The Seahawks travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts in Week 1 of the NFL season, a fixture that figures to be an interesting schematic battle on both sides of the football—so much so that the game placed in my "top five Xs and Os matchups" article back in May.
To gain a better idea of what the Colts will bring to the spectacle, I enlisted the help of Zach Hicks, lead analyst at Horseshoe Huddle/SI Colts. Think of this as an expert scouting report on Seattle’s first enemy.
“A really good club,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll assessed of Indianapolis on September 8. "A really good club; a really well-oiled machine. All of their phases are good, so it's a championship matchup for us. We gotta play championship football.”
Let’s begin with the Colts’ offense. Their main threat is at the running back position.
“Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines are a deadly duo,” Hicks told me.
Carroll made a point to highlight the RBs.
“Both those guys, they're just an explosive play waiting to happen,” said Carroll. “The speed that they have, sometimes guys run really good times and you don't notice it; you notice it with these two guys. Both these guys have rocket acceleration.”
Ken Norton Jr. agreed with Carroll’s standout trait evaluation.
"Yeah they're pretty good,” assessed the defensive coordinator. ”I mean, any time you look at backs you want to see how fast they are and their guys are really fast. So they have that special unique ability about them...it will be a challenge for us to really hold them tight."
Carroll went on to introduce their ability through contact too.
“They're both strong enough to break tackles and make the most of a play that isn't necessarily a good play. ... I think Jonathan's got something like 600 yards after contact last season. I mean that's crazy numbers. That's half of his rushing yardage was after he was hit. And you know had a chance to get tackled and he didn't let it happen. So those are fantastic players."
“The run game is very good,” summarized Hicks. “Taylor looked every bit like a superstar in the making late in the season, and Nyheim Hines took major strides as a rusher.”
Taylor, a 2020 second-round pick, rushed for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns at five yards per carry in his rookie season. Hines’ play was rewarded with a three-year, $18.6million extension on Friday, September 10.
Thankfully, Seattle’s defense is still engineered around a philosophy aiming to earn the right to rush the passer by stopping the run first and foremost. In 2020, the Seahawks’ rush defense allowed a fifth-best 3.9 yards per carry and also a fifth-best 95.6 rushing yards per game. They should be able to replicate such run defense success.
However, both Taylor and Hines are heavily involved in Indianapolis’ passing game too.
“These two are the most impactful players for the Colts in both the run and pass game,” added Hicks.
The RB duet enjoys working behind a talented Colts offensive line.
“The offensive line is huge along with being top tier athletes and they get a ton of push up front."
The run schemes are relatively simple, a theme that is present through most of the Colts’ offense.
“The way it is drawn up most of the time is just a simple duo run and relying on guys climbing to the second level,” explained Hicks. “The Colts like to keep most things simple in their playbook in order to have their guys play faster and more relaxed on game day.”
The Colts are able to vary their ground game scheme because of their stacked OL.
“It’s a good mixture of zone and power,” revealed Hicks. “They love running duo and inside zone but will mix in a little bit of it all due to the athleticism and size of the offensive line; their ability up front allows the Colts to be diverse in their run game.
“They’re strong across the board, minus left tackle."
That’s because first-string left tackle Eric Fisher is still recovering from his torn Achilles.
“It will be a concern with Julie’n Davenport starting,” finished Hicks.
When rushing the passer, it would be prudent for the Seahawks to try to isolate their best pass rushers one-on-one with the presumed ‘fish’ Davenport. Meanwhile, the Colts’ passing game talent away from the backfield is less impressive, with reliable veteran T. Y. Hilton out after undergoing neck surgery.
“The receivers are underwhelming at the moment, a lot of younger guys that struggle to separate,” evaluated Hicks.
That is reassuring news in the uncertain times of Seattle’s cornerback room.
At quarterback, Carson Wentz will make his debut as the Colts' starting quarterback and play for the first time since recovering from a foot injury and COVID-19.
“Wentz and his chemistry with the offense after missing nearly all of camp could be a major weakness. I believe he has only practiced maybe three times this offseason for the Colts.”
The difference in skillset between Wentz and last year’s starter Philip Rivers is an intriguing element to Frank Reich’s play-calling.
“Philip Rivers was elite at knowing where to go with the ball pre and post snap last season but the downfield element just wasn’t there,” explained Hicks. “I think we will see a drop off in that mental element of the game with Wentz but an increase in downfield shots.”
These downfield shots are likely to tie into coverage beaters similar to what the Rams have enjoyed success with versus the Seahawks.
Hear it from Hicks: “I’d say the biggest ways the Colts will attack cover 3 is with deep crossing routes after a clear out vertically, plus dig routes over the middle.”
