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Looking at the Pivotal Drive in the Colts vs. Dolphins Game

Early in the third quarter, the Colts got the ball in great field position after a turnover. The ensuing drive turned out to be a crazy, confusing, and costly one for the Colts, and looking back at it now it appears to be the pivotal drive of the game.

Andy Lyons

Near the start of the third quarter of Sunday's loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Indianapolis Colts had their best chance all game to re-take the lead - a feat that they wouldn't accomplish for the remainder of the game.

Tied at 17, the Colts defense was on the field for a third down and 10 play from the Dolphins' 30 yard line. They needed a stop, although they had not had much success doing that during the game up to that point. But on this third down play, the Colts actually got pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and it turned out well for the defense. Coincidence? Not at all.

The Colts rushed six guys, and the Dolphins had six guys protecting the quarterback. But one of the match ups was running back Lamar Miller on linebacker Jerrell Freeman (the matchup highlighted by the two blue circles in the figure below), and Freeman got by Miller quickly and hit Tannehill's arm from behind just as he was throwing. What first looked like an incomplete pass, however, actually was ruled a fumble, and the booth review upheld the ruling.


Just like that, the Colts had the ball from the Dolphins 39 yard line with a whole new football game in front of them. Should they score, they would re-take the lead from the Dolphins and continue an impressive game offensively. [As a bit of an aside, had Joe Lefeged - who recovered the fumble - known that it was a fumble instead of an incomplete pass, I truly wonder how far he could have returned it. It is very likely he would have scored on a fumble return touchdown. But either way, the positive was that the defense forced a turnover and gave the offense tremendous field position.]

39 yards was all the offense needed. Heck, they had racked up 40 yards alone on one pass in the first half and 47 on another. Let's take an in-depth look at the drive that ensued and how it was a pivotal turning point in the game.

1st and 10, MIA 39, 13:57 left in 3rd - Ahmad Bradshaw up the middle for 5 yards

This play was rather simple and an understandable way to begin the drive. Bradshaw had nice blocking on the run and ran up the middle for a solid gain of 5, a good way to start any drive.


2nd and 5, MIA 34, 13:29 left in 3rd - Andrew Luck short left to Dominique Jones for 13 yards

On second down after the run, Luck took to the shotgun and ran a three wide set, although the man split out far left was tight end Dominique Jones. The corner ended up giving him a huge cushion and backed off, leaving Jones wide open for a gain of 13 (the blue circle illustrates approximately where Jones caught the ball in his route). It was Jones's first catch of this young season and only the second catch of his career, the first coming last year on Luck's first pass attempt as a pro. Just like that, after only two plays the Colts were at the Dolphins 21 yard line and had a first down.


1st and 10, MIA 21, 13:06 left in 3rd - Andrew Luck incomplete deep left intended for Dominique Jones

It worked so well going to Jones on the previous play, why not try it again? Though covered by a linebacker, a pinpoint perfect pass from Luck to Jones' back shoulder put the Colts at the 1 yard line with a first down. Ever alert, Luck realized that the play was close and hurried his team to the line of scrimmage, hiking the ball and keeping it himself on the quarterback sneak for the score. The play call (as well as the no huddle) clearly showed that the sneak was purely a play trying to get the snap off before the review (as that is a typical play in such a situation), but the Dolphins got the challenge in at literally the last second. They challenged the completion and, in a correct ruling, the officials overturned the catch. Jones hadn't secured the ball and allowed it to hit the ground, a clear incompletion. Nate Dunlevy, who was in attendance at the game sitting in the stands, made a very interesting observation on twitter:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Overlooked in loss is the fact that the Jones catch at the one was shown on the replay board. Then MIA challenged before snap got off.</p>&mdash; Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) <a href="">September 17, 2013</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>I wondered at the time if they hadn&#39;t shown the drop on the big screen if MIA still would have got the challenge in on time.</p>&mdash; Nate Dunlevy (@NateDunlevy) <a href="">September 17, 2013</a></blockquote>

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Nate is absolutely right in the fact that teams very rarely show plays that could go against the home team, so the fact that the Colts showed the replay of this play in the stadium is very curious and could very well have led to the Dolphins' coaches decision to challenge the play. If so, that's a shame.


2nd and 10, MIA 21, 13:03 left in 3rd - Andrew Luck short right to Griff Whalen for 6 yards

After the play to Jones was overturned, the Colts again went to the air and Luck found Griff Whalen on a simple comeback route for a gain of 6 yards. It was Whalen's first career NFL reception and a very solid 6 yard gain. Luck took the simple, safer route and that was absolutely the right decision, completing the pass to Whalen (who was in the game due to an injury that Darrius Heyward-Bey had suffered earlier in the game) for 6 yards.


3rd and 4, MIA 15, 12:21 left in 3rd - Andrew Luck short right to Coby Fleener for 15 yards and a TOUCHDOWN, called back due to illegal shift penalty pre-snap

This play, perhaps, will go down as the most controversial of the game. Fans already didn't think the officials were doing a great job calling the game, and this fueled that fire. On 3rd down and 4, the Colts ran a well-executed post route to Coby Fleener that went for 15 yards and a score. Reggie Wayne came in motion to the left and Hilton and Reggie both went deep, while Fleener easily got by safety Reshad Jones, cutting inside before the other safety could cover him and leaving himself open for a score. The play highlighted the matchup problem that Coby Fleener creates, as he is faster than the average tight end and a good receiver too. Also of note is that running back Ahmad Bradshaw, one of the league's best pass blocking running backs, had a great pickup on a free rusher who would have crushed Luck. It's was hard to tell whether or not the rusher would have prevented Luck from completing the pass, but it certainly would have been a possibility and either way he was going to get crushed. Bradshaw made a great block on the play. It all added up to a very well-exectued and nice touchdown play, the second of the day between Luck and Fleener... or not. Apparently, a pre-snap penalty had occurred, ruled an illegal shift.

