When the Indianapolis Colts square off against the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football, they’ll not only meet a familiar foe, but face a familiar offensive formation. What I’m talking about is the “bunch”.
Unfortunately for the Colts, this version of Brady’s “bunch” doesn’t consist of a lovable cast like Marsha, Cindy, and Greg; rather, it bears witness to names like Edelman, LaFell, and Amendola. Patriots’ wide receivers that will make the Colts secondary’s evening a living nightmare if not covered properly.
For starters though, what exactly is the bunch formation:
"“The Bunch is made up of a group of at least 2 receivers to the same side."
"The point receiver aligns on the line of scrimmage, split five yards from the nearest offensive lineman."
"The stacked receiver aligns two yards both off the line of scrimmage and behind the point receiver to either his inside or outside.”"
While there are some slight variations to the bunch formation, in layman’s terms, it’s having at least two wide receivers “stacked”, split 5 yards from the nearest offensive tackle or “in-tight”, with 1 of the 2 receivers positioned two yards behind (and inside/outside) his receiving counterpart.
This formation is nothing new to the Colts, even if it does bring up some fresh and painful memories. The last time the Indianapolis Colts defense got a heavy dosage of it was in Week 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The very same week, where Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an all-time NFL historically great passing game to the tune of 40 for 49 (81.6%) for 522 passing yards and 6 touchdowns with a QBR of 150.6.
The bunch formation is the “bread and butter” of the Steelers offense, and it was lethal to the Colts’ secondary in Week 8. Let’s highlight a few examples:
Markus Wheaton (bottom) 18 Yd touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger
As you can see, there are two Steelers’ wide receivers “bunched” at the bottom. Unlike cornerback Greg Toler at the top of the visual, both Colts’ cornerbacks at the bottom in Darius Butler (closest to the line of scrimmage) and Vontae Davis (behind him) are unable to get up on the line of scrimmage and “press” a respective receiver as they are normally apt to do.
Not only does this disallow them from “picking” a respective Steelers’ wide receiver to cover, but it gives each of these two Steelers’ receivers a free release off the ball, as they are left unimpeded within the 1st 5 yards coming off the line of scrimmage.
Instead of acting as they normally would up on the line of scrimmage, the cornerback duo of Butler and Davis is forced to react here and make quick decisions in space…getting them out of there comfort zone, and leaving them more susceptible to being burned, which they were as Markus Wheaton (bottom) caught an 18-yard touchdown pass here.
52 yard completion to Martavis Bryant (stacked)
Again, at the bottom of the visual, Colts’ cornerback Greg Toler is able to position himself at the line of scrimmage and play press coverage at the line of scrimmage, just as he normally would prefer. In fact, his Colts’ cornerback counterpart, Darius Butler (top), also is playing up at the line of scrimmage as well. However, where this Steelers’ bunch hurts the Colts is the free release it gives the stacked wide receiver, Martavis Bryant (top), to run off the line of scrimmage on his way to a huge 52-yard completion.
Martavis Bryant (top) 5 Yd touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger
Once again, the Colts’ cornerbacks at the bottom of the visual are forced to play several yards off the line of scrimmage because of the two stacked Steelers’ wide receivers. While the Steelers’ Martavis Bryant (top) would actually score the touchdown on this play, it just goes to show you the type of disarray and quick decision-making problems that the bunch formation poses for the Colts’ secondary.
What it doesn’t explain here is why Colts’ cornerback Josh Gordy (top) was playing so far off the line of scrimmage on the lone Steelers’ receiver, Martavis Bryant (also top), easily giving up the touchdown uncontested.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking, “If this is such a big deal, then how did the Colts’ defense take care of business so easily last Monday Night en route to a decisive 40-24 victory over Eli Manning and the New York Giants’ offense? [With most of those Giants’ points being scored in garbage time]
Simple, the New York Giants didn’t bunch.
Incomplete Pass to Odell Beckham Jr. (bottom)
Instead of bunching, the Giants’ offense lined up in standard 3-wide formations for much of the evening. Here, this allows both cornerback Vontae Davis (top) and Greg Toler (bottom) to play up at the line of scrimmage and deploy press coverage (i.e. their comfort zone & strength).
