Understanding the Colts' Offensive Machine: It's all about the Ace Formation

Justin JavanCorrespondent IOctober 29, 2009

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 25: Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts directs the offense against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on October 25, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Colts beat the Rams 42-6.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I read a post the other day saying that the Colts offense needed to be changed up. It was so predictable, so obvious. Au contraire my friends, au contraire.

Before we get into what the Colts do—and why they have been one of the most prolific offenses over the past decade—let’s get some rules, and verbiage out of the way.

Rules, Verbiage, and Other Things to Put You to Sleep

The so-called “7-4” rule

1. The real rule is that you must have at least seven men on the line of scrimmage. This leaves you with four in the backfield (anywhere behind the offensive lineman). Hence, the “7-4” rule.

2. Notice I didn’t say you had to have four in the backfield. The reason is the bare minimum you can have at the offensive line of scrimmage is seven. You can add additional players to the line, but they become ineligible receivers.

3. It’s rare to see teams put more than seven on the line, because you are depleting the number of guys who can block.

4. All pro formations are based on this rule.

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5. If you have seven on the line and want to add a receiver to the formation, he must be off the line of scrimmage: the receiver is usually about a yard or less away from the line. If he screws up and lines up on the line of scrimmage, it’s an illegal formation, and a penalty.

6. There is no such rule for the defense: If they want to, they can line one guy up on the defensive line of scrimmage.

Names of the Receivers and General Alignments

1. The outside receiver, to the left of the QB, is the X receiver, or split-end. Typically he is lined up on the line of scrimmage.

2. The outside receiver, lined up to the right of the QB, is the Z receiver, or Flanker. He is usually lined up about a yard off the line of scrimmage. Given that most QBs are right-handed, the flanker is often the first place the quarterback looks. Again, this is a generality.

3. In a three-receiver set, the third receiver is called the Y receiver, or the slot receiver. Remember, he can be on the line of scrimmage, as long as it doesn’t violate the seven-man rule.

4. In a four-receiver set, you will see two on the line and two off of the line. Who is lined up on the line and who is off, depends on the play.

5. In a five-receiver set, you will see two on the line and three off the line.

Remember, this is just a real general description. There are lots of different formations, such as trips bunch, for example. In this formation, the split end could be on the line, and on the other side of the formation, the slot might be on the line, with the other two receivers forming a triangle behind him.

An Important Term

Flexing the tight end: When a tight end is flexed, he basically becomes a receiver instead of a blocker.

The Colts like to do this a lot out of the ace formation. Basically, what they do is come out with two tight ends on the line, two receivers off the line, and a single back in the backfield.

Typically, Dallas Clark is the tight end that is “flexed” or, in other words, becomes the receiving tight end.


This is not an all-inclusive list of routes that receivers for the Colts run. This list just includes the ones that you will most often by the Colts.

Curl route: The receiver runs straight up the field, about six to eight yards, and then comes back towards the QB. The turn he makes towards the QB is like a curl. This route is good against both zone and man coverages.

Quick out/quick in: The receiver runs straight up the field for three to five yards, then cuts toward the sideline at a 90-degree angle, over the middle of the field. Sometimes you will see the Colts have the slot receiver or tight end running this route.

This is one of the routes Manning uses to get rid of the ball if he reads blitz, or nothing is open down field.

Drag route: The receiver runs up field two or three yards, then cuts across the middle. The cut isn’t as sharp, as it is in an in-route, where the route looks like two straight lines joined together. This is a great route if everything is covered down the field, or maybe if there is a heavy blitz and Manning needs to get rid of the ball quickly.

Slant route: Basically, the receiver runs straight up the field for about three to five yards, then cuts towards the middle of the field at a 45-degree angle. Usually, you will see two or more receivers running this route.

The idea is to get the defenders covering the receivers running into each other, leaving at least one guy open. Though slant routes are more of a West Coast offensive pattern, you will see the Colts use them.

The flat route concept: The flats are the two areas on both sides of the field between the hash marks and the sidelines, which are very close to the line of scrimmage. A lot of plays have the backs coming out of the backfield and catching the ball in the flats.

