The Elephant in the Room

The phrase "third and two" has been echoing in the minds of Colts fans since the end of the 2008 season. Indianapolis finished the season dead last in rushing yards per game. Is all hope lost? Brad Keller addresses the elephant in the room.

Facing third and two at their own nine-yard line in last year's Wild Card playoff game in San Diego, the Colts eschewed the run with two minutes and 30 seconds remaining and decided to pass the ball in order to gain the necessary yardage for a first down.

The move made sense, in a way, since the team ranked 31st in rushing and fifth in passing.  They failed, with Peyton Manning getting sacked at the Indianapolis one-yard line.  The Chargers went on to kick a field goal, tie the score, and win the game in overtime on a 22-yard touchdown run by Darren Sproles

From the end of the 2008 season, through mini-camps, training camp, and the preseason, the phrase "third and two" became a mantra of Colts players and fans alike.  The feeling was that, if they couldn't gain two yards on third down when they really needed it, they didn't deserve to advance in the postseason.

What fans and analysts inferred was that Indianapolis would come into the 2009 season with a renewed commitment to running the ball, especially in short yardage situations.  This assumption was further validated by the selection of Donald Brown in the first round of the 2009 draft.  If the Colts were going to run the ball, they were going to need another solid back in the stable.

Of course, Indianapolis failed to back up any of that speculation in the 2009 regular season, finishing last in the league in rushing yards per game, second-to-last in attempts per game (they have a slim 22.9 to 22.8 "lead" over the Arizona Cardinals), and tied for 30th in yards per attempt.

Conventional wisdom says that championship teams run the ball and stop the run.  They finished 24th in the league in run defense, so conventional wisdom does not favor a championship run for the Colts. 

But, recent trends suggest that the conventions of conventional wisdom may need to change.  Last year's Super Bowl participants — the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers — finished 32nd and 23rd in rush offense, respectively.  Going back to the turn of the century, three teams — the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2005 Steelers, and the 2007 New York Giants — were the only championship winners to finish in the top five in the league. The team that entered the Super Bowl with the superior rushing attack in the regular season finished 4-5, with last year's entrants representing the poorest regular-season run games in the decade.

This season, the Jets, Ravens, Cowboys, and Saints all rank in the top ten in run offense, but the Colts, Cardinals, and Chargers are all in the bottom five.  So, there are several different ways to get to the elite eight in the playoff bracket, but which one is best?

Well, there are a number of ways to approach that question, but only one answer really counts: When your team needs to gain two yards in a critical situation, can they do it?

The Cardinals found out the hard way that throwing the ball on first and goal from the one yard line towards the end of a second half of a championship game was not the best idea.  During the course of the 2009 season, Indianapolis faced third and two or less 41 times.

They converted 65.9 percent of those attempts, passing the ball 19 times and running the ball 22 times.  On their 22 rushes, they averaged three yards per attempt, recording a first down 15 times for a 68.2 percent success rate.  On passing attempts, they averaged 4.58 yards per pass play, recording 12 first downs for a 63.2 percent success rate.

In 2008, they faced 56 such situations, converting on 41 of them for a 73.2 percent success rate.  They were successful on 80 percent of their passing attempts (16-for-20) and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt in those situations.  They were successful on 69.4 percent of their 36 rush attempts, gaining 3.67 yards per attempt.

So, given the percentages, calling a pass play on third and two against the Chargers last season really was the right call.  But, the Colts were operating with a skeleton crew at running back last season, with Dominic Rhodes as the only option aside from Joseph Addai.

With the addition of Brown — who was hurt for much of the 2009 season, which would explain Indianapolis favoring the passing game in short yardage situations — as a young, healthy back to move the chains, their fortunes may turn around in this year's playoffs.  Don't forget that the Colts had the league's worst run defense in the 2006 regular season but managed to turn things around when it really mattered.

Indianapolis has been extremely efficient in the red zone, scoring touchdowns 66 percent of the time and they have been almost automatic in goal-to-go situations, with a 79.3 conversion percentage.  They should be able to move the chains and score touchdowns in the postseason despite their struggles in the running game.

Addai has ten rushing touchdowns with a long of 21 yards, so the bulk of his scoring production has been from inside the 20.  Brown is fresh, having logged only 78 carries during the season and also scoring all of his touchdowns from 20 yards or less, with two of them coming from inside the three. 

