Fan Question Film Room: How Can The Colts Use Three Safety Sets in 2021?

In 2019, the Colts deployed three safety sets at a fairly high level down the stretch. While they strayed away from it in 2020, today we will take a look at that 2019 success and see if it could factor into 2021.
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While planning my offseason of film room articles on this Indianapolis Colts team, I asked the fans on social media what type of film content they would want to see this summer. The result of a fairly simple question was a ton of interesting ideas for articles. So, my idea for this new series that will run throughout his offseason is to base articles around my favorite questions I receive.

Our next question comes from my good friend on Twitter Brent (@FanOfNuance):

"What's the ideal package for a third safety? Is there a recent Eberflus-style D that employs it often? What types of games/situations/etc."

This is an excellent question and one I wanted to get to right away because I have talked about this subject in the past. The Colts were a heavy three safety set team in 2019 but strayed away from it in 2020 after the injury to Malik Hooker. While it may not return in 2021 due to lack of quality depth, it is an interesting subject to look at. So, let's look at Brent's questions one by one and answer them as we go.

What's the ideal package for a third safety?

The Colts primarily used the third safety as a dime linebacker type in 2019. Rather than using all three players in the backend of the defense, the Colts would have one (sometimes two) more as lurkers around the line of scrimmage. This allowed the Colts to be more aggressive on these plays as they felt more comfortable blitzing with faster players in the box.

The clip below is a great example of this. George Odum and Malik Hooker are the deep safeties while Khari Willis is in the box as a linebacker. The coverage appears to be cover three match as Odum steps up to the mid-zone and Hooker stays in his deep third. Underneath, the Colts use a fire blitz with Willis to get quick pressure on the quarterback and nearly force a game-changing fumble on the play. More speed in the box on passing downs means more creativity for the defense.

Matt Eberflus blitzes at one of the lower paces in the league, however, he drew up some creative blitz designs with this defensive set in 2019. This play below was my personal favorite blitz design as it is a purely chaotic fire blitz that creates havoc. The Colts load up with eight men in the box. At the snap, three of these players drop out (including defensive end Jabaal Sheard) and the Colts sneak Kenny Moore II off the opposite edge. This six man blitz forces a quick throwaway as Odum hits the quarterback.

Is there a recent Eberflus-style D that employs it often?

As I mentioned above, the Colts used this set quite a bit in 2019. I didn't fully chart all the snaps that it was used but I will say that nearly 200 of Odum's coverage snaps in 2019 came in three safety sets. While it may not have been the Colts' base defense by any means, it was used quite a bit in key situations.

A few of those key situations came in the redzone that year. In the clip below, the Colts rolled out the three safety look on third and short against the Pittsburgh Steelers. By having three safeties in such a confined space, the Colts were able to use their speed advantage to shut down the Steelers' pass catchers, forcing another throwaway.

Another key redzone situation where the Colts used three safeties came against the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football. Willis was out on this play but the Colts still used this look, opting to put in Rolan Milligan in place of Willis. The added speed on the defense worked wonders as Odum is able to get the pass deflection in the corner of the endzone.

While I don't have the raw charting numbers on me for this set, I feel confident in saying that the Colts ran three safety looks on almost every third down/obvious passing down from weeks 7-17 in the 2019 season.

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What types of games/situations/etc?

I answered this a bit above but the Colts used this set on almost every passing down throughout the last 10 weeks of the season. Odum was primarily the third safety for the Colts in 2019. From weeks 7-17, he logged 181 snaps in pass coverage and just 25 snaps in run defense.

In terms of opponent, the only thing that really mattered was how often the team was in obvious passing downs. For instance, the Colts used three safety looks around 25 times against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019. When they faced the New Orleans Saints (in that massacre of a game) they only used it roughly four times.

The key to success for this look though was using it on passing downs. The speed of the safeties in coverage allowed the Colts to bring more pressure up front. The result was more sacks on designed blitzes. Here, Darius Leonard gets a sack as a spy on the play as the quarterback was confused by the stunting defensive line and good coverage on the backend.

Like I mentioned earlier, the Colts loved to use the safeties on blitzes out of these sets. Here the Colts bring both Odum and Willis on the fire blitz, which causes a quick pass before the receiver is ready. The other safety on the play, Hooker, gets the pass deflection in the secondary.

Final Thoughts

This was a wrinkle that I was sad to see not used more in 2020. Obviously, the team had big plans for it before Hooker went down with a season ending Achilles tear (and they decided not to play Odum on defense for some strange reason).

I'm not sure the Colts have the personnel to run it in 2021, unless they plan on playing Odum on defense again. If they are set on keeping him on special teams in 2021, I don't think Shawn Davis is ready for defensive snaps yet and Sean Davis is too much of a liability to be trusted in these sets. Regardless, I do hope that these sets return one day because they were an excellent wrinkle in the Colts' 2019 defense.

Colts Fans! I want to make this series a long running one here on the site this offseason. If you have any ideas for film rooms that you want to see, send me a message at my Twitter handle before or reach out to the Horseshoe Huddle page on Facebook or Twitter.

Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.

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