Colts lead NFL in converting third downs

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 09: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – We’re only two games into a long season, but the early returns are beyond favorable for the Indianapolis Colts offense when it comes to moving the chains.

They’re the NFL’s best – by far – when it comes to converting third downs.

“I think I understand the numbers (and) the percentages are pretty good right now,’’ Andrew Luck said. “What happens last game doesn’t matter.

“We have to keep rolling.’’

Thus far, they’re rolling at an impressive clip. The Colts are converting third downs at a 60.6 percent clip (20-of-33). Only two other teams are above 50 percent: Tampa Bay (52.2) and Jacksonville (51.9).

Again, it’s early and it’s highly unlikely the Luck-led offense will have the wherewithal to maintain such a lofty pace. The best third-down rate in the Colts’ Indy era: 56.1 percent by the Peyton Manning-led group in 2006.

What’s encouraging after two games, though, is what’s played into the third-down efficiency. It’s a formula conducive to long-term success. That includes:

  • Keeping the third downs in manageable distances, which according to coordinator Nick Sirianni is in the 5-to-6-yard range. Of the Colts’ 33 third-down situations, 21 have been 5 yards or fewer. They’ve converted 16 (76.2 pct.). Luck has faced third-and-3-or-less 15 times, and moved the chains or scored a touchdown 13 times (86.7 pct.).

In last Sunday’s win at Washington, Luck led three TD drives and each was a direct result of the offense finding its rhythm and dominating on third down. It was 8-for-8, and the longest were a pair of third-and-3s.

“That’s insane to have that many third-and-shorts,’’ said Frank Reich.

  • Being productive on early downs. Surprisingly, the Colts rank near the bottom of the league in first-down success: 3.86 yards per play, 28th. But they’ve limited early-down negative plays. Excluding two Luck kneel-downs, the Colts have lost yardage on just three first-down snaps.

“I thought the guys, particularly last week, did a great job,’’ Sirianni said, “because we ran the ball efficiently last week. I thought we ran it well and we didn’t have negative plays. We were able to stay in third-and-manageable.’’

  • Spreading the football around at crunch time. Nine different players have converted at least one third down. Nine. Hilton has been Luck’s go-to guy with five conversions, but tight ends Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Chester Rogers have three each.

Luck has converted two, including a key and rare third-and-1 quarterback sneak on the game-sealing fourth-quarter TD drive against the Redskins. It was his first sneak since 2014.

“We took advantage of it,’’ Sirianni said. “Andrew did a great job and the offensive line did a great job of wedging it up in there. Andrew is a tough guy and he is going to do everything he can do for a yard and we really trusted to just push it forward there as opposed to hand it (off to a running back), get some depth and hand it off.’’

The bottom line, he added, is it’s all about “our players. It’s always about players and we know it.

“We are just trying to put them in the exact best position we can put them in so they can go out there and make plays.’’