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Indianapolis Colts efficient in short-yardage on both sides of the ball in 2016

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Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz picks surprising strengths on both sides of the football for each team

Indianapolis Colts v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The struggles of the Indianapolis Colts defense in 2016 have been well-documented. Other than a failure to generate a consistent pass rush, to stop the run, or to prevent opponent’s from putting points on the scoreboard — particularly at key times during football games — the Colts defense was pretty good.

It is also fair to say that the offensive line has been taking a beating in national coverage with a broad assertion that heading into 2017 it is still one of the worst units in the league.

It may come as a surprise, then, that both groups were surprisingly good in a couple of key areas.

Aaron Schwatz was featured in a recent ESPN Insider story that gave us a closer look and shows that the Colts defense held its ground during key moments on drives and the offensive line had similar success on its possessions.

Offense: Preventing stuffs

Only 12.9 percent of runs by Indianapolis running backs were stuffed for a loss or no gain, the lowest rate in the league. (The NFL average was 19.4 percent.)

Defense: Stopping runners on third down

The Colts ranked third in run-defense DVOA on third or fourth down, and allowed only 42 percent of these runs to convert (compared to a league average of 52 percent). This would be more impressive, of course, if the Colts didn't have 2016's worst run defense on first and second downs.

Who would have ever predicted this outcome?

Let’s face it, the defensive line’s biggest weakness for years has been that it isn’t big enough, particularly at the nose, to have regular success in the trenches. The line has been particularly weak for some time in stopping the run.

And before we get ahead of ourselves here, they were still really bad at it in 2016 as well, finishing 25th overall against opposing rushers. Moreover, the statistics show that this was the worst group in the NFL at stopping the run on first and second downs. How odd is it that the perpetually “undersized” defensive line of the Indianapolis Colts would then be dominant in short-yardage situations — particularly on third and fourth downs?

It has long been an offensive goal to simply get enough yards to generate third or fourth and short situations as opposed to third or fourth and long yardage. Against the Colts last year, the better goal was just to not get to third down! That’s a good offensive plan too but if this group can improve on first and second down and continue to be stingy on third down, there is a chance to take a big step forward.

Likewise, on the offensive side of the ball, the team has had a long-standing habit of telegraphing play calls — particularly obvious running situations. For years the team would get stuffed at the line and or lose yards when the defense knew a run was coming. Yet, somehow, a young group with major contributions from rookies — particularly on the right side of the line — managed the best stuff percentage of all offensive lines in the NFL.

These may be only small bright spots for the Colts on both sides of the football from a disappointing 2016 season but it’s encouraging to know that both lines flashed potential in key areas of the game. If you’re looking for something to build upon, it is production like this that you point to when you’re working this summer on putting it all together — no matter the down or situation.