Third Down Is First Priority

The Dolphins are going back to Indianapolis Sunday looking to get off to a 2-0 start on the road and also looking to avenge last year's frustrating 23-20 loss against the Colts. In a game that proved pivotal for both teams, the Dolphins had plenty of opportunities to win.

To set the stage, the Colts and Dolphins both entered last year's game at Lucas Oil Stadium sporting a 4-3 record. Both teams had surprisingly put themselves in position to make a serious playoff run after disappointing 2011 seasons.

As it turned, the victory against the Dolphins on Nov. 4 propelled the Colts to an 11-5 finish and a return to the playoffs.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, followed the loss at Indianapolis with a stinker against Tennessee and a Thursday night loss at Buffalo and their playoff hopes basically were done at 4-6.

Who knows how far they could have carried a victory at Indy, which would have given them a 5-3 record at the halfway mark of the 2013 season.

What made the loss at Indy particularly painful is just how close the Dolphins came.

Remember, the Dolphins had a first-and-10 at midfield at the two-minute warning before three incompletions and a dubious false-start penalty on Mike Pouncey left them in a fourth-and-15 situation, only to see Daniel Thomas stopped 1 yard short after he caught a pass from Ryan Tannehill.

The real story of the game, though, was Indianapolis' showing offensively in third-down situations.

The Colts ended up 13-for-19 in third-down conversions that day, but that wasn't nearly as frustrating as the way they got to that mark.

What was really painful for the Dolphins was watching Indy convert six situations of third-and-10 or longer and four of those conversions led to scores.

The game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the fourth quarter came after the Colts converted a third-and-11 from their own 5-yard line.

Indy's first touchdown came on a third-and-goal from the 9-yard line after the Colts had converted a third-and-14 from their own 33-yard line with a 25-yard pass from Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton.

Then there was a 20-yard completion to Hilton on third-and-20 from the Miami 49-yard line with under 20 seconds left in the first half that allowed the Colts to kick a field goal right before halftime.

Finally, there was Indy's touchdown in the third quarter, which came on a drive that was kept alive when Luck hit Lavell Brazill with a 19-yard pass on third-and-16 from the Colts 31-yard line.

Here's the complete breakdown of the Colts' third-down situations in that meeting last year:

Third-and-12, Luck completes 22-yard pass to Allen, first down

Third-and-1, Carter rushes for no gain

Third-and-2, Luck completes 9-yard pass to Wayne, first down

Third-and-14, Luck completes 25-yard pass to Hilton, first down

Third-and-goal, Luck completes 9-yard pass to Wayne, touchdown

Third-and-3, Luck completes 14-yard pass Ballard, first down

Third-and-13, Luck completes 9-yard pass to Ballard

Third-and-12, Luck pass incomplete

Third-and-20, Luck completes 20-yard pass to Hilton, first down, sets up field goal

Third-and-1, Luck completes 14-yard pass to Avery, first down

Third-and-10, Luck completes 22-yard pass to Avery, first down

Third-and-25, Luck pass incomplete

Third-and-6, Luck completes 15-yard pass to Ballard, first down

Third-and-16, Luck completes 19-yard pass to Brazill, first down

Third-and-11, Luck completes 20-yard pass to Allen, first down

Third-and-3, Luck completes 6-yard pass to Wayne, first down

Third-and-6, Luck pass incomplete

Third-and-4, Luck pass incomplete

Third-and-7, Ballard 19-yard run, first down

That last third down came on the last play of the game. Out of timeouts and with under a minute left, the Dolphins would have lost the game even if they had stopped Ballard on that run, but it was a fitting ending to the game.

There were two major factors at play in the Colts' third-down success, and both come back to Luck.

Simply put, Luck was sensational that day. He had perhaps the single best performance by an NFL QB in the 2012 season on that particular day and it's difficult to envision him begin that good again on Sunday, which should be an encouraging sign for Dolphins fans.

Second, the Dolphins got their hands on Luck quite a bit that day but simply weren't able to bring him down. The Dolphins pass rush is coming off a six-sack game against Cleveland and one would expect Cameron Wake and company are going to be extra diligent about making sure Luck doesn't escape their clutches again.

To provide an idea of just how remarkable Indy's third-down success against the Dolphins in last year's game was, considering that New England led the NFL in third-down offense last year and the Patriots' conversion rate was 48.7 percent.

Against the Dolphins last year, the Colts converted 68 percent.

It's likely not going to happen this year again. It can't, really, if the Dolphins are to leave Indianapolis with a victory this time.

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