Dec 1, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano claps in the background as quarterback Andrew Luck (12) walks off the field during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

CACP Third Down Series: Running the Ball on Third Down

During the 2014 offseason, Colts Authority is making a concentrated effort to have a complex understanding of as many of the players on the roster as possible. It’s all a part of the Colts Authority Charting Project, an intentional effort to chart as many statistical and strategical details about the team as we can. In that vein, we have several film-review series going thoughout the next few months. You can see all of the 2014 film review pieces at the CA Charting Project page.

We hope you will enjoy the series, and if you have any requests (either in specific players or different statistics you’d like to see charted), please let us know in the comments or on Twitter at @ColtsAuth_Kyle and @ColtsAuthority using #CAchartingproject.

Last season the Colts were one of the league’s best running teams on third down, succeeding on 68.2 percent of their third (or fourth) down rushing attempts. This past season, however, the Colts took a big dip, dropping down to just under 52% when running on third down.

A quick breakdown (kneel-downs removed):

ThirdDown Running, 2012vs2013

The breakdown really nails down where the downgrade came from in 2013, the running backs’ productivity plummeted while nearly doubling in attempts. It’s expected that the attempts would go up, considering that the Colts’ average yards to go on third down (including passes) decreased in 2013. But for the efficiency to drop that much is perplexing, especially considering the Colts’ emphasis on power running.

The decline also is backed by Football Outsiders. They ranked the Colts’ second in “Power Success” (runs on third/fourth down with two yards or less to go, also included power goal-to-go situations) in 2012 with a 72 percent success rate, but ranked Indianapolis just 15th in 2013 with a success rate of 65 percent. 

While the Colts’ interior line stayed pretty much the same in 2013 (AVOID URGE TO MAKE SNARKY COMMENT), the success rate dropped dramatically. The reasons for this could be complicated, but the issue likely resided in two factors: the running backs or the play-calling.

As always, we start at the numbers:

ThirdDownRunning, Backs

There are several things to pull away from this.

First, Donald Brown was never a good power back, so most of his third-d0wn situations came in long situations. Of his 11 third-down runs over the last two years, just five have come in powers situations. He’s converted just one of those, his one opportunity in 2012. Brown saw four chances in 2013, and failed to convert any of them. He was hit in the backfield on one (not his fault), but on the other plays he had space to power through for the needed yards. None were big holes, but space where a bigger, stronger back would have had a good chance.

One example:

BrownThirdDown

Granted, that hole closes up pretty quick, but in a situation like that, you want your back to push the pile for a yard. That’s not Brown’s strong suit. There’s a reason he rarely gets his number called in these situations. I love Brown, but he’s not a short-yardage back.

So, Brown’s struggles hurt the Colts but really only on four attempts in 2013 vs. one in 2012. That’s not a big enough size to make a 20% difference in efficiency.

Richardson was decently effective in short yardage in 2013, although not as good as Delone Carter was in 2012. Both teams clearly had some kind of “short-yardage” back, and used them accordingly. Richardson’s lack of decisiveness hurt the Colts at times, but his strength usually allowed him to at least get the required yards for the first down, even if he missed out on bigger gains on the play. After all, 2.9 yards per carry is usually just fine in short yardage.

Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw were your basic utility backs in both years. Bradshaw had one more attempt (that was unsuccessful), but that’s it. The depth backs were one for three in 2012, and one for four in 2013.

When you look at the fullbacks, it gets interesting. The Colts used their fullbacks on third down four times in 2012 (17.4% of the RB carries), and were successful three of the times. Havili was used just three times in 2013 (7.0%), despite the Colts heavy fullback use, and was successful just once.

Now let’s look at the larger picture focusing on where these hand-offs came.

By distance

Here we see another slight difference. The 2012 Colts were pretty smart about when they ran the ball. The one hand-off in the 3-5 range came in the fourth quarter of a blowout, and five of the six hand-offs with 6+ yards to go came in the second half of a game, with the lead and in their own territory.

Basically, if the Colts were trying to get the game over with, they would run in a medium-to-long situation, but that was it. The 2013 Colts were a little more… liberal with their running, running the ball six times while either trailing, in the first half or in enemy territory. It’s not huge difference, but it does make a difference.

Overall, there was no one factor that caused the drop, but several factors that got slightly worse in 2013. Each of these factors combined to give you the 20 percent drop in 2013.

  • Giving the ball to the right person, in the right situation. Delone Carter was a darn good short-yardage back, Donald Brown was not. Trent Richardson was a good short-yardage back, but there’s no reason to have him in the game on a medium-to-long third down. In that situation, it’s probably better to have a back with more explosion who actually has the possibility of picking up the first down.
  • Don’t waste third downs. Running on long third downs, or even medium third downs, is useless. If you’re not trying to run the clock at the end of a game, it’s not worth doing. Especially since Andrew Luck has shown that he can be REALLY good in long third down situations.
  • Give Andrew Luck more opportunities to succeed running the ball. He’s generally very good in third-down situations. Giving him options wouldn’t be the end of the world.

When you break it into smaller sections, the differences aren’t astounding, but overall the little things add up. Unless the offensive line dramatically raises its level of play in 2014, it’s going to be on the coaching staff to increase efficiency on third down runs.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.

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