The Colts love to run plays where they stretch the defense vertically. If nothing is open downfield, their running backs come out of the backfield running a swing route and go to the flats. Time after time, you will see Manning dump the ball off to the back in the flat for a big gain.

If you want to see examples of how the Colts use the flats, then watch the Colts/Patriots AFC Championship Game, and the Colts' Super Bowl.

Out/in route: These routes are the same as the quick out/in route, except they are run much deeper down the field. The receiver may run 10-15 yards down the field before he makes his 90-degree cut out or in.

This play is good against man coverage and some zone schemes.

One thing to remember is the deeper the route, the better the protection the quarterback needs.

Angle route: The best way to describe this route is by using the symbol <. The route basically looks like this symbol. Often you will see tight ends and RBs running this route. This is a great route, because there are two points the QB can hit the receiver, the first line of the arrow or the second.

Circle route: The RB runs a circle out of the backfield and ends up running across the middle of the field parallel to the line of scrimmage.

Corner route: The receiver runs straight up the field, then cuts at an angle towards the sideline or end zone.

Post route: The post route is an intermediate route where the receiver runs seven to ten yards down the field, maybe more, then cuts at a 45-degree angle towards the goal post.

A variation of this route is the skinny post, where the receiver runs up the field but makes a much shallower cut. In other words, when he cuts towards the middle of the field, the angle may be about 20 degrees instead of the typical 45.

The Colts run the post from any position: flexed tight end, slot receiver, outside receiver, etc.

The idea of running the post is to either expose weaker safeties, who are in deep coverage, or to run it and force the defense to drop into a cover 3. Once the defense is in cover 3, this opens up the run.

Go routes/streak routes: The go route and the streak route are the same thing. The wide receiver runs straight up the field as fast as he can, hoping to beat the man coverage.

Whenever Manning sees that the coverage called is cover 0 or cover 1—which usually, but not always, means blitz—he’ll audible to a hot route where one or both of the wide receivers run go routes, because he knows he has man coverage on the outside.

Teams have learned it is very risky to blitz Manning, unless they can disguise it.

His father Archie once said, Manning's like an old hunting dog. You throw the same blitz at him more than once, he’s going to sniff it out.

Fade route: The fade route can have two meanings. The first definition below, is the most common meaning:

1) A fade route is usually used near the goal line, where you run straight five or six yards and break toward the back pylon, looking for the ball over your inside shoulder.

2) The term fade route may also be used as a variation of the go route. The difference between the go route and the fade route is on the fade route, the receiver makes an outside release on the cornerback and runs straight up the field.

The terms inside and outside release simply mean that at the snap of the ball, the receiver either makes a move to the outside or the inside of the defender before running their route. The idea is to get by the defender by putting a quick move on him. The receiver may also fake an outside release and then release inside, or vice versa

These are most of the routes you will see the Colts run. There are more, but I just wanted to go over the basic ones.

One thing to remember about routes is each team has its own terminology for them, and these are just general definitions.

Take the dig route. To me, when I hear dig route, I expect the receiver to make an inside release, run seven to nine yards straight up the field, then make a 90-degree cut so he is running straight across the middle of the field, parallel to the goal line. However, if you were to look this route up online, you would see a lot of definitions that leave the inside release out of it.

My point is, don’t take this as the gospel on routes.

The Ace Formation:

First, 99 percent of the Colts' offensive formations are based off of the ace formation. The ace formation is a single back set with three wide receivers and a tight end.

Except in short yardage situations—when they switch to the I formation or the offset I—the Colts use some variation of the ace formation.

From this formation you can add an extra receiver, add an extra tight end or halfback, and the quarterback can drop back into the shotgun with the back lined up next to him.

The tight end can stay in and block, be flexed, or moved into the slot. The back can run out of it, become a receiver coming out of the backfield, or be put in motion and line up on the line of scrimmage.

Another great thing about the ace formation is it spreads the defense out horizontally, making it harder for them to load up the box with eight or nine guys.

The way the Colts use this formation allows them to make minimal substitutions, which helps them wear down the defense, all the while disguising whether the play called is going to be pass or run.

How the Colts Attack Opposing Defenses:

There are basically two different ways you can attack a defense. One is to stretch them out horizontally, and the other is to stretch them out vertically.

