For Colts’ Frank Reich, tight ends a focal point

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - AUGUST 17: Jack Doyle #84 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball after a catch before the preseason game against the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’re still meandering our way through the preseason. That’s when offensive coaches offer tons of vanilla to their hungry fan base. Show-nothing game plans, not bells and whistles, dominate the NFL landscape.

Yet there Frank Reich was Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, giving everyone insight into what makes his offense tick.

He put his tight ends on display. Again.

Four were targeted against the Cleveland Browns, and the result was nearly perfect. The collective bottom line for Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Ross Travis and rookie Hale Hentges: eight receptions on nine targets, 102 yards, two touchdowns. That’s a passer rating of 153.5, or just a shade off perfect (158.3).

That wasn’t an aberration, preseason or otherwise. It’s been the norm since Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni took control of the Indianapolis Colts offense last year, and been a part of Reich’s NFL life, which spans nearly three decades and includes stops in eight cities.

Tight ends. Frank Reich loves him some tight ends.

That was the case when he was Jim Kelly’s long-time backup with the Buffalo Bills: Pete Metzelaars, Keith McKeller, Ladarius Green.

And when he was on Tony Dungy’s staff with the Colts: Dallas Clark, and to a lesser degree Ben Utecht, Bryan Fletcher and Jacob Tamme.

And when he was with the San Diego Chargers: Antonio Gates.

And when he was offensive coordinator with Philadelphia in 2016-17: Zach Ertz.

And, now, with the Colts: Doyle, a 2017 Pro Bowl selection; Ebron, a 2018 Pro Bowler; and an intriguing, mismatch-creating supporting cast.

“Just good matchups when you get athletic, explosive tight ends like Eric Ebron, when you get really smart tight ends like Jack Doyle, and long tight ends like Mo Alie-Cox,’’ Reich said. “They’re good matchups on safeties and on linebackers. There are good linebackers and safeties out there, but we just feel like it’s our advantage.

“Furthermore, you’re typically working inside. The ball travels less time in the air. The less time in the air, the better for the offense, the less margin of error.’’

While Reich and Ertz were immersed in the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2017, Doyle was having a career year in Indy. His 80 receptions were the second-most by a Colts tight end (Clark had 100 in ’09). Jacoby Brissett stepped in for the injured Andrew Luck and quickly formed a bond with Doyle. Brissett completed 73.3 percent of his passes (80-of-108) to Doyle, usually over the middle. He was 54.3 percent when going elsewhere.

Flashback to the early 1990s. The Buffalo Bills terrorized NFL defenses with their K-Gun attack. The perception was it was named after Kelly. Wrong, it was for tight end Keith McKeller.

McKeller was 6-6, 240 and a tight end/wideout hybrid who could stay on the field and allow Kelly to run a fast-paced, no-huddle attack. Defenses weren’t able to substitute and paid the price for being kept in their base alignment.

More recently, let’s remember 2018.

Ebron signed with the Colts after four lackluster seasons in Detroit. He was a perfect fit for how Reich and Sirianni were going to attack.

Luck and Ebron were a lethal combination, especially with Doyle missing 10 games with hip and kidney injuries.

Ebron’s 13 touchdown catches were a Colts’ record for a tight end and the third-most by any Colt, regardless the position. Only a pair of Hall of Famers – Marvin Harrison and Raymond Berry – had more in a single season. The 13 TDs also were tied for the third-most in NFL history by a tight end. Only Rob Gronkowski (17 in 2011) and Jimmy Graham (16 in ’13) generated more.

Luck tied an NFL record by spreading his 39 touchdown passes among 13 players. Five were tight ends, who combined for 21. That easily was the most in the league by tight ends. Kansas City was a distant second (13).

“We love our tight ends here,’’ Reich said, “and we’re going to continue to feature them.’’

Sirianni’s smile widens whenever he considers the team’s tight end room.

“This is as deep a tight end group as I’ve ever been around,’’ he said. “We have four guys we know who can play, then we have guys who are fighting for another spot.’’

Here’s Sirianni’s assessment of the Colts’ top tight ends:

ERIC EBRON, 6-4, 254

  • Sirianni on Ebron: “Eric is our receiving tight end that can do enough in the run game to keep a defense honest. He’s a dynamic mismatch for safeties and linebackers because of his quickness and his speed and his ability to make tough catches. With our other receivers, they can’t really put a corner or a nickel on him. They have to keep a safety on him because of T.Y. (Hilton). It creates mismatches in the passing game.’’

JACK DOYLE, 6-6, 262

  • Sirianni on Doyle: “He does everything. He’s a do-it-all-guy. He’s going to be a guy who’s a little bit like Eric in the pass game. Eric can do some things Jack can’t and Jack can do some things that Eric can’t. I’m not going to say he’s just a possession receiver, because he’s not. He’s more than a possession receiver. He does everything the right way, and also can block. He’s the mixture of Mo Alie-Cox and Eric Ebron . . . Jack is the perfect mixture of both of them.’’

MO ALIE-COX, 6-5, 267

  • Sirianni on Alie-Cox: “Mo is our Y tight end. He can hammer you. He dominates in the run game because of his size and strength and length. He dominates in the run game against defensive ends, and that’s a mismatch a lot of defenses say, ‘Hey, we’ve got the upper hand. Our d-end is going to wear out this tight end.’ But really, we’re one of the few teams in the NFL that feels like we have the advantage because of Mo’s size. Mo is the opposite of Eric. He can do enough in the pass game to keep them honest.’’

ROSS TRAVIS, 6-6, 248

  • Sirianni on Travis: “He’s probably more like Eric as far as creating mismatches in the pass game. He can really do some good things. And he’s one of the guys who can go into the slot. Eric can do both, slot and inside. Ross can maybe do that a little better in the slot.’’

HALE HENTGES, 6-4, 248

  • Sirianni on Hentges: “Hale is a Mo-type guy. He’s in that mold. With the way college football is playing nowadays, there’s not a lot of guys who play like Mo and Hale. He’s a premium to have. We knew what we were getting from him in the run game. We didn’t know he’d be that consistent in the pass game. So, nice, pleasant surprise on what Hale has been. He’s really proved to us that he’s a full-rounded tight end.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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