Third-Down Defense a Focus This Week, Colts Players and Officials Say
INDIANAPOLIS – The issue is as confounding at times as it is critical.
And whether it was middle linebacker Gary Brackett, or Head Coach Tony Dungy, or President Bill Polian, when it came to the Colts' defense – and its chances for success in the coming weeks – the consensus this week was, well, a consensus.
No, all is not perfect. And yes, many areas can improve.
But if there was one area Colts officials, coaches and players said this week said must improve quickly, it's an area that in past seasons often has been crucial to the franchise's success.
The area? Third-down defense.
"We're really going to concentrate on third down," Brackett said as the Colts (3-4) prepared to play the AFC East-leading New England Patriots (5-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 8:15 p.m.
"Getting off the field on third down is going to be a premium this week. That's what our mindset is. I think we just have to execute better."
The Colts, under .500 after seven games for the first time in a decade, are ranked 15th in total defense, measured by yards allowed per game. They began the season struggling against the run, but in the last three weeks – a span that included games against two of the NFL's top five rushing teams – Indianapolis has averaged allowing less than 100 yards a game.
Far more concerning, Polian said, is the performance on third downs, a down on which the defense has a chance to change possession – and therefore momentum.
"Everybody hollers about run and stop the run, but the bottom line is third down is where it counts," Polian said.
The Colts, through seven games have allowed opponents to convert 44.6 of third downs into first downs. Only Jacksonville (45.3 percent, 3-4), Kansas City (48.9 percent, 1-6) and Cincinnati (50.5 percent, 0-8) have allowed a higher percentage.
Chicago (30.1 percent, 4-3), Tampa Bay (30.4 percent, 5-3) and Baltimore (31.9 percent, 4-3) are the NFL's top three teams in third-down defense, and unbeaten Tennessee and the New York Giants – the teams with the best records in the AFC and NFC, respectively – have allowed an average of 35.0 and 33.3, respectively.
"You're not going to win many games down there," Polian said. "A lot of sound and fury has been spent discussing our inability to stop the run, but we are certainly in the lower third of the league in stopping third-down passing. That perception is in the ballpark."
The Colts this season have allowed opponents to convert 15 of 46 – 32 percent – of third downs of 3rd-and-6 or more. Fourteen of the 15 first downs came on pass plays.
This past Monday, in a 31-21 loss to Tennessee, the Colts held the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing offense to 88 yards on 31 carries, and at halftime – after holding the Titans to two of seven on third downs – the Colts led, 7-6. They extended the lead to 14-6 early in the second half.
The Titans converted five of six third downs in the second half, during which they scored three touchdowns and a field goal on four possessions. Three of the conversions came on 3rd-and-7 or more – one on 3rd-and-7, one on 3rd-and-8 and one on 3rd-and-10.
On the game's critical drive, with the Colts leading 14-6 in the third quarter, the Titans faced four third downs. Tennessee threw incomplete on 3rd-and-4, but cornerback Marlin Jackson's illegal contact penalty gave the Titans a first down.
Titans quarterback Kerry Collins passed 23 yards to Justin McCareins on 3rd-and-10 from the Tennessee 42, then five plays later, Collins passed 15 yards to Brandon Jones on 3rd-and-9. On 3rd-and-goal from the Colts 1, Titans running back LenDale White converted the situation with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Dungy said while the Colts' struggles against the run early in the season helped put opponents in manageable third-down situations, that wasn't the case against Tennessee.
"It's just been kind of like the run defense, where people study and they know us," Dungy said. "They've had some good things against us, and when your run defense isn't great, and you have a lot of 3rd-and-3s, it's tough, but we had some 3rd-and-longs in the Tennessee game that you have to convert.
"You have to make them punt the ball in those situations. That has been the most disappointing thing, maybe, our 3rd-and-longs."
Said Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, "You have to concentrate. There are a lot of little things that happened throughout that game as far as leverage, things like that. It happened on third down and gave those guys opunities to keep drives going.
"We have to eliminate those things. It comes from every individual doing their job."
The Titans' proficiency on 3rd-and-long came about not because of any particular issue, Dungy said, rather a mistake here and a mistake there – mistakes he said must stop for the Colts to have success in the coming weeks.
"It's being fundamentally sound, maybe lucky at times, and making the plays when you have to – and avoiding penalties," Dungy said. "What happened to us the other night was when we did get them in 3rd-and-8s and 3rd-and-9s, we didn't come through. We didn't get them off the field. We did it in the first half. We didn't in the second half.
"The first half was two field goals and pretty effective defense. The second half, we got penalties on the very first drive that led to a touchdown. Then, they got some big completions on 3rd-and-8 and 3rd-and-9. That's usually when we shine."
Said Colts safety Melvin Bullitt, "It's just doing what you're supposed to do. After watching the film, we had a lot of guys in the wrong spots. That hurt us. It's been kind of that way the whole season and until we fix it, we won't be able to get off on third downs."