Skip to main content

Indianapolis, in the post-Luck era, has rarely seen the limelight. As Rick Carlisle will tell you… “it’s a small market”.

The Colts had two stand-alone games in 2023. One was in Germany when most of America had yet to set their fantasy lineups, and the other was all the way in Week 18.

But without their starting QB or star RB, the Colts quietly delivered…every Sunday at 1:00 pm.

And their rookie third-round receiver played a big part in that. Josh Downs was a productive player who got tucked away in an offense that nobody really talked about. Downs finished his rookie season with 68 receptions, 771 yards, and 2 TDs. Outside of the TD production, those are similar numbers to Jordan Addison and Jayden Reed.

But his value to the offense was hard to quantify on a stat sheet. And from hearing Jim Bob Cooter and Shane Steichen talk about the offense heading into 2023, he’ll play a big role moving forward.

 

THE VALUE OF THE SLOT WR IN EMPTY FORMATIONS

 

As many know, or maybe don’t know, the Colts offensive system and terminology is based on the Patriots and Josh McDaniels. Obviously, Anthony Richardson and Tom Brady couldn’t be any different as players, so the offenses aren’t the same, but the terminology is.

Josh Downs reminds me of a Patriot that made those same offenses special… Julian Edelman. The way they play the game and their roles within the structure of the offense are very similar.

 

 

 

These film rooms can be difficult sometimes because one play rarely proves a point. I could show you a whole cutup that I’ve made for the article, but often people want that one play that tells the story. Luckily, I think this one does it pretty well.

The Patriots are in a big Week 7 game vs. Pittsburgh on 1st down. The Patriots come out in a unique formation here. Yes, it’s an empty formation, but it’s from 12 personnel (two TEs). Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski are both on the field, which you don’t usually see in an empty formation.

Usually on 1st and 10 in a normal game situation when you see 2 TEs head into the huddle, most defensive coordinators will want to match personnel with their base defense. They want that extra linebacker in the box, because from that personnel and that down and distance, you’re normally expecting a run.

New England knows this and uses it to their advantage. Empty is a great tool for any offense because it makes life so easy on a QB. First and foremost, the defense has to sacrifice thier ability to disguise coverage in order to properly align to the formation. Somebody has to match up with James White on the top of the screen. In this case, Ross Cockrell, a corner, is aligned next to him with his eyes looking at the QB. Now we know it’s zone coverage.

From there, the Steelers are trying to make this look like it’s 3-Buzz (Buzz meaning the coverage is rotating to the strong side). However, the empty formation makes it easy to diagnose. A trick of the trade is that when a defense rotates to a single high coverage the linebackers will cheat their alignment to “make room” for the dropping safety. This is called Boss or Bowing the LBs (Boss=Strong, Bow=Weak). In this case, LB Vince Williams is all the way outside the RT, so Tom Brady doesn’t believe that safety is really dropping and most likely knows exactly the defense Pittsburgh is in.

In this Cover 6 defense, Vince Williams will be matched up with Julian Edelman as a wall player trying to “wall him off” and deny the inside. That’s a major matchup advantage in favor of New England.

When you have a WR with the lateral agility and short area quickness as Julian Edelman, you can see how easy it can be for a QB.

The Colts deploy Josh Downs in a similar role.

Putting your quick WR at #3 strong can be an effective option, especially if you have Rob Gronkowski and can come out in 12 personnel empty. But most teams don’t have that so they will put their WR at #2 weak. I’ve talked about this at length but the reason teams do this is because they are almost guaranteed a favorable matchup no matter the coverage… Let me explain.

The best matchup for a defense on a player like Josh Downs is a slot corner or nickel. Well when you line him up on the weak side, he will always be opposite that nickel by rule (the nickel always goes to the passing strength). Furthermore, you can line him up inside to ensure that you’ll see a linebacker or a safety forced to match him since the corners will be outside (obviously), and then the slot will go to the strong side. When you do that, a guy like Downs who is extremely shifty has a two-way go vs. a guy who can’t cover him in a phone booth.

Now you’re probably thinking…what if you just played Man/man? Well you can… but you don’t really see it from wider alignments because you’ll be asking a corner who doesn’t normally play inside to go play inside, as well as running the risk of exposing defenders who have to cover more space.

 

 

 

I love this play so much. There are some things we’ll talk about later in the film room about where we can be better, but Anthony Richardson does a great job of processing, Steichen gives him the perfect call, and Josh Downs has some serious juice.

Let’s talk about the pre-snap process. The Colts come out in empty and the Jags decide to get aggressive on defense by calling a creeper pressure called “Whip”. In this pressure, ran all over the league, the Will LB is going to blitz the B gap, while the field side DE will become a bonus dropper, with 3-weak match coverage behind it.

You don’t normally expect this call on 2nd and 9 from empty, but Indy made them pay. Shane Steichen gives AR all the answers he needs pre-snap. Like I said earlier, it’s difficult to disguise in empty, and that applies to pressure too. That Will LB is in no man’s land while the safety is creeping down to cover Josh Downs. Jacksonville might as well get on Indy’s headset and just tell them they are blitzing.

