That was going to be the case no matter what, as Pep Hamilton's offense has put a renewed focus on the tight ends, but the season-ending injury to Dwayne Allen meant that Fleener's role in the offense was going to be magnified. Early in the season, it seemed like Fleener wasn't being featured, which prompted me to study his usage, via All-22 footage.
At the time, the Colts were using Fleener in a lot of short and intermediate routes, which doesn't really play to his strengths (speed and athleticism, not route-running or making catches in traffic). At the same time, when he was open, he wasn't being found by Andrew Luck.
Well, as the season has gone on, Fleener has shown a much-improved ability to make tough catches in traffic, and the Colts have even found ways to get him the ball in space at times. With Reggie Wayne out, the Colts needed Fleener to step up and become a consistent target for Andrew Luck.
To some extent, he's done that.
However, the Colts need to get even more from him, especially considering the lack of weapons on the outside for Andrew Luck.
On Sunday, there were multiple occasions where drives were stalled after back-to-back incomplete passes to David Reed. David Reed. Six-career-catches David Reed.
It's a scary state of things. T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener will have to carry the load for the remainder of this season, unless Darrius Heyward-Bey figures it out, which seems unlikely.
So, what can Fleener and the Colts do to pick up even more of the slack? Let's start by establishing what the Colts are currently using him for. Here are each of the routes that Fleener ran during the first half of the Colts' blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
The thing that struck me most as I tracked these?
They really haven't learned, have they?
When I tracked Fleener's routes in Week 1, they looked eerily similar. The Colts continue to use Fleener as a safety valve more than anything else, which is simply a waste of his talents (especially when you have a fullback on the field so often—have him run a two-yard out).
As I discussed back in September, this is really the role that Dwayne Allen should be playing, because he's the more physical receiver, while Fleener has the athleticism/speed advantage.
Fortunately for Indianapolis, Fleener has shown improved hands and physicality as the season has gone on, which has allowed him to play this role quite adequately. Fleener was just 22nd in the league in drop rate last year, dropping over 10 percent of his catchable targets.
This season, he's fourth, dropping just over two percent of his catchable targets. Fleener's also noticeably improved his ability to box out defenders with his body and make tough catches in traffic. While he'll drop an occasional ball in this scenario (generally not considered a "drop" but rather a "pass defensed," even though he really should make the catch), he's become pretty reliable in such situations.
However, this isn't using Fleener to the best of his ability. Fleener doesn't run routes technically enough (or have the short-area quickness) to beat linebackers and safeties in one-on-one coverage in these short routes. Take this play against the Cardinals for example:
The Cardinals show blitz from the slot corner on the right side, as well as from the inside linebacker. They have two deep safeties lined up with man coverage on the outside. This leaves Coby Fleener with one man to beat (Tyrann Mathieu) and a lot of potential space in the middle of the field.
But, alas, the Colts run Fleener on a shallow crossing route, leaving the middle of the field largely untouched. In that short of space, Fleener isn't able to get much separation on Mathieu, who is able to reach around the tight end and knock the pass away. Even if the pass was successful, it likely would have been a five-yard gain at most.
The Colts are getting production from Fleener, but they need more than just a safety valve type of production. Even when they use him to run longer routes, it's easy to see why they'll often go without a target, as the route combinations are poorly constructed.
Indianapolis used combinations like the example above several times in the first half Sunday, and none resulted in a good look for Fleener. The problem was that with all the defenders on the left side, it takes too much time for Fleener to be far enough away from the pack for Luck to have room to fit a throw in.
By the time Fleener clears the arc of defenders underneath his route, Luck has already been pressured by two defenders and has been forced to leave the pocket. At this point, a throw to Fleener is out of the question.
As I wrote about prior to the Colts' matchup against Arizona, the Cardinals are particularly vulnerable to intermediate-deep tight end activity, particularly patterns that cross the field and force their linebackers to cover a large amount of space. Coincidentally, Fleener's speed and athleticism make him a perfect weapon for this kind of strategy, or so it would seem. Unfortunately, the Colts simply aren't using him in this role very often.
Note: When they did, at least in the first half against, Fleener had room to work with. It didn't materialize on the one or two plays that he ran the routes on, but you could see the potential there.
It's mind-boggling how the Colts refuse to use Fleener in this way. Reggie Wayne made his living in the middle of the field in those intermediate zones prior to his injury, and Luck was particularly adept at finding him there. Fleener, who is supposed to be replacing Wayne (in a way), has the talent to fill a similar role, yet he still isn't being given those opportunities.
The most astonishing sequence came in the first quarter of this Sunday's game.
Down 7-0, the Colts had driven to the Cardinals' 9-yard line after a one-yard run by Trent Richardson on 1st-and-goal from the 10. On the next two goal-to-go pass plays, Fleener never ran a route into the end zone (he stayed back to pass protect on second down and then ran a four-yard out on third down.
Goal-to-go and your pass-catching tight end, a prime red-zone weapon, never runs a route into the end zone? That's not putting your weapons in the best position for success. It's certainly not making Fleener a primary focus in the passing game.
If the 2013 Colts are going to survive post-Wayne, they have to focus on the weapons that they do have, namely Fleener and T.Y. Hilton. Relegating Fleener to the flats isn't putting him in the best position to succeed—and neither is keeping him in to pass block in the red zone.