This offseason has been a dramatic one for the Indianapolis Colts.
If it wasn't for Indy's massive overhaul last year, this would likely be one of the most impactful offseasons in the franchise's recent history. One of the biggest transformations has been the offense's change in philosophy.
Under interim head coach Bruce Arians in 2012, the Colts were able to become one of the most explosive offenses in the league despite being incredibly young at every skill position. With Arians' vertical passing offense, Andrew Luck and his young, fast wide receivers were a threat to go the distance on every play.
Luck finished second in the league in deep passes, with ProFootballFocus' count of 35 completed passes targeted over 20 yards (subscription required) trailing only that of Drew Brees. This resulted in plenty of yards, as the Colts finished in the top 10 in total yards. Nevertheless, the offense struggled to be efficient, finishing 18th in DVOA as well as points per game.
That translated into a lack of efficiency for Luck as well as he completed just 54 percent of his passes, but was seventh in total passing yards.
Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the former "Andrew Luck Director of Offense" at Stanford, hopes to change that.
Under Hamilton in 2011, Luck completed over 70 percent of his passes, all while maintaining an uber-efficient 9.4 adjusted yards per attempt. Hamilton managed to aid Luck in his efficiency by maintaining a healthy reliance on the ground game in Stanford, running behind the likes of David DeCastro. With their running attack, the Cardinal managed to rush for over five yards a pop while running nearly 40 times per game.
That reliance on a heavy ground game meant Luck could operate the play-action with ease. Under Hamilton in 2011, the Cardinal increased their amount of play action and benefited from the change as Luck threw 16 touchdowns off play-action in 2011 to double his total of 2010.
With some of the changes made this offseason, the Colts are much better equipped to run the ball. Donald Thomas, who figures to start at one of the guard positions, was Matt Miller's 19th-ranked guard in this year's NFL 1,000 ratings, and was tied for 10th with a run-block score of 40/50. He should be a massive upgrade over Joe Reitz and Jeff Linkenbach, who both struggled in that department in 2012.
While Gosder Cherilus has been recognized for his stellar pass-protection in recent years, he's no slouch in the run game either, as Josh Boeke pointed out in his profile on Cherilus. Cherilus was known for run -blocking in college, and a change in scheme may allow him to showcase that once again.
With Samson Satele and Anthony Castonzo showing off their run-blocking strength in 2012, that leaves the Colts with just one hole when it comes to run-blocking—Mike McGlynn.
McGlynn was 79th out of 81 guards in ProFootballFocus' run-blocking grades in 2012, and will be the weakness when it comes to running the ball, but despite that, the Colts still will have a much-improved line in terms of their ground game.
Outside of Indy's offensive line, Dwayne Allen will be potent in opening running lanes. Allen was third in the league in PFF's run-block grades for tight ends as a rookie, and tied for the best grade in run-blocking from Matt Miller's NFL 1000 with a 20/20 grade. In addition, the Colts added FB Stanley Havili to boost their run game.
While the Colts certainly will improve their run game in 2013, it's key that they continue to rely on their passing attack and superstar quarterback as well. Hamilton seems to understand that as he expressed in an NFL.com story back in February:
"I think it's important that we all understand that we're a sum of all our parts offensively," Hamilton said. "We've got to do whatever it is that our players do well. It's obvious just based on production that we had in the passing game this past season, that we're a team that can push the ball down field.
Hamilton knows that the Colts aren't going to be the Stanford Cardinal of 2010 and 2011. They don't have the talent to run the ball 40 times a game and they have great potential in throwing the ball with Luck, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen. While running the ball better is always appreciated, the biggest impact won't come in the hands of Vick Ballard or Donald Brown.
The biggest help that the improved run game will be is through the increased potency of play-action.
Luck excelled in play-action in 2012, as his completion percentage increase of more than 11 percent when using play-action was the best improvement in the league. Luck ranked 10th among starting quarterbacks with a passer rating of over 105 when using play-action, but only used it in Arians' offense about 17 percent of the time (18th in the league). Expect that number to rise under Hamilton, who used play-action 28 percent of the time in 2011 with Luck.
The biggest beneficiary under the play-action revival will be Fleener, who was misused in Arians' offense as he relegated the speedy tight end to flat routes and intermediate routes over the middle, and let the small, fast wide receivers stretch the field.
Fleener was much more active downfield at Stanford, leading to 10 touchdowns and nearly 20 yards per catch in 2011. But running underneath routes and being the safety valve for Luck under Arians led to a mere 10.8 yards per catch in 2012, and only two touchdowns.
With the play-action involved at Stanford, Fleener used the linebacker's hesitation to blow by them with his straight-line speed to get wide-open down the seam, as illustrated in this play against Oregon.
I would expect many more seam routes for Fleener under Hamilton, which will draw the safeties toward the middle, freeing up speedsters Heyward-Bey and T.Y. Hilton with one-on-one matchups on the outside. Meanwhile, Wayne and Allen can provide great targets in the short-to-intermediate range and Luck has shown he has the ability to extend a play with his feet if needed.
There are plenty of other minute changes that will have bigger implications when the season comes along, but the increased emphasis on the run-game and play-action seems to be the biggest change.
If the Colts' offensive line can pull it off, it could be a devastating combination.