I haven't been particularly enthralled by the Colts' activity in Free Agency. I had in mind a list of potential players who I'd hoped Ryan Grigson would pursue, which unfortunately didn't seem to correlate at all with what the Colts FO were thinking.
Instead of marquee proven production, the team opted to slightly mitigate the risk and take guys widely seen as a level below the top players available, though in doing so the Colts' haste looks to have created a recipe for mediocre players on bloated contracts. That's my initial take, though it is of course far too early to judge. The pursuit of players with more potential upside than prior production took on new meaning with the signing of Darrius Heyward Bey – the archetypal Al Davis Raiders selection, taken 7th in the 2009 NFL draft. Famed for his incredible raw speed, his atrocious hands along with the permanently stunted Oakland offense precluded any great development – which is fairly problematic, considering DHB was widely acknowledged as a project receiver coming in.
The Colts have the perfect situation in which DHB can thrive – a future star entrenched at QB along with primarily young offensive pieces. He even has the benefit of Reggie Wayne every day in practice – and there isn't a receiver I'd prefer to have over Wayne when it comes to passing on the skills and fundamentals of the position to colleagues in the receiving corps.
Anyway – to the crux of the piece. I've put together a few plays below to show DHB's capabilities and issues and look at the acquisition moving forward…
The first play I've chosen comes from the Raiders vs. Lions game in Week 15 of 2011, in which DHB accrued 8 receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown – possibly his best performance in a Raiders jersey.
The play in question is a 2nd and 12 from the OAK 4, with 11:45 left in the 2nd Quarter. As you can see, it's a 7-7 game.
Heyward-Bey is lined up opposite Eric Wright, and the Lions are playing a single-high safety zone coverage, as far as I can see. The corners on the outside have some freedom to stick to their receivers given the Full House formation deployed on offense – necessary, when you consider the ball is being snapped from the 4.
Heyward Bey is running a deep slant, which takes advantage of his formidable straight-line speed in that the corners have to account for it. A quick break can often result in major YAC, as is the case here.
As aforementioned, the deeper slant means that Wright has to account for the possible fly route, and he opens his body up to the sideline in order to prepare for it. This leaves him with his back to Heyward-Bey and the inside of the field.
Palmer has a reasonably clean pocket considering the context and gets the ball out on time. I've circled the foot of Eric Wright which you can barely see on the frame – an indicator of his positioning when DHB makes the reception.
Wright performs a complete about-face on the play, turning his back to DHB and the ball in the process. The unorthodox and somewhat unnatural catching method utilised by Heyward-Bey comes to the fore.
He lets the ball come into his body and secures the ball with his arms, somewhat haphazardly. Fortunately, Eric Wright is still wandering 5 yards off and isn't able to make a play on the ball.
Here's the really impressive part of the play for me – Heyward-Bey contorts his body and makes a break which further confuses Wright.
If you need evidence of raw speed, you have it here in abundance. Wright has position, but a quick move to accelerate and he's at the 35 yard line.
He's ultimately brought down at the 38 for a 34 yard gain in a big-pressure situation. With DHB it's all about YAC – and considering the direction of the offense, that's fine.
DHB has been hailed as a real threat on intermediate routes – and here, i've tried to isolate why that is. On the snap, Wright is backpedalling and trying to divine Heyward-Bey's intentions and route. He can't fail to be conscious of the speed.
The deeper nature of the slant makes it more deceptive – and as I mentioned before, it forces Wright to consider the potential for a deeper route on the outside. He opens his body to the sideline which allows him to naturally cover an angle, represented by the black annotation. Unfortunately – and it's great gameplanning – the route is designed to go inside, precisely to take advantage of the cornerback's reaction.
There isn't a great deal Wright can do at this point, so he tries to reset his base.
..which requires a turn of the body, and a loss of awareness as to what's going on around him. It's essentially a surrendered reception, Wright is just trying to prevent a catastrophe.
And while it doesn't go for a 96 yard touchdown, Heyward-Bey's formidable YAC ability translates to a significant gain in a troublesome situation. It's probably instructive however to remember that this is the Detroit secondary of 2011, and with that in mind let's move on.