That’s some serious stress on the Seahawks' underneath zones, although they will be helped by their new defensive base of “stick” fronts. In general, according to Hicks, “the Colts love attacking the middle of the field, and wide receiver Zach Pascal is one of the bigger beneficiaries there.”
The passing game includes a large dosage of screens, something that Indianapolis “loves,” according to Hicks.
“The running backs are used heavily in the screen game, and it is a possibility on any down,” he elaborated. “Receivers get some looks in the screen game as well. Zach Pascal caught a few bubble screens from the slot, Michael Pittman Jr. had some on the outside, and I bet they will get Parris Campbell in on some too.”
The Colts are mainly looking at pre-snap leverage to run these plays, so Seattle trusting its corners to play up at the line is a smart idea—or at least aligning in press and then bailing at the snap like the defense has employed in the past.
“If the Seahawks are backed off of the line at any point, the screen or quick pass is always a possibility,” Hicks explained. “A big emphasis in the Colts’ scheme is getting the ball out quickly and giving the skill position players a chance to make a play with the ball in their hands.”
A fascinating element will be if Wentz sticks to this mode. He was the most sacked quarterback in 2020 and while a lot of that was on a horrendous pass protection situation in Philadelphia, sacks remain largely a quarterback statistic.
Reich’s time with the Eagles and Wentz is still visible with the Colts.
“There a lot of similarities, particularly in how they use 12 and 13 personnel,” highlighted Hicks. “There is a good mix of RPOs as well, which is very similar to the 2017 Eagles.”
With Indianapolis having four different starting quarterbacks, Reich “has diviersifed it a bit,” but, now reunited with Wentz, 2021 is the most Philadelphia-Reich the Colts will have looked.
The run-pass option buzz word is another part that will test Seattle’s underneath players and the soundness of their no-bubbles, bear defense.
“I expect a good bit of RPOs in Indy this year,” predicted Hicks. “Reich used it a lot with Andrew Luck in 2018 and with Jacoby Brissett in 2019, and also did some with Philip Rivers last year too.”
The evolution of the RPO into something more advanced has not occurred though, instead sticking with the league-wide trend of rather conservative RPOs.
“It isn’t anything too complex, typically will be a shotgun sweep play with the pass option of throwing a screen or slant to the backside,” illustrated Hicks.
In terms of pre-snap motion to test defenses, Hicks wants to see more of it from Reich in 2021.
“Not as much as I would like to see,” Hicks began. “Without looking at numbers, I’d say they were probably more middle of the pack in terms of the rest of the NFL in pre-snap motion.”
Formation-wise, the Colts blend under center and gun stuff like most NFL offenses. The way they lean matches their roster and running back talent in a split that Hicks estimate was 60-40 in favor of under center looks.
“They utilize under center early in the game and on early downs. They then move towards the gun on passing downs and near the end of the half.”
Based on this information, a familiar and Seattle-friendly gameplan should work.
“Load up to stop the run and force Wentz into obvious passing situations,” was what Hicks suggested. “If the Colts can get into third and manageable, Reich can draw up some magic to get players open.”
However, if the Seahawks are able to stop the run and limit the explosives, Seattle should succeed on defense.
“If you force them into third and long, and rely on man coverage against these inexperienced receivers, I doubt Wentz will consistently convert,” Hicks declared.
The Colts' defense is a great test for Russell Wilson and new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.
“They're really good right now,” praised Carroll. “And coming off of last year, they've added a couple of elements too.”
The immediately obvious strength is at the middle of Indianapolis’ defensive line.
“DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart are an elite interior duo,” Hicks declared. “Buckner is one of the best interior pass rushers in the game and Grover is up there among run defending 1-techs.”
Carroll agreed with this.
“They’re really good up front,” the head coach told reporters.
Carroll, however, was keen to highlight the work that Matt Eberflus has done in building and scheming his unit around 4-3 roots.
“They're really really consistent with their run front. It's why they were one of the best run defenses in the NFL, because of their consistency in the way that they play base defense. That's a commitment that he's had for a long time.”
This is a similar attitude to defense that Carroll himself has. And it will test Seattle’s ability to play a balanced offensive game.
Diving more into specifics, Indianapolis runs post-snap movement that helps stuff the run.
“They have this cool run blitz called 'patterns' that they use on run downs in order to funnel run plays to their free roaming linebacker,” explained Hicks.
“Patterns” allows their threats at linebacker, specifically Darius Leonard, to make splash plays.
“Leonard is a turnover machine in the linebacker group and one of the most dependable tacklers in the league,” summarized Hicks.
Hicks added that the Colts are more of a spill defense rather than box. That’s largely because Indianapolis runs a lot of cover 2 pass defense.
“When Eberflus first began in Indy, it was almost exclusively cover 2,” Hicks narrated. “Eberflus has diversified a bit the last few years and his main/base defense now features a lot of cover 3/cover 3 match looks.”
This can be explained as an easier way to stop the running game, adding plus one in the box.
The Colts' defense is still going to pose Wilson with a lot of the middle field open challenges that he has historically struggled with. “Eberflus still does incorporate cover 2 (typically spot-drop) though, and I believe he still called it the most in the league last year,” added Hicks.
How about obvious passing situations?
“Eberflus likes to drop into quarters and sit back.”
The key for the Seahawks may well be to run Indianapolis into their cover 3, middle field closed stuff. Seattle will experience “very little true man to man coverage,” according to Hicks.
As for the coverage disguise, Eberflus has adapted in this area too.
“Much more disguise now than they used to have,” Hicks told me. “One newer aspect I love is they will bring down a safety into the box and show a simple cover 3 look. Then at the snap, the high safety will come down and the nickel corner (typically Kenny Moore II) will drop into that middle third.”
Kenny Moore II is a real defensive back talent for the Colts.
“A very good slot corner who is a dangerous blitzer as well,” was Hicks’ scouting report.
Carroll praised some of the funkier Eberflus stuff too: “They're mixing their coverage nicely and the things that they do.”
However, for Carroll, the key Indianapolis ingredient is its base.
“But they're really gonna try to out-execute you. And they've got bodies in all the right spots that can run and hit and play with the kind of juice that you need to play really good base defense."
With Seattle, of course, looking to pass too, the Colts’ coverage unit has become highly questionable.
“Rock Ya-Sin is a concern with his inconsistencies in the league,” Hicks offered. “The Seahawks attacking Ya-Sin vertically with DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett would be wise. He doesn’t have great long speed and has issues with ball tracking down the field.”
At the other outside cornerback spot, Indianapolis will be without its No. 1 guy in Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes had a comeback year in 2020, allowing a 79.2 QB rating, forcing 12 pass deflections and picking the ball off twice.
Instead of Rhodes, the raw press of 2020 seventh-round pick BoPete Keyes will be thrust into a starting role. Keyes was waived by Kansas City on August 31 and the Colts claimed him off waivers.
Asides from playing the kind of iso, pick-on-them ball that Wilson enjoys, Seattle will look to get its core run action going in this game. Waldron will not be sure of where the Seahawks’ attack is going.
“Heavy play-action and attacking the middle of the field between the safeties and linebackers,” was a route that Hicks suggested for Seattle’s attack. This is because “Leonard has a tendency to over-commit in the run game which leaves the area behind him susceptible.”
Essentially: what Seattle’s offense will set out to do. Subsequently, this will be a highly informative viewing experience.
Indy’s obvious pass rush threat is Buckner, a 2020 first-team All-Pro who had 9.5 sacks in his first year with the Colts. However, Indianapolis' quarterback hunters in other areas were considered a weakness by Hicks.
“The edge pass rush is still very young and inexperienced,” Hicks analyzed. “The most snaps played in the group is Al-Quadin Muhammad, but after that it is super young and I doubt they have a huge impact to start the season.
“Buckner is a superstar but the rest of the group is a big question mark. Kwity Paye looks promising but he is a rookie who was raw as a prospect coming out of college.”
Hicks shared that Indianapolis’ rush four grouping features a “NASCAR” package that “will likely include Kemoko Turay as the wide-9, Buckner at 1/0-Tech, Tyquan Lewis at 3-tech and Paye at 5-tech.”
Note that Turay has been ruled out of Week 1 action.
So, while the news for the Seahawks’ tackles is promising, the interior pass rush and scheme versus new, questionable center Kyle Fuller could be a major issue for Seattle. However, the Colts do not pressure much.
"One of the lowest blitz percentage teams in the league,” per Hicks. “They hover around 22-24 percent in a typical year and that probably dropped a bit last year with the addition of Buckner.”
But Eberflus does get creative in pure passing downs to get Buckner preferable matchups.
“Eberflus gets a bit exotic with it. This is the only time he ever gets exotic,” said Hicks. “He loves to mug the A-gap with Leonard and simulate as much pressure as possible. Buckner will line up anywhere from 0-tech to 5-tech on these passing down blitzes.”
How will that be used to attack Fuller?
“How Eberflus attacks the A-gap is a ton of fun,” praised Hicks. “I expect they’ll put a ton of pressure on Fuller to block Buckner and other blitzing defenders as well.”
The final major factor to the Colts is their player COVID-19 vaccination status.
“It’s going to be a mess,” assessed Hicks. “A majority of the Colts’ best players are not vaccinated and it will certainly be a factor later in the season. Colts fans are rightfully upset and nervous about this.”
Whatever awaits Indianapolis in this area, the Colts appear to have avoided any players missing Week 1 versus Seattle. Therefore, this is not a concern of the Seahawks'.