Extensive changes to the Indianapolis Colts' coaching staff have captured all the headlines recently, but the most important changes may be the differences in personnel on the field.
The team lost long-time staple Marvin Harrison, who has lined up on the right side of the formation for Peyton Manning's entire pro career.
The team also let running back Dominic Rhodes leave in free agency and drafted a replacement in the first round. How will these changes affect the teams' usage of their favorite formations and go-to plays?
Perhaps the most accurate presage of the 2009 Colts' offense came in week 16 last season, in a match-up with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Marvin Harrison sat out this game due to injury, and Indianapolis frequently used a two wide receiver look with tight end Dallas Clark flexed out in the slot.
If the Colts' aren't able to develop Pierre Garcon or fourth-round draft pick Austin Collie into a reliable third receiver, we could see a lot more of this formation in 2009.
Examining the Indianapolis Colts' playbook is akin to mapping DNA. The Colts have a different offensive package for every game-plan, and Peyton Manning has such an expansive command of audibles that he probably dips into other teams' playbooks from time to time.
Nevertheless, here is a look at some of the Colts' most effective and frequently-utilized plays from 2008, and a glimpse at what adjustments might have to be made in 2009.
The play action pass is the meat and potatoes of the Colts' offense, and nobody pulls it off better than Peyton Manning.
Indianapolis uses play action from every formation imaginable and in any situation from fourth-and-one to first-and-twenty.
One of the most frequented play action formations last season was the single-back, three wide receiver look.
The Colts' use a variety of routes from this formation, but one of the most effective was the drag route shown here.
The Colts often run this play with either the z-receiver or the slot-receiver running the primary route underneath, and receiver(s) on the other side of the formation running deep routes to clear out the defensive backs.
This example, in the playoffs versus San Diego, show Reggies Wayne running a deep drag in between the linebackers and the secondary:
If Peyton catches a team blitzing, such as the example above, he will use a max-protect blocking scheme in which the running back and the tight end will forgo running routes and stay in to block.
Otherwise, the running back will often run a route into the flat or a wheel route, such as Domanick Rhodes' touchdown versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 regular season.
If the Colts don't have a viable third receiver next season, this play will be difficult to use as effectively as in years past.
Dallas Clark could run the drag route from the slot, but might not be as effective at holding a safety on a deep route while a faster receiver runs an underneath pattern.
This play is incredibly effective against any defense that leaves its defensive backs on a single-coverage island against two Indianapolis wide-receivers, such as a single-high, "cover-1 free" look.
It even drew criticism last year for being similar to a wide-receiver pick, which is illegal.
The Colts used this play most frequently with Reggie Wayne split wide and Anthony Gonzales in the slot. The slot receiver runs an out-and-up and the X-receiver runs a slant directly into the defensive back responsible for covering the slot.
This example was run on third and short when the defense had eight men in the box to defend the run:
As shown in this diagram, the Colts often split the running back out wide on the opposite side of the primary route in order to entice the defense into a coverage that will allow this play to be effective.
In 2008, this play was run almost exclusively for Anthony Gonzales while Reggie Wayne ran the "pick." Without a third wide receiver that can threaten the defense, this play will be difficult if not impossible to run.
No defense would put a safety on Dallas Clark split wide while Wayne and Gonzales are single covered on the other side.
The Colts will most likely have to run this play with another receiver running the primary route in 2009.
Indianapolis runs this play for a variety of players, including wide receivers and tight end Dallas Clark.
The example here utilizes the running back split out wide right in an empty backfield formation.
Last season, the Colts used the empty backfield formation more frequently than ever before, using Dominic Rhodes or Addai to run the full tree of routes.
The bubble screen is an interesting play from this formation because it potentially matches up a running back with a smaller defensive back.
This could be an exciting play for the Colts to run with first-round draft pick Donald Brown, an explosive runner with great speed.
The following example shows the bubble screen run with Joseph Addai receiving the quick pass and Marvin Harrison throwing a block on the defensive back responsible for Addai.
The tight end on the right-side of the offensive line cut-blocks the defensive lineman, and the guard and tackle pull to block for the screen:
In this example, the play breaks for a touchdown because Harrison throws a great block and Addai makes one defender miss.
Donald Brown may turn out to be an even more elusive runner than Addai, and could be used in this type of play frequently. However, Brown has not yet proven himself as good route-runner or receiver.
The Colts might keep him in single back formations until he is more comfortable with the complex offense.
This classic running play became more prevalent in the Colts' repertoire last season when, due to off-season knee surgery, Peyton Manning struggled to run the stretch play.
Because of Peyton's injury, the trap was significantly more successful than the stretch play at times last season.
A trap run involves inviting aggressive defensive linemen into gaps in order to gain a better angle with which to block them directionally, often using a pulling guard to make the "trap" block.
In the 2008 season, Manning regularly ran this running play with a delayed handoff to create draw action. Often times he turned to the opposite side of the hand-off at the snap to create a misdirection effect, as in this example:
This running play became the Colts go-to running play last year, and new running back Donald Brown should excel at it.
He proved very capable of running between the tackles at Uconn last season, leading Division I in rushing yards.
If play action is the meat of the Colts offense, the stretch play is the backbone. When Peyton was unable to sprint to the hash-marks to make the hand-off last season, the team tried to replace it with a pitch.
However, without the threat of play action, this proved to be ineffective. Next season Peyton will be at full strength and should be able to run the stretch all season, but it remains to be seen whether or not the Colts will use it as frequently.
I asked Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com if the Colts would resume using the stretch play as their primary running play next season:
"I would think they would like to get back to that bread and butter that worked so well for them for so long," he asserted.
The stretch play is a low-risk/low-reward play. Because it is slow to develop, it seldom allows the running back to break into the secondary for a big gain.
However, because it stretches the defense to the sideline, it is very difficult to stop for little or no gain.
If the defense doesn't pursue to the sideline, the running back can turn the corner and easily gain ten yards. If the defense over-pursues, the running back can make a single cut and turn up-field for a small gain or more.
The Colts run the stretch play out of a variety of single back formations, using a pulling guard to seal the corner.
The blocking scheme is dependent on the formation. Last season the team often ran the play from a two tight end formation with Dallas Clark in the slot or split wide to one side as shown in the diagram here.
By running to the side with Clark isolated on a smaller defensive back the Colts gain a significant blocking advantage. Here are a couple examples:
Off-season personnel changes should not adversely affect the Colts' ability to run this play effectively.
If anything, the addition of quick and agile Donald Brown and the health of Peyton Manning will allow the team to utilize the stretch play with more frequency and better results.
Even if the Colts are forced to avoid three wide receiver sets because of the loss of Marvin Harrison, this play is equally if not more effective using two tide ends.