This immediately sent Colts nation into a frenzy, so basically, here's the rule and the call the officials made, as described by Chuck Pagano in his Monday afternoon presser:

On Coby Fleener's touchdown catch that was called back, can you explain the Reggie Wayne illegal shift?

"I guess you go by the letter of the law, so to speak. You read the rule. The way it was explained to me, the offense, all 11 have to be set for a full second prior to any motion, shifts, anything like that. Apparently they thought that the whole offense wasn't set for a complete second. You're going to get some calls that go your way and you're going to have some that don't go your way. It's part of the game and you deal with it and you've got to be able to overcome it."

On the illegal shift, can Reggie Wayne be in motion on that play?

"It's actually when you break the huddle and you get in your initial alignment, all 11 players, before you do anything else, all 11 players have to be set for one second."

So the problem wasn't at the snap at all? It was when you first went up?

"That's what they said."

Pagano didn't sound convinced of the call, and the penalty was muddled even more based on the fact that the call was that Reggie wasn't set for a second before even going in motion. Firstly, I fail to see how that gives the Colts ANY advantage at all, so I just don't get the penalty in the first place. Additionally, the penalty appeared to be nit-picking. Was Reggie set for a full second before going in motion? No. But when it's something that close (a few tenths of a second off) and still a few seconds before the ball is even snapped, I'm just not sure of the penalty. It doesn't help at all that the officiating clearly seemed to be one-sided, at least in the minds of most people who watched the game. And I'd agree. Either way, Reggie seemed to be skeptical of the call too:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Reggie Wayne baffled by illegal shift call. After 13 years, I trust that Reggie knows when he shifts illegally. <a href=";src=hash">#Colts</a></p>&mdash; Kent Sterling (@KentSterling) <a href="">September 15, 2013</a></blockquote>

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For what it's worth, Mike Pereira - the league's former VP of Officiating and now an analyst for FOX who is a must follow on twitter and who does a phenomenal job explaining calls there - tweeted this about the call, seeming to agree with it:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>regarding IND illegal shift... 87 never came set. He went in motion before setting - foul every time.</p>&mdash; Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) <a href="">September 15, 2013</a></blockquote>

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Andrew Luck opted to stay out of the controversial call, saying the following on Monday:

When you look at the tape, did you think Reggie Wayne was really in motion illegally on that play?

"Trap question (laughs). The ref made what he felt was the correct call and probably was the correct call."

Also, the two beat writers covering the Colts for the Indianapolis Star, the legendary Mike Chappell and the newcomer Stephen Holder, both tweeted about the call and both seemed to have doubts about it:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Just replay of Reggie Wayne&#39;s illegal shift that nullified Coby Fleener TD. Boy, tough call against <a href=";src=hash">#colts</a>.</p>&mdash; Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) <a href="">September 16, 2013</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>It sounded a little petty before. Now it sounds even more ticky tack. Wiped out a touchdown.</p>&mdash; Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) <a href="">September 16, 2013</a></blockquote>

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Lastly, just for good measure, here's the number of illegal shift penalties called over the past 11 years, per the NFL. It doesn't seem to be all that uncommon, although I couldn't tell you how many of them were called before someone went in motion. I bet that's significantly less.

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Illegal Shift Penalties 36 28 47 34 31 37 25 38 40 39 30

Bottom line: the touchdown to Fleener was negated and the Colts were penalized five yards, bringing up a third down and 9.


3rd and 9, MIA 20, 12:15 left in 3rd - Andrew Luck short right to Ahmad Bradshaw for 0 yards

On a replay of the third down play with five additional yards to gain, Pep Hamilton made a very puzzling play call. The play was basically a screen pass right to Ahmad Bradshaw. As the go routes by Wayne, Hilton, and Fleener indicate; the fact that Griff Whalen appeared to have his eyes set on blocking from the snap; and the fact that right guard Mike McGlynn pulled right to block for Bradshaw all indicate, the play looks to clearly be a designed screen. Third down screens actually don't seem to be that uncommon, but on 3rd and 9 it seems like most teams opt to throw downfield for the first down. An overwhelming majority, actually. There's absolutely nothing wrong with going against the norm - I actually credit people for doing so. But with Andrew Luck at quarterback and with such a dangerous receiving core, it makes complete sense to me to air it out and go for the first down by actually throwing for it instead of hoping that the Colts could block for a back to get it on a screen. Also, add in the fact that the Colts had actually been throwing the ball downfield well during the game and on the plays leading up to this play, and it seems even more strange and even more of a questionable call to me. The pass gained exactly zero yards, and the Colts were forced to kick a field goal.


4th and 9, MIA 20, 11:40 left in 3rd - Adam Vinatieri 38-yard field goal GOOD

Though he had just barely missed from 52-yards out earlier in the game, Adam Vinatieri wasn't going to miss here, and he was automatic on the 38-yarder. That gave the Colts a lead, sure, 20-17, but they had left 4 points on the board.


A 20-17 lead seemed good at the time, and nobody is going to argue with the decision to kick the ball in that situation. But the plays leading up to it marked a pivotal point in the game and, unfortunately, the Colts had two touchdowns negated and left 4 points on the board. Whether or not the Colts would have won if they had scored a touchdown on this drive, we don't know. But the fact of the matter is that the Colts would have led 24-17 over the Dolphins, taking full advantage of a turnover and great field position. While there still is the possibility the Colts would have lost the game had they scored a touchdown, my guess is that they would have won and that makes this drive an even more crushing one for the Colts. Even though it came early in the third quarter, it was arguably the biggest drive of the game.