Third-Down Defense a Focal Point Coming Out of the Bye, Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – The ironic thing about third-down defense, as Antoine Bethea sees it, is the most imant part often doesn't happen on that down at all.
It happens a play earlier. And even two.
Bethea, the Colts' Pro Bowl safety, said this week a key to Indianapolis improving defensively is improving in third-down situations, but Bethea and his teammates also agreed that to focus on third down could be missing the point.
As important as third-downs are, Bethea said the first two are even more so.
"It starts with being effective on first and second down," Bethea said this week as the Colts (1-2) prepared to play the Houston Texans (0-3) in an early-season AFC South game at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday at 1 p.m.
"It's tough when a team has 3rd-and-1 to 3rd-and-3 to get stops. In the NFL, you're playing against some good guys. Third down is a major part of the game, but at the same time, that's where you have to be effective on first and second down."
The Colts, through three games this season, have struggled at times defensively, ranking 23rd in overall defense and 31st in run defense.
But of specific concern to Colts' defensive players is their efficiency on third downs.
The Colts, who lost to Chicago in the opener before winning at Minnesota and losing at home to Jacksonville in Week 3, rank 29th in the NFL in third-down defense after three games, having allowed opponents to convert 20 of 43 third-down opportunities, or 46.5 percent.
Only Jacksonville (50.0), New England (48.6) and Houston (48.6) have allowed a higher percentage.
"If you can't get them off the field on third down, then they have more opportunities to score," Colts defensive end Josh Thomas said. "That's kind of the biggest stat for a defense for us. We haven't done as good of a job as we wanted to and you can see how we're doing."
The importance of third downs to the Colts' defense can be gleaned from a simple statistic, middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said:
Victories and losses.
"If you get off the field on third down, it gets the defense fresh," Brackett said. "You get off the field and now you usually get in pretty good field position. Anytime you get off the field on third downs, and those guys have to punt, that's huge in the field-position battle. Giving our offense the ball on the 40- or 50-yard line, that almost guarantees you three points.
"Anytime we can get off the field in our territory it ends up being huge in the ball game."
"The two definitely correlate with each other," Thomas said.
In the regular-season opener against Chicago, the Colts allowed the Bears to convert 10 of 16 third downs, or 62.5 percent. The Bears rushed for 183 yards and held a 31:44-28:16 time-of-possession advantage. They also converted two third downs on a game-clinching, fourth-quarter touchdown drive, beating the Colts, 29-13.
At Minnesota in Week 2, the Colts allowed the Vikings to convert two of 13 third downs. Minnesota rushed for 179 yards and held a 32:34-27:26 time-of-possession advantage, but after taking a 15-0 lead late in the third quarter, the Vikings did not convert a third down. The Colts scored 18 points in the game's final 16:24 en route to an 18-15 victory.
And in the Colts' Week 3 loss to Jacksonville they allowed the Jaguars to convert 8 of 14 third downs. Jacksonville held a 41:35-18:25 time-of-possession advantage in a 23-21 victory.
When the Colts have held opponents under 50 percent on third downs, they have won; otherwise, they have lost – something Bethea said is far from a coincidence.
Third-down defense, Bethea said, is a solid gauge of winning and losing "unless you're getting turnovers and we're not getting many turnovers as well."
The Colts, after forcing 37 turnovers last season – the second-highest total in the NFL – have forced two turnovers this season. Only two teams, the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions, have forced fewer.
"It kind of plays into one another, so it's tough," Bethea said.
The key to creating optimal situations for turnovers is the same as the key to improving third-down efficiency, Brackett said – playing better on first and second downs.
Against Chicago, seven of the Bears' 10 successful third-down conversions came 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-2 or 3rd-and-3. The Bears converted just one of five situations of 3rd-and-8 or longer. The Jaguars converted three of four situations of 3rd-and-less-than-three.
For the season, opponents have converted 10 of 14 situations of 3rd-and-3 or shorter. On 3rd-and-4 to 3rd-and-7, opponents have converted 9 of 17 opportunities while they have converted just one of 12 situations of 3rd-and-8 or longer.
"You have to make third downs manageable for us," Brackett said. "Manageable for the offense is 3rd-and-4 and 3rd-and-3 when they can kind of run and pass. You get those guys in 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-10 situations, you pretty much know it's going to be a passing play. We have some of the best defensive ends in the league as far as rushing the quarterback, but they really haven't had a chance to get in and get after the quarterback. First and second down, we have to tackle well.
Said Thomas, "In order to get to a manageable third down your rushing defense has to play well on first down and get them into a second and long. Everything – rushing defense, passing defense – everything kind of comes together. In order to get those third and longs, you have to have a good rushing defense on first down."