Whenever asked who his favorite receiver is, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has often replied that it's the one who is open. In Indianapolis, veteran receiver Reggie Wayne seems to be a favorite target of rookie phenomenon Andrew Luck because he is always open, creating a strong camaraderie between the two.
Luck is one of the league's brightest young talents, showcasing all the requisite skills to become one of the league's best. He has drawn praise from many coaches and players, including this weekend's opponent the Baltimore Ravens. (via Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun)
He's a good quarterback, Ravens defensive lineman Terrence Cody said. He makes good decisions. He doesn't really turn the ball over. He knows how to control the game. That's what makes him a good quarterback and hopefully when they come into our house we can change that success.
Meanwhile, Wayne has long been one of the NFL's best wide receivers and finest route runners.
He has very quick feet and never gives away his route with his eyes or shoulders. He runs his vertical stems with great precision prior to abruptly breaking it off and working back to the quarterback for the football. He's also aged like fine wine, becoming a more versatile receiver in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' offense.
Whereas he operated solely in the boundary during his years under play-caller Tom Moore, Wayne has been asked to do more at the line of scrimmage.
Motions, shifts, run and block from the slot, etc., that amount to 50-60 alignments and routes according to Coach Arians (via Brad Wells of SB Nation). In return, Arians, along with Luck, has helped him revitalize his career after a "down" year by getting him the football through exquisite schematic designs.
On a 33-yard reception against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16, Wayne became open after running a deep crossing route designed to find the soft spot in the defense's soft coverage. Before the snap, he was aligned to the far right prior to motioning to a tight alignment.
The cornerback across from him was Brandon Flowers, who would be dropping into the flats as part of the Chiefs' Cover 2 (five under, two deep) zone coverage. The rest of the defenders would also be playing zone, with the linebackers patrolling underneath and two safeties covering deep. If Wayne was going to get open, the defenders were going to need to be occupied.
So what Arians did was have the receiver opposite of Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, run a simple go-route to threaten the near safety while tight end Dwayne Allen (and running back Vick Ballard) released short and in front of the linebackers to draw their attention.
Once the ball was put into play and everyone developed their routes, the Chiefs defense was being stretched short and deep, leaving a vacancy in the middle of the field.
After taking a five-step drop, Luck was forced to climb the pocket, exhibiting great pocket presence and threw the football to Wayne coming across the field for the completion.
A week later against the Houston Texans, Wayne was again a benefactor of schematic design, but this time, there was going to be pressure on him to beat the isolated coverage of the cornerback Brandon Harris.
Harris was aligned outside Wayne, who was in the slot. The alignment was one that caught the eye of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when he studied the tape. Belichick drew a comparison to the recently retired Hines Ward when discussing Wayne prior to their November matchup (via Michael Vega of The Boston Globe):
He's like Hines Ward. They motion him a lot, he's blocking, cracking, lining up close to the formation. He's in the slot. He's been doing a lot of things that Hines Ward did in Pittsburgh. It's interesting to see him in that role, but he's always been good at whatever he's done.
Like Wayne, Ward's offensive coordinator was once Bruce Arians.
From the slot, Wayne would be running a sail route against Harris that cut underneath the route of T.Y. Hilton, who would be running a similar route that served as a clear-out for Wayne. Hilton would force the deep safety to run with him vertically along with the cornerback, who was assigned to him in man coverage. This meant Wayne was one-on-one with Harris.
Wayne worked vertically after Luck yelled for the ball to be snapped, quickly eating up the cushion of Harris and pressing him back on his heels. He forced Harris to open his hips and turn, giving Wayne a passage to win vertically. When Wayne planted his outside foot and cut to the outside, Harris was left in the dust. Ideal separation was created by Wayne and an ideal ball was thrown by Andrew Luck.
The 34-year-old receiver hauled in the pass for a gain of 24 yards.
As sharp as the route was, the throw was equally impressive.
Deep and outside at the numbers was where the ball landed, a difficult throw that had Luck throwing into the wide side of the field. Luck has made throws to Wayne such as these all season long in the most difficult circumstances and set records in the process. Pass attempts, passing yards, game-winning drives and other franchise records have all been etched out with Luck's name beside them.
With Wayne's precise route running and Luck's ability to deliver big-time throws, the connection is going to be a difficult task for the Baltimore Ravens this wild-card Sunday.
Earlier in this piece, I illustrated how the Chiefs played Cover 2 against Wayne and the Colts offense. The Ravens have also played this coverage in the past, as has every other team in the league, but one thing that they can do that the Chiefs didn't on the play is be physical with Wayne.
Who will win?
In order to slow down Wayne's success and throw a wrench into the rhythm of the Colts offense, the Ravens are going to have to be physical with Wayne and the young receivers. Rerouting them at the line of scrimmage is going to be important, as will be discipline in their technique and assignments.
Moreover, the Ravens must get to Luck. Simply pressuring him may not be enough because of his outstanding pocket presence and ability to get the ball out whilst on the move; they have to bring him to the ground and ensure that he isn't making big throws to Wayne.
If the Ravens aren't able to do the above, they'll be sent home once again by the Colts, who will be setting their sights on winning the Super Bowl.