The ability of offensive linemen to read and react on the move is the underappreciated key to rushing success in the NFL.
The Indianapolis Colts’ defensive front will test that ability Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Every team runs twists in pass-rush situations, looping two defensive linemen around each other. Bills Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams are great at it. The Colts don’t have an elite edge rusher, so they run twists a bunch.
The Colts also will slant their defensive linemen on run downs a bit more than average.
“They move their front a lot,” said Bills center Russell Bodine.
Slanting is designed to disrupt blocking schemes and prevent offensive linemen from getting to the “second level” to block a linebacker.
“It’s called a spear or a pirate,” Bills defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said of the technique. “Both D-linemen on a side slanting inside, and it causes confusion for the offensive line. They’re thinking it’s a zone out play, so they have to step outside. But when the defensive linemen steps inside like that, they tend to stop. The linebackers know that the gaps are taken care of in the middle, so they’re flowing over the top.”
By slanting, instead of attacking upfield through a gap, the defensive lineman aims to tie up two blockers and take away the numbers advantage the offense is hoping to gain on one side of the line.
“They’re really good at doing that,” said Bills guard Vlad Ducasse. “It’s just another way to throw us off. They have a lot of tools up front. They have No. 92, Margus Hunt. He’s like 6-8. The guy is strong. They have Jabaal Sheard, he’s a heckuva player. When you have those guys crossing, they’re taking the whole line with them. So the linebackers are free making the play.”
A key to blocking slants is to limit the initial surge, so that either a guard or tackle is free to get a piece of the linebacker looking to make the tackle.
“It all depends on your rules,” Ducasse said. “You have to stick with your rules. If you have the outside gap, you stay with it. If you have to play the inside gap, you stay on the inside gap.”
The risk for the slanting defensive line is that if the linebacker responsible defending the edge gets blocked, the running back has a clear field off tackle. The defensive end has crashed inside.
“For an offense, the first time it might not work, or the second, third, or fourth time,” Yarbrough said. “But when it does hit, it’s 88 out the gate.”
The Colts rank 16th in run defense. They have played subpar run-defending games against Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New England. They played mostly stout against Washington, Houston and the Jets.
The 30,000-foot view: The Colts have a miserable history of run defense. Indianapolis has not ranked among the top 14 in rushing yards allowed since 1995. Even in its Super Bowl-winning season of 2006, it ranked 32nd. Part of the reason is the Colts have had the good fortune of having Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck at quarterback over the past 21 seasons. During most of Manning’s career, more money was spent on the offense. In fairness, the Colts’ overall defense was mostly good in Manning’s prime, from 2002 to 2009. But Indianapolis has lacked an elite, run-stuffing defensive tackle for more than a generation.
Southwestern High Pride: Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni is part of one of Western New York’s greatest football families. The athletic complex at Southwestern is named after his father, Nick, who coached sports there for 45 years. His brother Mike is coach at Division III power Washington & Jefferson. His brother Jay coached Southwestern to state titles in 2008 and 2009.
Asked for his most memorable moment playing for the school in Jamestown, Sirianni said:
“Our big rival is Falconer. I remember my junior year I wasn’t playing a lot because I was the backup quarterback. I was like, ‘Dad, I’m not playing football this year.’ He was like, ‘No, you’re playing football this year!’ In the middle of the year, our receivers weren’t doing a great job. Our quarterback at the time said, ‘Hey, just let Nick play receiver.’ They threw me in, and I had a couple touchdowns the very first game and we beat Falconer. And we just beat Falconer on Friday night. I think that’s 22 straight against Falconer. We don’t like Falconer.”
Southwestern is 7-0 this year after its 47-26 win over Falconer-Cassadaga Valley last week.
Playing time: Here’s the percentage of snaps for the most prominent Bills through six games:
Offense: John Miller 100, Dion Dawkins 99, Jordan Mills 99, Vlad Ducasse 94.7, Josh Allen 85, Zay Jones 83, Charles Clay 71, Kelvin Benjamin 66, Russell Bodine 64, LeSean McCoy 51, Andre Holmes 45, Ryan Groy 41, Chris Ivory 33, Jason Croom 28.6, Robert Foster 26.5, Logan Thomas 21, Marcus Murphy 16, Ray-Ray McCloud 16, Nathan Peterman 14.8, Patrick DiMarco 13.
Defense: Tremaine Edmunds 100, Jordan Poyer 99, Tre White 99, Matt Milano 87, Micah Hyde 68.5, Jerry Hughes 67.5, Kyle Williams 64.5, Trent Murphy 55.8, Lorenzo Alexander 51.8, Taron Johnson 50.5, Star Lotulelei 47.9, Phillip Gaines 47.7, Rafael Bush 45.4, Harrison Phillips 39, Eddie Yarbrough 37.3, Shaq Lawson 25, Ramon Humber 14.9.
Weak link: Just like in Buffalo, there has been a lot of talk in Indianapolis about what the Colts’ front office could have or should have done to bolster a suspect receiving corps. The problem has been exacerbated by injuries. The Colts’ one true elite threat, T.Y. Hilton, has been out the past two weeks with a sore hamstring and chest. He may play this week but may not be 100 percent. The second-best weapon, tight end Jack Doyle, will miss his fifth game with a sore hip. The Colts have dropped between 15 and 18 passes the past three games. Starter Ryan Grant is probably out.
Eric Ebron vs. Micah Hyde: Ebron leads NFL tight ends with six touchdown catches, and is fourth among tight ends in catches with 30. Ebron averaged 54 catches the past three years with Detroit, but he wasn’t the game-breaker the Lions envisioned when they drafted him 10th overall in 2014. They cut him. Indianapolis signed him to a two-year deal. The 6-foot-5 Ebron isn’t much of a blocker, but he’s becoming a favored target in the red zone.
Colts vs. Bills third-down defense: Despite the lack of a run game, the Colts are No. 1 in the NFL on third downs, converting 49.4 percent. Why? Luck is great at hanging in the pocket and winning late in the down. The Colts are converting 44.4 percent (16 of 36) on third and 8 or more. By contrast, the Bills convert 21.4 percent (9 of 42) on third-and-8 plus.
Braden Smith vs. Trent Murphy: The Colts’ rookie was viewed as a guard when the Colts picked him 37th overall, but he has been forced to play right tackle due to injuries. He has done well, allowing only one sack and three hurries this season. The Bills must put heat on Luck.
Stat for the road: The Colts stick to zone coverage and don’t normally blitz. They sent five or more rushers at rookie Sam Darnold of the Jets on just 2 of 34 drop-backs last week, according to Pro Football Focus. They’re blitzing on 16 percent of drop-backs.