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Do the Colts Have a 3rd Down Problem?

NFL: SEP 27 Jets at Colts Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Let’s just rip off the Band-Aid. The Colts offense ranks 32nd in the league in 3rd down conversion rates. That’s right, dead last. The team’s 30.3% mark(1) is a full 2 percentage points below the Jets . . . THE JETS!

While I am not going to be sweeping this unfortunate fact under the rug, I will explain why I don’t think it is any reason to panic . . . yet.


ONE PIECE OF THE PUZZLE

I wrote an article a while back about how I don’t like 3rd down conversions as a stat. 68% of all conversions in the NFL are earned on 1st or 2nd down. Limiting the metric to 3rd downs only, is an effort that ignores about 70% of the very thing it is trying to measure.

So far this year, the Colts have been very good on 1st and 2nd downs with 33.3% of those plays moving the chains. That is the 3rd highest conversion rate of any team. Because the team is so good on early downs, the offense has had the 6th fewest 3rd down situations of any team.

When incorporating all scrimmage downs (including 4th) into conversion rates, the Colts rank 10th.

The bottom line is that if the team is extending drives down the field — and the Colts are — then it really doesn’t matter what down that happens on.


CONTEXT

The Colts have only rushed 9 times on 3rd down, with just 1 of them being successful. That is easily the worst in the league. Here is how those 8 failures impacted the game:

  • 3 came in the 4th quarter with a 3-score lead.
  • 3 were followed by successful 4th down conversions.
  • 1 was followed by a successful Field Goal
  • 1 was followed by a turnover on downs.

I’m not going to hold the offense accountable for grinding the clock and although I would rather they convert on 3rd, converting on 4th is no harm, no foul. So it’s really just a couple of failed runs that are at issue and I’m not going to worry about that until the numbers gets much larger.

There have been 24 passing attempts on 3rd down and 9 of those successfully converted. That is a 37.5% rate and ranks 20th relative to other teams. That’s below average, but well above last place.

On those 24 attempts, the completion rate was above league average, air distance thrown was just slightly shorter than league average and YAC was almost exactly league average. So nothing really stands out as particularly problematic.

The real driver was this. On the 15 failed 3rd down series, the preceding 1st and 2nd downs (30 plays) grossed only 52 yards of offense and incurred 4 penalties for -40 yards. This means the net yardage gain on those series was 12 yards or 0.4 yards per play.

So it wasn’t 3rd down passing per se, but rather poor 1st and 2nd down production on those particular series that led to long yards to gain on 3rd down (6 of them were 10+ yards to gain). So, not converting a good portion of those downs is somewhat understandable.


CONCLUSION

There’s nothing positive about being last in 3rd down conversion rate. 7 of those failed series occurred in the red zone, 3 of them against Jacksonville.

However, the far, far more important measure is the overall conversion rate and the team is pretty good at that. So, IF the Colts 1st and 2nd down conversion rate falls, leading to more 3rd downs and IF the 3rd down rate stays low, then I will be worried. Until then, I’m just keeping an eye on it.


FOOTNOTES:

1) Excludes: penalty first downs, QB spikes, QB kneels.