The next play is from the same game, hence the previous comment. This time Heyward-Bey is matched up with Chris Houston, probably the most consistent and talented of the Detroit cornerback group. It's a 2nd and 7 from the DET 43, later on in the same drive.
The Lions are again playing single-high safety with zone coverage, and again the Raiders opt for heavy protection with intermediate slants on the outside.
Much as we saw in the previous play, the fear of DHB's deep speed keeps Houston on the back foot and he maintains a cushion of at least 5 yards. Palmer receivers good protection from the heavy formation and is able to release it promptly.
Moving back to the broadcast frame – as the throw is made, Houston to his credit does a reasonable job of closing on the ball. Given DHB's unconventional body-catching style of reception, closing on him and making a forceful hit is a likely way of disrupting the reception.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the hit is the opposite of forceful. Houston endeavours to simple shove Heyward-Bey forwards, probably in the hope that the inside zone 'backer would clean up the mess.
Justin Durant is shockingly timid on the inside, and as a result, bad things happen. The deep safety opts to pursue Heyward-Bey's current position, rather than his anticipated location should he break the tackle.
Melvin Bullitt and Tom Zbikowski would be proud of this safety effort, and one look at the Lions on the play shows the level of effort and mindset. They don't seem too fussed about the outcome.
Heyward-Bey gets into his stride and receives a springing block from the receiver opposite. From here's it's a footrace, and there's only one outcome.
It's a 43 yard touchdown, and Heyward-Bey is tearing the place up. I'd like to highlight his somewhat contrived receiving motion, though.
Whenever he goes to catch the football, every motion seems jarring and contrived, with clear rigidity. Contrast this with the fluidity of Reggie Wayne when making incredible catches and you'll see that there's a lot of work to be done – though by all accounts, he's a hard worker.
He doesn't quite extend his arms to meet the football fully and is willing to let the ball meet him in the confines of his chest, where he can use his body to control the momentum.
The pathetic effort from Houston can be encapsulated in this frame, and combined with the timidity of Durant, it's a killer.
If you're after an example of the innovative plays that can be used with the speed we have, the following is an appropriate demonstration. It's taken from the Week 6 Raiders vs. Falcons matchup in 2012. The play in question is a 3rd and 4 on the ATL 43 in a 0-0 game.
The Raiders line up in a heavy bunch formation with Heyward-Bey the furthest outlier and Darren McFadden in the backfield. The play is a simple deceptive toss to Heyward-Bey with an element of deception introduced given McFadden's anticipated route. The fake element is aimed at deceiving the Atlanta linebackers, and it works perfectly.
Upon the snap, McFadden moves to the right to execute the ploy. DHB moves inside to take the pitch, and John Abraham on the back side realises what's occurring in front of his eyes. As a result, he stops his pursuit and maintains contain on the back end, while his fellow defenders commit wholeheartedly to the anticipated McFadden toss play.
As Heyward-Bey takes the pitch, the one-on-one matchup to define the play becomes clear. The rest of the Atlanta linebackers completely lose themselves in the pile, as the Raiders heavy bunch surges out to block.
Abraham does a good job of keeping contain, and Heyward-Bey is forced to make a move to try and beat him. He fakes an inside cut which ties up the feet of Abraham.
He gives him a delightful little shake and move, before making a final decision to outrun the defender to the outside.
The unbelievable speed again comes to the fore and he outruns the older Abraham with relative ease.
The deep safety – William Moore at a guess, though it could be Thomas DeCoud – attempts to cut off Heyward-Bey's trajectory.
It's a spectacular diving effort to try and cut DHB off at the first down marker, but it's destined to fail.
The game-changing speed again allows him to elude pursuit, and he continues running downfield. A simple conversion on 3rd and 4 would be adequate, though this is the major upside of players such as Heyward-Bey.
Dunta Robinson eventually feels the need to contribute his patented "Look, no hands!" tackling method to the discussion. It's a shambolic attempt at a tackle, and it does little more than bounce Heyward-Bey in a new direction.