Not only does this allow Davis and Toler to impede the Giants receivers within the first 5 yards of scrimmage, but it also enables them to utilize the sideline as an extra defender since each of the Giants’ receivers are aligned so far to the outside. The resulting play was a long incompletion to Odell Beckham Jr. (bottom), as Toler nearly picked off Eli Manning‘s long throw.
Incomplete pass to Rueben Randle (bottom)
Another example of the Giants playing in a standard 3-wide formation, rather than a bunch. All 3 Colts’ cornerbacks are able to play up at the line of scrimmage on their “chosen” wide receiver and play press coverage. If you look at Vontae Davis (bottom), you can tell that he’s “ready to go on this one” and apt to get the Giants’ Rueben Randle (also bottom) right where he wants him…in his wheelhouse. Eli chose to target Davis on this play, he chose wrongly (incompletion).
The Giants’ offense played right to the Colts secondary’s strengths all evening. They lined up in standard 3-wide formations at the line of scrimmage, and the Colts cornerbacks’ obliged, beating up New York’s young group of wide receivers all night long near the line of scrimmage, playing exceptional press coverage in the process.
“Okay…okay,” you may be visibly shaken, yet still trying to comfort yourself, “Maybe the Patriots simply aren’t as good as the Pittsburgh Steelers at the bunch.”
Better get the Iron Kids and Land O’ Lakes out again because it’s the Patriots’ bread and butter as well, for what has been the league’s 3rd most prolific offense (31.2 ppg). The Patriots run it just as effectively as the Steelers, if not moreso.
Julian Edelman (top) 5 Yd touchdown pass from Tom Brady
While the Broncos’ cornerback at the bottom gets to play up the line of scrimmage, his cornerback counterparts aren’t quite as fortunate. Just as how the Colts had to defend the bunch, the two Broncos cornerbacks (top) are forced to play off the line of scrimmage in space, giving the two “stacked” Patriots’ wide receivers (also top) a free release off the line of scrimmage with little to no impediment. Julian Edelman (top) would end up catching a 5 yard touchdown pass over the middle of the end zone on this play.
T.Brady pass deep right to J.Edelman to DEN 23 for 26 yards
It’s like deja vu all over again for the Broncos, only this time, it’s a “double-bunch” whammy on both sides of the Patriots’ offensive formation. Look at how far this forces both Denver Broncos’ cornerbacks (top and bottom) to play off the line of scrimmage, giving Patriots’ wide receivers a large free release off the football. Julian Edelman (top) would end up catching a 26-yard completion deep right on this play, defended by Aqib Talib (also top).
So is all hope lost for the Colts due to the bunch?
Not quite. It’s worth noting that Vontae Davis, one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks this season, was injured early in the 1st quarter (knee) in the Colts’ Week 8 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers and did not return. While he may not have stopped all of the bleeding, he could’ve at least been a band-aid. He’s been the Colts’ best player in their secondary this season, and whether he’s on or off the line of scrimmage, I’d like to think that he’s still a great cover-corner back there for the defense.
Jan 11, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis (23) in the first half during the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
However, by playing in the bunch formation, the Patriots (like the Steelers before them) are able to get the Colts’ cornerbacks out of their comfort zone and nullify their strengths, which is clearly physicality near the line of scrimmage.
Greg Toler may not be a shutdown cornerback by any stretch of the imagination, but even his biggest critic can’t say that he’s not active and physical within the 1st 5 yards of scrimmage. Unfortunately for Toler, against the bunch, he’s not allowed to play press converage which is among his biggest strength.
Rather, the Colts cornerbacks are now required to play back in space and trust one another. It requires quick decision-making and the belief that your teammate will pick up whoever you don’t elect to cover among those receivers bunched.
Hesitancy or indecision could make the difference between a touchdown and an incompletion. The Colts’ secondary can still be effective, but their margin for error is so much smaller because of Brady’s bunch.
Jan 11, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) gets away from Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis (23) during the second quarter of the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports