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Can the Colts figure out their first-down problems with a rushing attack?

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The Indianapolis Colts have stumbled to a 1-2 start this season, but they may have possibly saved their season with a comeback win against the Titans. What do the Colts need to do now to get the wheels of the offense moving?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts offense is off to an incredibly slow and undisciplined start. A plethora of offensive line penalties, under-thrown footballs by Andrew Luck and the coaches’ inability to stick to the running game have all contributed to a shaky 1-2 start. However, there is no reason for mass panic at this point in the season because the aforementioned problems with the offense are blatant on the field and on paper. The problems are even more noticeable on first down.

Right now the Colts are sixth-worst in the league when it comes to offensive penalties (15). The worst offenders are the offensive linemen, who embarrassingly have three more (11) offensive holding penalties than the second-most penalized team (the Washington Redskins) in that category according to www.nflpenalties.com. More than half of those offensive penalties (nine) have come on first down, which means the Colts have compiled a bunch of first-and-15 and first-and-20 beginnings to drives.

Disorderly penalties are just a part of why the Colts have had trouble getting drives started, which has also led to an abandonment of the running game. Currently Indianapolis is tied for 22nd in the league with eight three-and-out drives according to sportingcharts.com. Having to dig out of 15 and 20-yard holes stymies momentum, which is why offensive production has come in very short spurts this season. The long first downs also force the Colts to shy away from the running game, something that Indy fans have become very accustomed to over the Peyton Manning and, so far, Luck years.

But the Colts are not dealing with the likes of Trent Richardson this season; they have a seasoned veteran who has proven his worth in the NFL. Although the Colts mentioned in September that they would have running back Frank Gore on a pitch count, the coaches have been, 1. extremely conservative with Gore, who averaged just over four more rushes per game last season with the San Francisco 49ers, and 2. way too reliant on Luck and the passing game. Running back Josh Robinson has shown a few signs of being a viable backup who could split carries with Gore, but he is not quite there yet.

What is puzzling is that Gore has not shown any signs of fatigue throughout the game. A big reason why Gore was limited with the 49ers last season was in order to transition the bruiser Carlos Hyde as the starter. He did, however, deal with minor pains in the first week against the Buffalo Bills, but since then he has carried the ball 14 and 15 times successively. And Gore, so far, looks like he could even add five or so more carries to that load. This season the former San Francisco great is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, which puts him in the top 10 in the league in that category, so a struggling running game is not excuse this season for the offensive coordinator putting all of the offensive load on Luck’s shoulders.

The rushing attack (Gore) has been above average through three games, which is not the norm for the explosive air raid attack that the team usually reigns down on its opponents. The problem with the rushing game has been that it is implemented very sparsely and later on in drives. Despite averaging the sixth-best yards per rushing attempt so far this season (4.5), the Colts rank fourth-to-last in rushing attempts per game (21.3). Robinson has yet to be implemented into a consistent offensive rotation, so he needs to have a fair chance before Hamilton finally decides how he wants this offense to function.

Indy has a total of 81 first down plays this season, and the records indicate that this team should be starting off first downs by handing the rock to Gore or even Robinson. This was most evident in the season opener against the Bills. Out of the 29 plays that the Colts ran on first down, nine of them were runs. Those nine first-down rushes resulted in 44 rushing yards for a 4.9 yards per carry average. Luck on first down was pretty bleh: 12 of 20 for 115 yards and one interception. That means that the Colts started eight second downs with a full 10 yards to go instead of a very doable six or five yards. If Gore is getting the Colts at least four yards per first-down rush and Luck has already thrown two picks on first downs, where are the early-down Gore rushes?

The offensive line has not been providing Luck with many chances to throw far downfield, but if Gore sets up the Colts so that they only have to gain five or so yards on third down, Luck can make those short, quick throws with the speed he is working with in the receiving core. That obviously does not solve the problem with the offensive line, but why continuously put yourself in long-yardage situations on third down when Gore has been doing his job better than most expected? The Colts are sixth in the league in rushing yards per first-down attempt (6.8) according to sportingcharts.com, coming in behind teams that boast running backs such as Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson and Le’Veon Bell.

With the Colts averaging just over seven yards through the air on first down you would think that this team is moving the ball down the field every game with ease. That has definitely not been the case. Indy’s first-down passing average is pretty high thanks to three hauls of 25-plus yards by T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett, and even if Luck is picking up 10 yards or so through the air on first down, he is not doing it with enough consistency and is facing uphill battles every drive due to the untimely penalties.

Out of the seven offensive touchdowns for the Colts this year, three of those drives started with Gore runs of four, eight and 12. The past three touchdowns Indy scored against the Tennessee Titans were in the second half with Indy having to play by behind seven points or more. Granted, teams are going to have to/want to throw when they are down by a touchdown or more in the second half, but if the Colts can establish a running game earlier on in games it will, 1. help Luck by opening up the passing game immensely, and 2. give the Colts a much higher probability of converting third downs even though they are converting around 45 percent of those opportunities thus far.

When the Colts line up against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday they will be up against the second best rushing defense in terms of yards per carry allowed. Hamilton will have to make the decision whether or not to give the proven Gore the rock early or stick to a nearly one-dimensional offense. With Luck playing injured Hamilton just might make the right call this time around.