The Colts' Third-Down Performance Is Killing the Offense

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The Colts' Third-Down Performance Is Killing the Offense
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One of the most important "traditional" statistics to measure an offense by is third-down conversion rate. 

A team that can succeed on third down consistently can string series together consistently, putting more pressure on the defense and being more productive with each drive. 

It's a pretty simple concept. 

The Colts, during the first part of this season and much of last season, did a very good job of executing on third down, and it was a big part of their success. During the last five weeks, however, their performance has declined dramatically, as has their offensive efficiency. 

Colts' Third Down Performance by Week
Opponent Conversion Rate Average Yards Average Yards to go
OAK 60.0% 10.20 9.30
MIA 46.7% 4.40 5.20
SFO 41.7% 3.67 5.92
JAX 46.2% 7.31 6.92
SEA 58.3% 5.42 5.92
SDG 20.0% 3.40 5.30
DEN 29.4% 4.47 6.06
HOU 38.5% 3.46 8.85
STL 16.7 4.33 5.08

Pro-Football-Reference.com

From Weeks 1-5, the Colts converted over 44 percent of their third-down opportunities, third in the league. From Week 6-11, however, they earned a first down just 23.8 percent of the time, second-to-last in the league. Only Oakland has had a worse conversion rate in that time. 

Coincidentally enough, the offense hasn't scored as much either. From Week 1-5, the Colts scored on 45 percent of their drives, fourth in the league, but have scored on just 30 percent of their drives since, 22nd in the league.

So why is it that the Colts have been worse? Is it something in the game plan, something situational or something unexplainable? 

Well, first, let's clarify what it is not. 

It's not the fact that the Colts are getting into worse positions on third down. 

From Week 1-5, the Colts averaged 6.50 yards to go on third down (fourth in the league). Since Week 6, the Colts have averaged 6.38 yards to go (sixth). They've actually been better at picking up long third downs since Week 6 as well. They picked up just 11.1 percent of their third downs during the first five weeks (29th), versus 26.3 percent since (ninth).

One thing that has contributed to the Colts' overall lack of success: short third downs.

The Colts have converted just 34.8 percent of their third downs of four or less yards to go over the last four games, the third-worst mark in the league. 

Ironically, the team that has tried to brand itself as a "power-run" team since April has become extremely pass-heavy, even in these situations where a team needs to be able to run the ball behind heavy sets. In these last four weeks, the Colts have had 23 3rd-and-short opportunities and have run the ball just six times. 

Why have they abandoned the power-run game in these exact situations if the power-run game is useful? Frankly, they've gotten scared. 

Scared because of plays like this: 

Or this:

The point is, the offensive line isn't very good. The Colts know this and have become fearful of the above happening more often. 

But in reality, these kinds of plays aren't happening all that often. When they've run it in these situations over the past six weeks, the Colts were successful three out of six times. Trent Richardson was successful in three of four tries. 

Instead, the Colts line up in the shotgun often and spread the field. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it's a bit perplexing when you run a pass play on 3rd-and-3 with three of the four targets breaking their routes more than 10 yards down the field. 

In this particular case, the play takes too long to develop, Stanley Havili completely whiffs on a blitzing linebacker and Luck takes a sack. 

Now, don't get me wrong, play-calling isn't the only issue on third down. Execution has been notably bad on third down in recent weeks. 

Drops have been horrific, with Darrius Heyward-Bey, Griff Whalen and T.Y. Hilton all dropping passes in 3rd-and-short situations in the last four weeks. The loss of Reggie Wayne is definitely felt in that regard: All of the other Colts have had questionable hands at times, and when the ball is coming at a receiver quick on a short route, dependable hands are a must. 

When we're discussing execution, it's impossible to ignore the offensive line, of course. The lack of respect given in the run game consequently impacts the passing game as well, as discussed earlier this week. 

Then there's Andrew Luck, who has had some poor throws and reads on third downs over the last few weeks, especially since the bye. 

The execution, however, should get better, to some extent. The drops should become less frequent with a bigger sample size, and I expect Luck to bounce back. The first half of the Houston game and the vast majority of the Rams game are as bad as we've ever seen him play and should be an aberration. 

The offensive line won't magically become better, however, and will need to be taken into account. 

But, the Colts can control some things, especially when it comes to play-calling. 

First, the Colts can't give up on running in short situations. I've been as vocal as they come in my desire to give Andrew Luck control of the offense, but short-yardage situations are the one area in which teams simply have to be able to run the ball. Despite what the perception may be, the Colts haven't been bad in those situations overall this year. Compared to the rest of the league, sure, they're not very successful, but their 56-percent success rate is much better than their 34.8 percent mark on 3rd-and-shorts over the last four weeks. 

The other thing that must improve is their situational play-calling. Whether it's long route combinations on 3rd-and-3, fullback draws on 3rd-and-10 or a bootleg on 1st-and-goal from the one, the last few weeks have been full of extremely questionable play-calling from Pep Hamilton. 

The Colts don't have much to work with offensively for the rest of this season, so the coaches simply have to pick it up and do everything they can to get the most they can out of every play. Making it harder on the talent that is left just isn't going to work; at least, not if the Colts want to make any noise in the playoffs.

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