After a 1-15 season under head coach Jim Caldwell, the Indianapolis Colts cleaned house and started a new era by hiring former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who brought in former rival Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Arians brings over a very interesting offensive philosophy since he’s adept at putting together a run heavy or pass heavy game-plan, and he’s able to do both out of multiple formations.
The multiple formations of Arians’ offense is the topic for today because there’s more to it than simple alignments. The movements and alignments cause a reaction in defensive backfields, and often that leads to confusion. The three formation sets that will be looked at are empty, bunch, and stacked.
Arians’ empty set is no different than what’s currently seen around the NFL. As teams continue to use spread passing principles on the field and implement it into their playbooks, they’re using the width of the field by spreading their receivers wider and wider. When they do this, they have the opportunity to not only stretch defenses horizontally but vertically as well, which is something that Arians does effectively.
He spreads defenses horizontally through initial spacing, and then after the snap he combines horizontal and vertical routes that stretch the secondary. When this is done, nearly all zone coverages, depending on what one classifies as zone, turn into man coverage. That puts a pass defender in trail position, and consequently at a disadvantage.
The spread formation is what nearly every team utilizes nowadays, and offenses will continue to do so as they expand on it. But what Arians has also done a very good job of is creating space and free releases for his receivers by cutting down the width of their alignments.
An example of this is Arians’ offense coming out in a spread formation with four receivers and one tailback split-out and then shifting the tailback into the backfield while the three receivers to one side (spread formations are 3×2 sets) will bunch together to form a Trips Bunch set.
The Trips Bunch set complicates the assignments for defenders. The opposition is forced to make checks in their coverage which usually “bases” them out, causing them to play simple coverages that play into the hands of the decision maker: the quarterback. This will benefit Andrew Luck because he’ll have simpler reads as a rookie because of Arians’ motion and bunched sets.
There’s also a single receiver on the line to the strong side of the formation (bottom of the image), while two are off the line of scrimmage. The two receivers off the line of scrimmage benefit from this alignment because they’re unable to be pressed at the snap. What usually occurs is the defense will press or jam the receiver on the line to disrupt the rhythm and timing of the offense. However, the two receivers off the line of scrimmage still have free releases (as you can see with DB #24 in loose coverage) that enable them to develop into their routes.
The last formation that I want to touch upon is the Twins set that Arians often marches out. This formation once again consists of four pass catchers and one running back who is in the backfield. There are two pass catchers to each side of the formation, which again creates a free release off the line of scrimmage for a receiver.
There’s different ways to align in this formation, but the outside receivers on this play are the ones who get the free release.
The three formations I picked out of Arians’ playbook are the ones that I’ve seen him use often simply due to their continued effectiveness.
During his time with the Steelers, Arians utilized an abundance of pass concepts that stretched defenses horizontally, such as the “Hi-Lo” concept that puts a single defender in conflict with two pass catchers running routes to the same area at different depths. This is similar in some ways to what the Colts did during the Peyton Manning years, except that Arians’ sets are more multiple. Arians will throw various looks and concepts at defenses to keep them off-balance and confused.