The Atypical is Typical: The AFC Championship Game Preview

Doug Farrar
January 24, 2010

In their Week 16 go-round with the New York Jets, the Indianapolis Colts did some very unusual things, and I'm not talking about pulling their starters in the third quarter and throwing a perfect season away -- no, that angle's been done to death. The atypical nature of the Colts' game plan came in their first two offensive plays. First, they ran an end-around to rookie receiver Austin Collie(notes) out of their standard three-wide, single-back formation, and gadget plays aren't generally part of Indy's game. Then, Peyton Manning(notes) ran play action out of a two-tight end set and hit tight end Dallas Clark(notes) on a crossing pattern.

As I detailed over at Football Outsiders earlier this week, the Colts rarely do these things. In 2008, Indianapolis ranked 29th in two-tight end sets, and no team ran fewer plays listed as "outside pocket." Peyton generally does his pre-snap moves, takes the snap, pats his feet on the turf in perfectly timed fashion, and makes the throw -- he's not a rollout passer. Except that he was on that 18-yard gain to Clark.

The Colts also made some strangely effective moves in the running game and on defense. They'd run Joseph Addai(notes) up the middle against the zone slides of the offensive line, and rip off decent gains against a Jets defense that had, up until then, managed to patch over the loss of nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes). The two-tight end sets were very effective against the Jets' array of blitzes, and the Colts ran and passed out of that formation more than I've ever seen them do. Addai and Donald Brown(notes) looked good bouncing outside behind those seven-man fronts.

On defense, two plays typified a new approach -- the Colts are actually blitzing now! From the same FO piece:

Based on the 2009 regular season data we've collected so far, the Colts rushed three just 3 percent of the time (down from 5.3 percent in 2008), rushed four 71 percent (down from a league-leading 84.8 percent in 2008), rushed five 20 percent (way up from a league-low 7.8 percent in 2008) and brought six or more 4 percent of the time -- twice as often as their league-low total of 2.1 percent last season.

On two plays, the Jets lined up five-wide, empty backfield, with no blocking reinforcements. The Colts countered with a Jets defensive staple -- the dual A-gap blitz, with linebackers crashing in around the center. Both times, the Jets blocked inside, and both times, Dwight Freeney(notes) came through completely unblocked to take Mark Sanchez(notes) down. Needless to say, any play that leaves Freeney without a blocker needs to be vaporized out of the playbook, but it was a great indicator of how the new Colts defense is giving opposing offenses pause.

The Jets aren't atypical at all -- they are what they are, and they're quite proud of it, thank you very much. They run the ball, play outstanding defense, put the game just enough in Sanchez's hands so he doesn't blow it, and try to keep every game close so they can win with a late play, usually something miraculous from Darrelle Revis(notes). Bill Barnwell recently outlined that the Jets were a bit fortunate to be in that first game, but there's an element of luck in any championship run, and it doesn't mean that a team is somehow worse, or undeserving of their accomplishments, if a few plays go their way.

But they'll need every bit of that luck to beat a team that got to the conference championship by absolutely de-pantsing a Baltimore Ravens team that plays football very much like Rex Ryan's guys. That's not to say they can't pull it off; simply that such a result would be ... well ... atypical.