Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has received his fair share of criticism since joining the team before the 2013 season. His determination to run the ball and keep the offense balanced made it hard for Andrew Luck to carry the Colts to wins in 2013 and the very early part of 2014.
However, like great offensive coordinators do, Hamilton made adjustments. The former Stanford offensive coordinator began to run the offense around Luck, and it showed, with the third-year quarterback throwing more passes and the offense thriving because of it.
Then things changed in the second half of this season. Ahmad Bradshaw went down with a season-ending injury. Dwayne Allen missed a few weeks. Trent Richardson kept being, well, Trent Richardson. In the final four games of the season, the Colts averaged just 19 points per game and turned the ball over nine times.
Now, the offense has changed once again, and because of these changes, Hamilton has successfully revived the Colts offense just in time for a potential Super Bowl run.
The biggest change for the Colts was finally deciding to bench Richardson in favor of Daniel Herron and Zurlon Tipton. Herron has shown explosiveness, vision at the line of scrimmage and toughness, playing through a shoulder injury against the Denver Broncos. Chuck Pagano praised Herron's toughness after the game, according to Kevin Bowen of Colts.com:
But a personnel change at running back can't be directly credited to Hamilton. What the offensive coordinator can be credited for is his game plan, and that is where Hamilton has made dramatic changes in the postseason.
The man that was determined to establish a balanced offense has all but abandoned the running game in the team's two playoff wins. Excluding four scrambles from Luck, the Colts have ran the ball 49 times compared to 87 passes. That might not seem like too pass-heavy of an offense, but 24 of those carries came in the fourth quarter of those games on drives intended to chew clock.
So what has Hamilton done instead of running? He's relied on Luck's arm, but in a different way than he did in the regular season. Rather than constantly going deep, Luck has focused more on the talent at tight end and running back, relying on checkdowns when his receivers haven't been open down the field.
|Targets by Position, Regular Season vs. Postseason|
|Regular Season||369 (55.8%)||164 (24.8%)||114 (17.2%)|
|Postseason||42 (48.3%)||22 (25.3%)||22 (25.3%)|
|Target Numbers from ESPN.com|
Herron has become a much bigger part of the passing game, and that has allowed Luck to have a dump-off option when no one else is open. The third-year running back has the second-most targets for the Colts this postseason with 19, catching 18 of them for 117 yards.
Let's take a look at how Hamilton has utilized Herron in the passing game.
On the opening drive against the Cincinnati Bengals after switching from under center to shotgun, Luck can see that the Bengals will be running man coverage. What's he's not sure of is the inside linebacker, who could be blitzing or dropping back.
The inside linebacker initially appears to blitz, but holds back while reading Luck's eyes, possibly playing as a spy. However, he doesn't spot Herron, who begins to sneak out of the backfield.
This leads to a wide-open Herron, who then takes the pass down for a solid 18-yard gain. It's not the sexiest play in the world, but with the Bengals so focused on protecting against the deep ball, the middle of the field is open for the Colts.
But Hamilton hasn't just used Herron in the passing game out of the backfield; he's now began to use Herron out wide. This is something that I had seen numerous times when attending the past two training camps with Richardson as the starter, but I never expected that they'd use it to exploit matchups in the passing game.
In the second quarter of Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos, Hamilton had Herron split out wide, running an "in" route six yards downfield. The Broncos put Todd Davis, one of their backup linebackers, on Herron in man coverage.
With Hakeem Nicks running an out route deeper down the field and Davis playing off of Herron, Nicks picks the defender. A nice move from Herron throws Davis off, and with Nicks in the way, the running back is wide-open once again, this time for another nice gain.
Hamilton has done a nice job adjusting to what the defense gives the Colts, and it's helped them make big plays when opponents try to adjust to these checkdowns.
Back to the game against the Bengals, Cincinnati tries to adjust to the dump-off passes by only playing a single-high safety. They play a mix of zone and man coverage here, with two guys going one-on-one on Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks while the safety plays deep.
As Luck avoid pressure in the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield, he sees that Moncrief has beaten his defender as he cuts inside, while the safety is caught flat-footed looking at the other receivers down the field.
By the time the safety has reacted, it's too late, as Luck throws an absolute perfect pass to the rookie wide receiver for a touchdown.
As the Colts prepare to take on the New England Patriots next week in the AFC Championship Game, these are the kinds of plays Hamilton may be tempted to keep calling. Darrelle Revis and the Patriots secondary are quite strong, but the linebackers are suspect in pass coverage. New England ranks just 12th in covering running backs and 30th against tight ends in the passing game, according to Football Outsiders.
There are other things that Hamilton has done with the offense, like moving T.Y. Hilton to the slot this past game to abuse the Broncos secondary. He hasn't been afraid to have empty backfields, either, forcing opponents to bring in extra defensive backs and allowing Luck to find mismatches with his plethora of weapons.
Many have been impressed with the play-calling from Hamilton since the playoffs have began, with the offensive coordinator letting his best player carry the offense. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy has approved of the way Hamilton has ran the offense so far:
I'll admit that I have been one of Hamilton's bigger critics since he came to Indianapolis, but I have been more than impressed with how he's managed the Colts as of late. The offense has come back to life, and if he can keep it up, the Colts may very well be on their way to playing in Super Bowl XLIX.