Robinson ends up on the floor scrambling for his dignity, while DHB opts to protect the yardage already gained in a 0-0 game and dives to the floor.
Heyward-Bey is ultimately brought down for a 20 yard gain on 3rd and 4. If we can incorporate similar plays into the playbook – reverses; fake reverses; pitches to receivers – we have the ability to take advantage of both T.Y. Hilton and Heyward-Bey. An untalked-of benefit with such a strategy would be that it plays upon one of the greatest strengths of Anthony Castonzo, our best offensive lineman. He's always impressed me when asked to charge out and make deft blocks at the second level, and he'd be a crucial mover in any such scheme.
The final play I've chosen for Heyward-Bey comes from the Dolphins vs. Raiders matchup in 2011 – it's garbage time in a comfortable Dolphins win, but it's worth picking out for a couple of different reasons.
DHB is at the top of the frame running a simple fade route. Take note of the score and time on the clock – it's not exactly a game-winning drive in the Superbowl. Nonetheless – he's matched up against Vontae Davis, of all people.
The ball is snapped and Palmer immediately lofts it up for Heyward-Bey, who's being shadowed by Davis with extremely close coverage.
The fade comes to fruition and the Davis/DHB battle is set. It's a physical competition before the ball has arrived, but it's permissible and often really enjoyable to watch, as is the case here.
With Davis draped all over him, Heyward-Bey jumps and stretches out his left hand to try and corral the ball.
He doesn't manage to gain complete control, with the ball instead bouncing off his forearm into the body where he's able to control it more effectively. Mind you – with the proximity of Davis and the fact that they're completely entwined, I have no clue how it's possible.
It's a fairly fortuitious grab, but it also shows a willingness and an ability to use the great frame he's been endowed with to make such catches.
He crumples to the floor to cushion the ball and make the touchdown catch, and Vontae relents – clearly stunned at what's occurred.
When compiling these pieces I do my best to find highlights with players most Colts fans will recognise – and I'm not doing it in this case to critique Vontae. This coverage is fantastic, but the catch is ludicrous.
I've zoomed in to show where Vontae's arm is located and where he's exerting force, and you can make your own judgement. Looks like perfect coverage to me.
Though if Davis can be criticised for anything, it's for the passivity with which he lets Heyward-Bey secure the reception. That lack of aggression and fire was one of the reasons he was ultimately traded from the Dolphins franchise, ultimately to our gain, it would seem.
Heyward-Bey is an enigmatic receiver who has improved over time in the NFL – his admittedly patchy production can be explained away given contextual factors (overdrafted by Oakland, terrible quarterback play) and it's a bit of a mystery as to how he'll perform in a Colts jersey next year and beyond.
His main talent clearly lies on intermediate routes, where his deep speed threatens and confuses defenders, which can allow for multiple possibilities as to route branching. The hands issues have been covered elsewhere by others, and that's not something that we can really judge until we see him on the field and in camp receiving passes from Andrew Luck.
I think he's also an interesting threat to consider from a running perspective – admittedly with only one rush last year, shown above – and considering our weakness in that regard and the manner in which we use Vick Ballard, we should be looking to diversify the run game and spread the defense out with different looks and plays. When you don't have ideal talent, you need creativity to take advantage of those things you do possess. The addition of Heyward-Bey, mediocre in run blocking for other players, only solidifies the necessity.
On a one-year deal worth up to $3m, I like the signing a great deal. It's the type of move I expected Ryan Grigson to make complementary to other acquisitions, rather than as a centrepiece of the free agent crop – which is what he is, in my mind. He won't get a better chance to succeed, and if he does, he'll be quite the weapon for us this year as we move into the Age of YAC.
The Colts offense is shaping up in a fairly promising way for 2013, though so much is of course contingent on the development of Andrew Luck.
Until next time.
(Note: for my next piece which will be done in the next day or two, i'll be opting for either Aubrayo Franklin or Ricky Jean-Francois. Soliciting input on that score, give me a preference in the comments if you have one.)