Pre-snap Anthony Richardson knows he’s gonna be hot, but so does Josh Downs. Without being in the huddle to know the exact route called with the exact coaching points, I’d imagine this is some sort of option route that can break any sort of way depending on the leverage. My guess is normally the route should break outside vs. a DB that’s inside leverage like that. But Downs is smart enough to know that if he can win inside, it’s a much easier throw for AR and could potentially break for a big gain since he’s entering the space vacated by the blitz. Nonetheless, you can see his short-area quickness and burst that gives AR an easy answer for a completion.

Hopefully, you’re still with me here (I’ll probably make a video version to explain this all better), but you can see in both clips how easy it is for the QB when you have a receiver that can win quickly. It may not result in the deep throws down the field, but when defenses are throwing the kitchen sink at you, it really helps to have a guy that you know can win quickly and keep the offense on schedule.

 

THE SCRAMBLE DRILL

 

Some of Josh Downs’ best plays came when the defense had Indy beat.

 

 

 

3rd and 5. Backed up. 2:52 seconds in the 4th quarter.

Patriots call Cover 1 Robber. Nobody wins… Gardner buys some time and finds Downs in a big moment in the game.

 

 

 

Same thing here. First third down in the game. Raiders play Cover 3. Gardner buys time and finds Josh Downs wide open.

Some parts of these plays are instincts, elite ones at that. The other is coordinated. Contrary to popular belief offenses have mechanisms in place so that the QB has a rough idea of where his receivers will be and doesn’t run into a situation where they aren’t on the same page.

Here’s a copy from Jim Bob Cooter’s 2017 Detroit Lions playbook.

 

Usually, you teach your WRs that are to the side of the scramble to “Scramble Move” meaning to break your route deep to score. In the first clip vs. New England you can see Downs see Gardner scramble towards him and break his upfield away from coverage to give Minshew a place to score.

Offensive Coordinators would love to be able to script a scramble drill to a tee, but the reality is that sometimes players just have to play backyard football and be athletes. Josh Downs has a really good feel for how to do that.

 

RELIABLE RELIABLE RELIABLE

 

Josh Downs is the type of player who gets his job done. You need him to go and play bigger than his size, make a contested catch, or put his body on the line? He’ll do that. If you need to scamper for some extra yards to move the chains? He’ll do that. You need to use him as a decoy on run downs? He’ll do that. And if you need him to make an acrobatic catch to fit a ball in a tight window? He’ll do that too.

 

 

 

The Colts are running a play that I’m sure has changed over the years, but that Jim Bob Cooter called “Jockey”

 

 

The outside receiver (MPJ) will run a five-yard under route, while the slot receiver will run an inside comeback. What I love about this route is that Josh Downs hops off the ball and brings his feet together like he’s going to run one of his patented option routes. The goal is to get the DB flat-footed so when he sticks his foot in the ground and gets vertical to sell the inside fade, the DB is more likely to panic and flip his hips. This is a pretty nice rep by the safety vs. a pretty nice route from Downs. There isn’t a ton of separation, but it’s NFL open.

From there it’s just impressive ball tracking, hands, and body control to make the play.

 

RUN GAME DECOY

 

Outside of Isaiah McKenzie, Josh Downs functioned as a “gadget” type player that was used in Bubble screens, funky motions, etc. The Colts used that to their advantage when they recognized defenses keying in on him at the snap.

 

 

 

By motioning in and out of the backfield, the Colts were able to manipulate the number of players in the box, and ultimately create better angles in the blocking scheme.

 

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

 

Like any WR there are plays that Downs left on the field. He didn’t drop many balls, or get stuffed at the LOS, or have any embarrassing routes, but I’m sure there are some reps that he wish he had back.

I could go and nitpick some plays here and there, but I want to focus on one theme I saw in not just Josh Downs but the entire 2023 Colts. Pressure plan.

 

 

 

Here’s a breakdown I did much earlier in the offseason. The same option routes that resulted in easy completions and explosive plays are the same plays that are killing drives. Josh Downs and the Colts’ kryptonite was pressure.

Down’s signature foot fire release helps freeze defenders, but it also can take a while in the progression. That route is the “built-in hot route” for when the offense IDs pressure. That means he has to win NOW!

There were some plays like this one and then the Jags play where Downs could eliminate a false step or two and help out his QB.

 

BOTTOM LINE

 

Josh Downs had a rock-solid rookie year and should see some growth in his second year under the system. His production might now WOW fantasy owners, but Josh Downs does a lot of things that are hard to quantify. He makes life easier for everybody. When you have a guy that can win quickly off the snap, it takes a lot of pressure off a QB and gives easy completions to move the chains. They might not make Sports Center or your Twitter feed, but I love a good easy completion, because trust me… they’re few and far between in the NFL.

I am really excited to see his on-field chemistry develop with Anthony Richardson. It was clear that AR developed some trust in Downs and went to him in a lot of key situations.

 

More from The Blue Stable:

 

FILM ROOM: AD Mitchell

Film Room: Will Fries

Leave a Reply