Colts QB Andrew Luck, in just his second season, already has a reputation for his clutch play in fourth quarters. (Icon/SMI)
Every week in the All-22, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke take you inside the playbook, examining key schemes, series and trends from the previous week of NFL action.
Andrew Luck had displayed the magic touch late in games over his first 17 NFL starts, up to and including a game-winning TD scramble against Oakland in Week 1. The Dolphins put a stop to the heroics Sunday, denying Luck and the Colts on four straight plays from the Miami 23.
They made that happen in a variety of ways, though the strategy was predicated on two thoughts: Stop Reggie Wayne and get pressure on Luck.
The play that preceded Miami's stand was an 18-yard completion from Luck to Wayne. It was just Wayne's fifth catch of the day (after eight grabs in Week 1) and it prompted CBS analyst Dan Fouts to say, "It's been a couple of hours since Reggie Wayne has seen the ball."
The Dolphins' approach on the resulting 1st-and-10 shows off why Luck had such a tough time finding his most reliable receiver. Miami rushed four on the play, played man-to-man on the outside and committed two defenders to each slot guy (Coby Fleener was opposite Wayne in Indianapolis' alignment).
Without the All-22 coaches' film, it's tough to make out exact numbers for each defender, but it appears to be Jimmy Wilson pressing Wayne, with Reshad Jones bracketing him from a few yards back.
The Dolphins' approach here all but eliminated Wayne and Fleener as options, leaving Griff Whalen and T.Y. Hilton one-on-one outside. Luck opted to give Hilton a shot against Brent Grimes on the right sideline. Grimes stayed in terrific coverage position, knocking away the pass.
Indianapolis' prior drive had ended with Grimes leaping in front of Wayne on a similar play -- perhaps that was in Luck's mind when he overshot Hilton deep. Had he tossed it short, allowing Hilton to come back and make a play on the ball, rather than going over top of Grimes, Luck may have had more success.
Second-and-10 was the Colts' best shot to make something happen. Whereas on first down the Dolphins opted to focus on coverage, dropping six and keeping a seventh defender over the middle to keep Luck and his running back in check, they brought the house on second down.
Miami opted for a Cover-Zero approach -- no deep safety and man-coverage on the remaining Colts. That's a gambler's playcall on defense because it sacrifices bodies in the secondary for pressure on the QB. (The four players boxed in red are the defenders who stayed in coverage.)
As a result of that roll of the dice, the Colts had some favorable matchups -- Hilton and Wayne each in one-on-one position outside, and tight end Coby Fleener with the entire middle of the field to himself, defended only by Chris Clemons.
Fleener ran a post pattern, streaking right at Clemons and then breaking to his left toward the end zone. He successfully turned Clemons, too -- on the shot below, you'll notice Clemons' whole body sliding to his left; Fleener is headed back the other direction.
But the pressure on Luck forced the Colts' QB to get rid of the ball before he wanted and prevented him from fully stepping into the throw. Rather than hit Fleener across the middle, Luck threw behind his intended receiver, with Clemons nearly picking off the errant pass.
Miami rolled back into a coverage package on third down, with two players again focused on Wayne. The Colts spread to a five-wide setup here, but for the third play in a row ran a four-verticals pattern -- four receivers running deep routes aimed at various spots on the field. That's an approach meant to bust defenses like the Cover-1 Miami employed on first and third downs, because the deep safety cannot possibly cover sideline to sideline.
Out of the five-wide set, Indianapolis also was able to break Whalen from the slot to Luck's left over the middle, in man-coverage.
Even with potentially advantageous matchups and an aggressive playcall, the Colts could not free up any receivers -- both Wayne and Fleener again drew double coverage, while Hilton, Whalen and RB Donald Brown failed to create any separation.
Luck eventually fired an incomplete pass to his short option, Whalen. He may have missed, though, an opportunity to take off and run for big yardage, as he did last week against a single-high safety look from the Raiders. Miami's Randy Starks, coming straight up the gut, shed his block and eventually forced Luck into a hurried throw. A split-second before that, the Colts' QB had ample room to take off and head for the first-down marker at the 13.
That he didn't run displays how out of sorts Miami had Luck and the Colts' offense on the final possession. When Luck took off for his TD run against the Raiders, Oakland's entire front had blown past him upfield while pass-rushing. Starks' presence up the middle, combined with Clemons deep and great coverage everywhere, left an indecisive Luck on an island, with nowhere to go.
Fourth down was much of the same. Boxed in red for our first look at that final Indianapolis play is linebacker Philip Wheeler, who came on a blitz up the middle to give Miami five pass-rushers. The Dolphins played man-to-man on the lone receiver to Luck's left, then rolled both safeties to Luck's right -- a move that gave them five defenders on three potential receivers (the second Miami safety is deep, just out of the frame).
As on second down, the Colts managed to create some space over the middle of the field as the Dolphins focused their attention mostly outside the hashmarks. That's Whalen streaking across the middle of the screen, three yards beyond the first-down marker; Wayne's running a slant on the other side and was on the verge of coming open, too.
Again, however, the Dolphins blow everything up with pressure. The blitz on second down forced Luck to misfire to Fleener. On this final play Luck wasn't even able to get a pass off, with Brown whiffing on a block of Wheeler and freeing the linebacker up to sack Indianapolis' QB.
Miami found its back up against the wall late in the fourth quarter, against a QB who has proven to be pretty clutch. Rather than let Luck and the Colts carry the play, the Dolphins became the aggressor, continuing to eliminate Wayne on most snaps and shifting looks enough to throw Luck's timing off-kilter.
The result: an emphatic four-down stop an a victory.