When it comes to third-and-1, none better than Colts’ Turbin

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 05: Robert Turbin #33 of the Indianapolis Colts runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on December 5, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – He wears No. 33, but Robert Turbin might as well have a target on the back of his jersey.

He’s in his second season as a member of the Indianapolis Colts’ running back rotation, and his role hasn’t changed one iota.

Third-and-1?

You’re in Robert.

“Everybody knows, too,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “Put it on the Jumbotron. Turbo is in the game, it’s third-and-1 and he’s probably getting the ball.

“Everybody knows and he still gets it.’’

Yes he does.

Since joining the Colts as a journeyman back during the 2016 offseason, Turbin has yearned for a larger role but settled into a critical one. He’s as automatic as it gets on third-and-1, even though everyone knows what’s – who’s – coming.

“He has a knack of finding a hole and getting a first down,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said Friday. “Obviously he’s strong. It’s a skill that he’s had. We found out over time.’’

Turbin, a powerful 5-10, 216-pounder, is an NFL-best 7-for-7 on third-and-1 this season. That’s after going 5-for-5 in ’16. Turbin and Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (8-for-8) are the only backs with perfect marks the last two seasons.

Turbin shrugged when asked about his proclivity to produce when so much is on the line – keep the chains moving, or punt – and the defense is crowding the line of scrimmage and has him in its crosshairs.

“We know how important it is to move drives collectively, so whether it’s third-and-short, (or) third-and-long, our job is to execute as players,’’ he said.

His modesty aside, the Colts don’t attempt to downplay Turbin’s single-mindedness when the offense needs 3 feet to maintain possession.

“He stops, starts, makes you miss,’’ Pagano said. “Has a great feel, got great vision and pad level. He’s always keeping his legs churning.

“A lot of those he got on his own.’’

Turbin represents one-third of the Colts’ backs-by-committee approach. The roles of each – Frank Gore, Turbin, rookie Marlon Mack – have crystalized a month into the season.

“I really like that room,’’ Chudzinski said. “I like what those guys bring.’’

A look at each:

  • Feature back: Gore. At 34 and in his 13th season, he remains the unquestioned leader of the pack. Never mind he’s on the downside of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. He’ll make his 98th consecutive start Monday night against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, extending his league-best streak among active running backs.

In Sunday’s overtime win over San Francisco, Gore grinded his career rushing totals to 13,304 yards, into the NFL’s No. 7 slot ahead of Eric Dickerson.

“You forget sometimes and you’re reminded that he just passed Eric Dickerson,’’ Chudzinski said. “Frank’s going in uncharted territory for a running back. It’s incredible.’’

Instability and occasional inefficiency along the offensive line have contributed to Gore averaging 47.8 yards per game and 3.2 yards per attempt. The team’s spread-it-around approach to the run game also is cutting into his playing time. Gore has been on the field for 51.4 percent of the offensive snaps in the first five games after shouldering a 59.4 percent workload last season.

  • Change-of-pace: Mack. We’re still talking a small sample size, but the rookie has been what’s missing in the Colts offense. Mack has injected speed and suddenness into the running game. His contributions to the overtime win over the 49ers included a 35-yard run, the team’s longest since 2015, a 22-yard touchdown and a 16-yard run along the right sideline that was a nifty17-yard TD until replay stepped in.

“This is definitely what I try to do, go out there and perform,’’ said Mack, who also had a 24-yard run against the Rams in the opener.

The fourth-round pick remains a work in progress and his development has been stunted by injuries. An unspecified injury forced him to miss invaluable time during the offseason, and a shoulder injury limited his availability during the preseason and kept him out of two games.

“He’s still learning. He’s still growing,’’ Chudzinski said. “You like what you see. You like the signs.

“As any young player goes, you want him to prove that they’re going to be consistent and that they’re going to be durable and reliable. One step at a time.’’

Mack’s brief resume consists of just 25 rushing attempts and runs the gamut. He’s had four rushes of at least 16 yards, and 11 that have resulted in no gain or lost yardage. Get him on the edge or in space, and he’s a big-play waiting to happen.

Again, Mack’s explosiveness has been woefully lacking. He had two 20-plus yard runs against the 49ers. The last Colt to generate two in the same game? Andrew Luck in 2014 against Jacksonville. The last Colt running back to do it? Donald Brown in 2011 against the Titans.

  • Third-and-1: Turbin. We’ve already addressed his value to the offense. Possessions are all about moving the chains, winning on third-and-short and being efficient in the red zone. Last season, Turbin was responsible for eight touchdowns – seven rushing, one receiving – on 73 “touches.’’

That brought high praise from Luck.

“He’s done a heck of a job . . . he’s a stud,’’ he said.

Worth noting this season is Turbin has generated nine first downs on his 25 touches (20 rushes, five receptions). Along with picking up first downs on his seven third-and-1 attempts, he converted a third-and-3 against Cleveland. On five of those eight third-down conversions, the Colts have gone on to score a touchdown or field goal.

“I wouldn’t downplay what he’s done on third down,’’ Chudzinski said. “He’d never been a third-down back, a protector (for) however long he was into his career . . . and we asked him to do it.

“That’s what you find out about guys over time.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.