THE OFF-SEASON promise made by offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton of a more balanced attack isn't so crazy when you consider the pieces with which he has to play. Under Hamilton's predecessor, Bruce Arians, the Colts were as aggressive with the downfield game as any franchise in the league. Hamilton favors a West Coast--style offense that integrates a power running game with more intermediate passing routes. That's where a pair of second-year tight ends enter the picture.
Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener first hit it off at the 2012 NFL combine in Indy. Afterward they were seated together on a plane headed west, where Allen was training and Fleener lived. Bored, they daisy-chained their headphones and watched a movie on Fleener's computer. "It was some terrible, sappy love movie, the only thing I had on my laptop," Fleener says. "When it was over, we thought we'd say goodbye and never see each other again.
"Then comes draft day and I hear my name [No. 34, to Indianapolis]. The next day I found out the Colts took another tight end. I was kind of shocked. I saw it was Dwayne and I was all excited because we had gotten along so well. I had no idea what the plans were."
The plan is to frequently daisy-chain the two players at the line of scrimmage to alleviate the pressure on a novice offensive line and a quarterback who spent more time on his back than all but three passers in 2012. Hamilton is placing fresh bets on the downhill running of second-year back Vick Ballard (814 yards in 2012) and a play-action punch that will lean heavily on Allen and Fleener, both of them strong receivers.
It makes sense to former Jets safety LaRon Landry, signed by Indianapolis this off-season after playing one season in the AFC East and getting a close glimpse at the onetime gold standard of two-tight-end sets—the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. "[They caused] a lot of matchup problems," says Landry. "It's like having a fast guy such as Reggie Bush coming out of the backfield and having a linebacker cover him. Same thing with the tight ends, but they're big men who can block too."
A former Howard University quarterback, the 38-year-old Hamilton had been a position coach with the Jets, 49ers and Bears before joining Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff as a receivers coach in 2010. When Harbaugh left for the 49ers and Stanford's then offensive coordinator David Shaw was elevated to head coach, Hamilton took over and ran an offense once described by a Notre Dame football blogger as the "tight end--iest in the country." Luck says the new Colts playbook consists of roughly 75% of the plays he ran in his final season at Stanford, with slightly more emphasis on ground-and-pound.
As veteran wideout Reggie Wayne nears the end of his Hall of Fame career, Indianapolis desperately needs the run game to help bolster an erratic offense that took plenty of the sheen off Luck's rookie numbers. Wayne excluded, Colts wide receivers have some of the worst hands in the league. Luck's No. 2 and No. 3 targets in 2012, Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton, dropped 22 of 132 catchable balls, well above the norm for the position. Avery had the most trouble with deep balls, catching six of 25 attempts beyond 20 yards with four drops. Replacing Avery—who signed with the Chiefs in March—is free-agent addition Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has the speed to take the top off the defense, but whose catching skills regressed in '12 after three seasons of improvement.
Additionally, the Colts have one of the league's worst pass protection units, which only speaks more highly of Luck. According to Pro Football Focus, the Colts' pass blocking graded out worse than 30 teams in 2012, better than only the Cardinals'.
With so much riding on both Allen and Fleener to contribute in every facet of the offense, neither player feels as if he's in the position battle that was anticipated after last year's draft.
"In a sense we are competing," Fleener says. "But I don't think on a daily basis it's about trying to outdo each other. It's about getting better as a group. I think as long as the team's successful, there's going to be enough credit to go around."
THE CASE FOR ...
The running game
Despite having one of the NFL's most promising young QBs in Andrew Luck, the Colts are built to run the ball better than most teams. According to Pro Football Focus, each of the projected offensive line starters, plus TE Dwayne Allen, graded better in the ground game than in the passing attack in 2012. The left side in particular—traditionally the pass-essential blindside protectors—excelled on handoffs. Free-agent acquisition Donald Thomas, projected to start at left guard, has spent three of his five seasons in spread offenses—in New England and Detroit—but he was first put to use by the Dolphins, who in '09 rushed for 2,231 yards and 22 TDs behind the speedy, 6' 4" 306-pounder. Meanwhile, the anchor of a would-be run-heavy Colts offense is LT Anthony Castonzo (left), an '11 first-round pick who gave up a team-high 58 hits, hurries or sacks last year, but who was key in the Colts' gouging the Ravens for 152 rushing yards in a wild-card playoff game. Indy brass thinks that free-agent pickup Ahmad Bradshaw can be an every-down back based on his pass protection skills. If not, second-year between-the-tackles bruiser Vick Ballard gives coordinator Pep Hamilton the license to run wild.
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QB ANDREW LUCK