The West Coast offense is based on stretching the defense out horizontally. The basic idea behind stretching the defense horizontally is you’re forcing the defenders to cover the field from sideline to sideline, parallel to the goal post. This type of system is based on short and intermediate routes, and yards after the catch.

The idea behind stretching the defense vertically is to use a lot of four and five-receiver sets from the ace formation or shotgun. You want to attack the defense by creating a nice balance of intermediate and deep passing routes. You also want to establish a running game to keep the defense honest. You must force them to respect both the run and the pass. Otherwise, they will just call plays to shut down your passing attack, such as blitzing.

The Colts are basically a vertical passing team. However, there are elements of the horizontal attack in there as well.

The majority of the routes the Colts run have at least one receiver going deep, the others running intermediate routes, and at least one or two receivers running short underneath routes.

This is what makes the Colts' passing attack so difficult to defend: They attack every area of the field, stretching you vertically and horizontally. This puts them in a position where they can beat man or zone coverage on any given play.

Typically, when you’re attacking a defense vertically, you read high to low. This means after the ball is snapped, the quarterback reads what the safeties are doing to get an idea of what the coverage is.

With Manning, there is no set rule on how he reads a defense. Typically, first he comes to the line and tries to figure out, pre-snap, what type of coverage the defense is in. He also tries to get the defense to show if they are blitzing.

One of the reasons he waits at the line so long is it is hard for defenders to disguise their coverage for that amount of time. More often than not, at least one guy will give away what the defensive attack is going to be. Then Manning decides whether to stay in the play, audible to a different one, or call a hot route.

There are two ways a quarterback can “read” the defense to figure out where to go with the ball: 1) the progression read 2) the coverage read.

In the progression read, the quarterback tries to get an idea pre-snap what the coverage is going to be. Once the ball is snapped, while he is dropping back—whether it be a three, five, or seven-step drop—he is progressing through his receivers to see which one is open.

What’s most important about the progression read system is the quarterback has to know where his receivers are going to be when his foot hits the last step of the drop. As soon as his foot hits the ground, the ball should be coming out. If the receiver runs an incorrect route, breaks it off, or does something else stupid, then bad things usually happen. The progression read system is what is called a rhythm and timing-based offense.

In a coverage read system, you are looking more at defenders, watching what they do, before determining where you are going with the ball.

In this system, the idea is to determine what kind of coverage the defense is in: cover 0, cover 1, cover 2, cover 3, or cover 4, then base where the ball is going on the type of coverage the defense has called.

A quarterback will either read the coverage from high to low or low to high. For example, I asked Jim Miller how he used to read coverages. He told me he used to read the Mike linebacker first and the safeties second.

The reason he did this was, by reading the Mike, he knew if he had a blitz coming through the A gaps or if the Mike was dropping into man or zone coverage. This was his first clue on where to go with the ball. Next, he would read the safeties and see if he the defense was in cover 1, cover 2, etc. This is an example of reading “low to high.”

The other way to read a defense is “high to low.” The first thing you do in this case is look at the rotation of the safeties to determine what kind of coverage the defense is in.

For example, if you see the free safety rotate to the center of the field and the strong safety drop down, then you know you are in safety single high, or cover 1. This usually means man coverage underneath and some kind of blitz.

If your line has picked up the blitz, then your first read is going to be to the outside, because you know that one of your outside receivers is going to be in single coverage. If he’s faster than the corner covering him, that’s where you’re going with the ball.

Peyton Manning uses a combination of progression reads and coverage reads. The Colts’ passing game is definitely based on rhythm and timing. However, Peyton spends a lot of time looking at pictures on the sideline trying to decipher the coverages the defense is using on different plays. By the time the ball is snapped, Peyton usually has a pretty good idea of where he is going with the ball.

As you can see, what the Colts do on offense is very complex: It takes hours and hours of repetition to learn their system.

The most impressive thing this year about the Colts on offense (besides Peyton Manning) is the ability of Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, and Donald Brown to learn the system so quickly. Dallas Clark once said that it took him three years to get the system down. These are three very bright young men who, barring injury, are going to have a huge impact on the Colts offense for years to come.

Please check out the link below to see diagrams of some of the other formations that the Colts use. Remember, they are all constructed around the ace formation.