Still, the question looms... When the Colts need to gain two yards in a critical situation, will they be able to do it?  The fate of the season hinges on that question.


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Facing third and two at their own nine-yard line in last year's Wild Card playoff game in San Diego, the Colts eschewed the run with two minutes and 30 seconds remaining and decided to pass the ball in order to gain the necessary yardage for a first down.

The move made sense, in a way, since the team ranked 31st in rushing and fifth in passing.  They failed, with Peyton Manning getting sacked at the Indianapolis one-yard line.  The Chargers went on to kick a field goal, tie the score, and win the game in overtime on a 22-yard touchdown run by Darren Sproles

From the end of the 2008 season, through mini-camps, training camp, and the preseason, the phrase \"third and two\" became a mantra of Colts players and fans alike.  The feeling was that, if they couldn't gain two yards on third down when they really needed it, they didn't deserve to advance in the postseason.

What fans and analysts inferred was that Indianapolis would come into the 2009 season with a renewed commitment to running the ball, especially in short yardage situations.  This assumption was further validated by the selection of Donald Brown in the first round of the 2009 draft.  If the Colts were going to run the ball, they were going to need another solid back in the stable.

Of course, Indianapolis failed to back up any of that speculation in the 2009 regular season, finishing last in the league in rushing yards per game, second-to-last in attempts per game (they have a slim 22.9 to 22.8 \"lead\" over the Arizona Cardinals), and tied for 30th in yards per attempt.

Conventional wisdom says that championship teams run the ball and stop the run.  They finished 24th in the league in run defense, so conventional wisdom does not favor a championship run for the Colts. 

But, recent trends suggest that the conventions of conventional wisdom may need to change.  Last year's Super Bowl participants — the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers — finished 32nd and 23rd in rush offense, respectively.  Going back to the turn of the century, three teams — the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2005 Steelers, and the 2007 New York Giants — were the only championship winners to finish in the top five in the league. The team that entered the Super Bowl with the superior rushing attack in the regular season finished 4-5, with last year's entrants representing the poorest regular-season run games in the decade.

This season, the Jets, Ravens, Cowboys, and Saints all rank in the top ten in run offense, but the Colts, Cardinals, and Chargers are all in the bottom five.  So, there are several different ways to get to the elite eight in the playoff bracket, but which one is best?

Well, there are a number of ways to approach that question, but only one answer really counts: When your team needs to gain two yards in a critical situation, can they do it?

The Cardinals found out the hard way that throwing the ball on first and goal from the one yard line towards the end of a second half of a championship game was not the best idea.  During the course of the 2009 season, Indianapolis faced third and two or less 41 times.

They converted 65.9 percent of those attempts, passing the ball 19 times and running the ball 22 times.  On their 22 rushes, they averaged three yards per attempt, recording a first down 15 times for a 68.2 percent success rate.  On passing attempts, they averaged 4.58 yards per pass play, recording 12 first downs for a 63.2 percent success rate.

In 2008, they faced 56 such situations, converting on 41 of them for a 73.2 percent success rate.  They were successful on 80 percent of their passing attempts (16-for-20) and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt in those situations.  They were successful on 69.4 percent of their 36 rush attempts, gaining 3.67 yards per attempt.

So, given the percentages, calling a pass play on third and two against the Chargers last season really was the right call.  But, the Colts were operating with a skeleton crew at running back last season, with Dominic Rhodes as the only option aside from Joseph Addai.

With the addition of Brown — who was hurt for much of the 2009 season, which would explain Indianapolis favoring the passing game in short yardage situations — as a young, healthy back to move the chains, their fortunes may turn around in this year's playoffs.  Don't forget that the Colts had the league's worst run defense in the 2006 regular season but managed to turn things around when it really mattered.

Indianapolis has been extremely efficient in the red zone, scoring touchdowns 66 percent of the time and they have been almost automatic in goal-to-go situations, with a 79.3 conversion percentage.  They should be able to move the chains and score touchdowns in the postseason despite their struggles in the running game.

Addai has ten rushing touchdowns with a long of 21 yards, so the bulk of his scoring production has been from inside the 20.  Brown is fresh, having logged only 78 carries during the season and also scoring all of his touchdowns from 20 yards or less, with two of them coming from inside the three. 

Still, the question looms... When the Colts need to gain two yards in a critical situation, will they be able to do it?  The fate of the season hinges on that question.

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