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Colts Notebook: Why Two Tight Ends Are Critical To Colts’ Offensive Production

Jelani Woods and Kylen Granson emerged as key targets for Matt Ryan in Week Three. Their emergence bodes well for the Colts’ offensive success in 2022.

In Week Two, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan desperately needed receivers; in Week Three, he found them. While the return of star wide receiver Michael Pittman, Jr. and rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce from injury certainly sparked the team’s passing game in Week Three, rookie tight end Jelani Woods provided the only touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs including the game-winning touchdown with 24 seconds remaining:

JELANI WOODS WITH HIS 2nd TD of his career. (Oh and his 2nd TD today) — Colts Coverage (@Colts_Coverage) September 25, 2022

Perhaps even more than the improvement in wide receiver production, the addition of tight ends as a receiving threat portends very well for the Colts offense. The franchise has a long, storied history of quarterback-tight end duos, going back to Johnny Unitas and John Mackey in the franchise’s Baltimore era. Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark are one of the great such duos in NFL history. But some of the most explosive, dangerous Colts offenses have correlated to the quarterback having not just one, but two receiving tight ends.

Manning-Led Colts Offense Built On Tight Ends

Peyton Manning enjoyed rapport with some of the best wide receivers the Colts have ever seen, including hall-of-fame Marvin Harrison and likely soon-to-be hall-of-fame Reggie Wayne. Fans well-remember the “three-headed monster” of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and running back Edgerrin James, leading the Colts to a decade of nearly unrivaled offensive production.

That said, Manning arguably launched his hall-of-fame career on the backs – and in the pass-catching hands – of tight ends Kenny Dilger and Marcus Pollard. From 1998 – 2001, the tight end duo combined for more touchdowns (26) than, and almost as many yards (3,524) as, wide receivers not named Marvin Harrison (22 touchdowns, 4,807 yards). During that stretch, Harrison totaled an astounding 48 touchdowns and 5,376 yards. Combined with running backs Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James, who could run, catch, and block, Manning’s receiving threat at tight end launched one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL.

Colts receiving yards and touchdowns, 1998 – 2001

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The Colts Have Historically Relied On Two Tight Ends

The Colts saw similar production from 2003 – 2011, with Dallas Clark combining with a rotating stable of tight ends. Andrew Luck had Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz had Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox. What do each of these have in common? While some were more effective than others, they were all tight end duos that played a key role in the passing game – reliable receiving targets who opened up the field by drawing defensive back pressure away from the wide receivers.

JACK DOYLE RULES — PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 9, 2021

Two Tight Ends Open The Colts Playbook

Having tight ends who are reliable receivers opens up the offense considerably. The offense can keep a one personnel package on the field, yet can line up to run almost every play in the playbook. Peyton Manning mastered this strategy, finding an advantageous defensive match-up and then keeping the offense in hurry-up, thereby preventing the defense from substituting in a different package.

Having tight ends who could line up on the line, in the slot, or out wide allows the offense to run two-wide receiver, two-tight end packages in both running and passing formations. With one tight end on the line, the second tight end can act as an extra back in I-formation or Y-formation, as an extra blocker in goal line, as a slot receiver in trips or aces, or out wide in spread or empty. At the same time, the tight end on the line can block or release as a hot read.

#Colts highlights day 27 55 days to go! September 21, 2009 On the first play of the game, Peyton Manning finds Dallas Clark along the seam, and Clark fights off defenders on his way to this 80 yard TD. The Colts had the ball less than 15 minutes, and won 27-23. #ForTheShoe — Colts Coverage (@Colts_Coverage) July 18, 2022

The Colts And Matt Ryan Need Two Tight Ends

As with these former Colts quarterbacks, Matt Ryan loves pass-catching tight ends. Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez will likely be remembered as a top-twenty quarterback-tight end duo in NFL history. Coming into the 2022 season, the Colts had a promising second-year tight end Kylen Granson, re-signed veteran tight end Mo Alie-Cox, and then drafted two tight ends: the monster, 6’7 Jelani Woods, and the promising Drew Ogletree.

Alignment of offensive scheme, including the use of tight ends, between head coach Frank Reich and the long-time veteran quarterback Matt Ryan underpinned the blockbuster trade that brought Ryan to Indianapolis. That offensive scheme requires the Colts’ very well-paid offensive line to hold their own in run blocking and pass protection, so that the tight ends aren’t required as extra blockers. Accordingly, in order for the Colts to utilize their tight ends to their fullest potential in a Matt Ryan-led offense, the Colts’ offensive line will need to shore up their current issues, which would free the tight ends to engage more in the passing attack.

The Frank Reich-led Colts rely heavily on two-back formations, which normally would limit opportunities for two-TE packages. However, the Colts also have a young, unproven stable of wide receivers, with no proven production behind Michael Pittman, Jr. Through the first two weeks of the season, defenses were successful in shutting down receivers not named Pittman or Taylor – in part, due to lack of production from tight ends. Until Parris Campbell, Michael Strachan, or one of the even younger wide receivers step up to be consistent, reliable targets for Matt Ryan, the Colts will need to rely on pass-catching tight ends, particularly in the slot and in the underneath routes on the route trees that Reich loves to use.

.@colts @JelaniTheGreat #JelaniWoods first 2 receptions in the NFL are TD’s including the game winner. Looks like the definition of a “Red Zone Threat”. #BaldysBreakdowns — Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 27, 2022

Thus, the emergence of Jelani Woods and Kylen Granson as legitimate receiving threats – along with the establishment of rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce as a legitimate bookend for Michael Pittman, Jr. – proved to be the difference-maker for the Colts offense in Week Three. Colts fans who remember the “Star Wars numbers” years should hope for a healthy dose of more of the same this week against Tennessee and throughout the rest of the season.

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