Colts 3rd Down Offense Catches Fire vs Browns

The Colts offense seemingly figured out the NFL’s number one 3rd down defense on Sunday.



The Indianapolis Colts lost a heartbreaker this past Sunday, falling 39-38 to the Cleveland Browns in dramatic fashion. The end result may not be what anybody wanted, but the Colts took a talented Browns’ team to the wire and had the league’s top defense reeling all game long.


The Cleveland Browns’ defense was on an historic pace coming into Sunday. The Browns led the league in several important defensive stats, but the most impressive was the fact that they were holding opposing offenses to just a 23% conversion rate on third down on the year. That mark was the lowest the NFL has had in the past 20 years.


Despite that insane rate for the Browns’ defense, the Colts were able to convert 7/15 attempts on the day for a rate of 46.6%. The more impressive feat in this is that four of the Colts’ conversions came on 3rd and seven or longer.


Playcaller Shane Steichen simply outcoached the best defense in the league on Sunday, especially on these third down plays. Today, I dive into how Steichen was able to solve this elite defense and how the Colts found so much success on third down.




Heavy Use of Motion

The Cleveland Browns, under long time Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, love to utilize press man coverage on money downs. They have the pass rushers/the scheme to get after the quarterback in a hurry and their long cornerbacks are perfect at disrupting things at the line of scrimmage.


Shane Steichen knew that this would be an issue for his receivers in this game, so he relied heavily on pre-snap motion to save his players from that dangerous press. The smartest move he made all game was motioning Josh Downs into bunched looks.


Rookie receiver Josh Downs is a natural separator that uses his short area quickness to pull away from defenders in a hurry. Steichen wanted to keep his money down player as clean as possible in this big match-up against a long and athletic defense.


On the first third down of the game, Steichen motions Downs into the bunch from a wide alignment. This allows both Alec Pierce and Michael Pittman Jr to run off the inside threats and it gives Downs a perfect little hole to sit down in.


Downs makes the short catch and powers forward for the conversion on third and three:


Steichen also used pre-snap motion to give coverage indicators to his veteran quarterback. The Browns are a complex defense that likes to hide what they are doing, so an ingenious way to expose their design is to start in empty personnel before motioning a running back into the backfield.


Empty personnel is truth serum for a defense, so even just showing it for a second pre-snap can expose what a defense is trying to do. Gardner Minshew is able to get the man coverage read from this motion and he is able to wait on Downs to uncover deep as a result.


Josh Downs uses the switch release from a bunched look to uncover wide open down the field on 3rd and eight:


This short run by Jonathan Taylor was another excellent use of motion pre-snap. Jim Schwartz loves to use unique alignments in order to create ideal match-ups for his pass rushers on critical downs. Here, he has his defensive tackles out wide with nobody controlling the interior gaps.


The Colts recognize that the Browns don’t shift down to the interior even when Jonathan Taylor is motioned into the backfield, leaving a wide open hole up the middle.


The Colts’ shift to an inside zone run as a result, and pick up another 3rd and four opportunity:


The Colts once again utilize the running back motion from empty personnel to get a pre-snap indicator on the defense. This time, Minshew is able to identify that the Browns are going to sit in zone coverage close to the goal line.


Shane Steichen has a mesh call going on this play, which is luckily the perfect design for any defense (mesh is undefeated forever).


Michael Pittman Jr runs away from his zone defender for the narrow conversion on 3rd and seven:


Hard Counts

The simplest little wrinkle that the Colts’ added this weekend was a heavier use of hard counts on key downs. This is a pee wee football level addition to the offense, but it was one of the more important decisions made in the game.


The Browns are a confident and aggressive bunch on defense, so they get after it on every single snap. The Colts knew this, so they countered by making it difficult for the Browns to get a proper read on snap timing.


The result was two of the biggest plays of the entire ball game. Josh Downs hauled in a massive 59 yard touchdown on 3rd and seven due to a hard count, and Alec Pierce high pointed a 32 yard reception on 3rd and eight later in the ball game on a similar free play. These two plays happen due to a simple, yet effective, coaching decision that worked:



The final third down conversion to highlight in this game came on a design that we have all been clamoring for; use Gardner Minshew’s ELITE mobility to create opportunities. All jokes aside, Minshew made some magic happen on this RPO/RPR.


RPO, as we all know, is an acronym for run-pass option. RPR is one for run-pass-run, which this play design actually falls under with Steichen’s/Philly’s terminology. It is slightly different from how college teams classify an RPR play, but I’ll stick to Steichen’s classification for this breakdown.


Gardner Minshew has three options on this play once he ultimately decides to bypass the run up the middle; throw it to Isaiah McKenzie in the flat, hit Michael Pittman Jr on the stick, or keep it up the middle.


Minshew does what we all expect and keeps it up the middle for a long touchdown run on 3rd and three:



Shane Steichen was completely prepared for this match-up against one of the league’s top overall defenses. He had perfect counters drawn up all game long, and even some of his minor change-ups worked to great success.


The Colts have their head coach of the long, long future in Shane Steichen. He is an outstanding play caller that is working magic with this Colts’ offense. I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve going forward.

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