned that more passive philosophy and retooled their offensive attack to give defensive coordinators around the league a new reason to lose sleep.

Say hello to the Colts' two-tight end formation. The Titans got a heaping helping of it last Sunday and were buried 31-10 by a Colts offense that was suddenly more unpredictable than ever.

Slot wide receiver Brandon Stokley pulled up a chair on the sidelines while tight ends Dallas Clark and Bryan Fletcher bamboozled the young Tennessee secondary all afternoon. The Titans couldn't figure out who was staying in to block, why both tight ends were suddenly sprinting deep out of a running formation, or what the heck Dallas Clark was doing spending a part of his afternoon in the slot that has been reserved almost exclusively for Stokley over the past two seasons.

"Definitely a surprise," said Titans nickel back Michael Waddell. "I was looking forward to them coming out in three receivers. I think they almost do it like 90 percent of the time, and they hardly came out there. It threw a little wrench in our game plan a little bit."

Stokley entered the game for just three plays, and his insertion into the lineup was clearly strategic. He stuck out like a sore thumb to a Titans defense that had noticed his absence. Drawing ample suspicion and more than his share of attention on each play, Stokley coerced the Titans into surrendering three pass completions, including two for touchdowns, without ever touching the ball.

With creative use of the two-tight end set, Clark and Fletcher lined up on the line, alternating between both of them blocking, one blocking, or both sprinting downfield at the snap.

Clark was all over the place. He lined up in the slot next to Wayne, then he flipped to do the same inside of Harrison. He lined up wide left with Wayne in the slot -- and then went in motion positioning himself back inside Wayne before the snap of the ball.

The confusion caused by the tight ends left Harrison open more than he had been in the first three games combined. He finished the day with 109 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the 100th of his career.

The really bad news for defenses around the NFL is that the two-tight end set not only opens up new passing options and targets for Peyton Manning, it improves the Colts' rushing attack. With seven players on the line leading the charge, Colts running back Edgerrin James often had 4 or 5 yards under his belt while he followed his blockers around the ends before a single defender put a hand on him. He finished the day with 90 yards on 21 carries despite sitting out the last 13 minutes of the game due to a stomach problem.

What the Colts did on Sunday was send a clear and resounding message across the NFL that wiped any hint of smugness off the faces of defensive coordinators.

Pick your poison.

Drop eight men into coverage, the Colts will counter with two tight ends. Teams won't be able to keep that many men back when the defensive line is outgunned by a seven to three or seven to four ratio. James will clip off yardage at a horrifying pace.

>Bring more men up and start blitzing like last year? They'll flood the field with at least four receivers and a running back out of the two-tight end set. And just to keep defenses honest, they can always shift back to the three-wide set with Stokley.

I guess we won't have to answer the questions, 'What's wrong with the offense?' now," Dungy said with a smile after the game last Sunday.

Much to the rest of the NFL's dismay, the Colts offense is back in control.

The days of passive acceptance by their offense have come to an end.

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