- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- We dig and scrap to find issues with a team that was a league best 14-2 and went to the Super Bowl a season ago.
And we often end up hitting on third-and-short offense.
It’s not that the Indianapolis Colts were bad in such situations. They converted overall third downs at a league-best clip of 49.2 percent.
Still, in a couple of big situations in the past two postseasons -- the end of a loss in San Diego two seasons ago and the end of the first half of Super Bowl XLIV -- failures on third-and-short had a big bearing.
“You get that first down, it’s probably never spoken about,” center Jeff Saturday said. “… A lot of [third-and-one] is you’ve got nine and 10 guys in the box, you have a single safety back behind it, your corners are up either in press or man-to-man. You have a lot of players up in there filling gaps.
“We’re a one-back offense so we don’t have somebody really leading through. So if you don’t get a clean block or they are blitzing and somebody steps in the gap, it’s tough to always get it. It’s a definite mindset. We actually did improve last year compared to the year before. But those are the things, when 10 guys are in the box, there are 2 minutes left on the clock and you can run it and eat up their last timeout, that’s what you’ve got to get done.
“… Anytime you’re extending drives with runs, you’re solving a lot of people's problems.”
Three factors are at play as the Colts look to improve at clutch conversions:
Clyde Christensen is now the offensive coordinator, replacing Tom Moore who is now playing a lesser role in the play-calling. Also, Pete Metzelaars is the new offensive line coach after Howard Mudd’s retirement. Ron Prince was added as an O-line assistant.
Saturday said in just eight offseason practices with an altered staff that he’s “changed a lot of techniques and fundamentals.” Twelve years in, he told his wife, and he feels like a rookie because he’s relearning so much. He diplomatically declined to share even a small example.
“There are things we have to do better,” Saturday said. “… It’s always tough to evaluate yourself when you’re the one being criticized, but at the end of the day when you look over the entire numbers of the entire year, we’ve got to play better, we’ve got to run the ball better.
"Hopefully with the things we are tweaking and kind of adjusting, our run game will get better and be able to complement the rest of our offense.”
Saturday said Christensen’s goal is for the run game to do three-quarters of a yard better per run.
Starting running back Joseph Addai, who I believe takes too much heat from critics when the run game fails, is in the final year of his contract. Addai ranked 21st in the NFL in third-down conversion rate rushing (75 percent). He and second-year running back Donald Brown should be more dependable.
“I think they are asking a little bit more from us and we are asking a little bit more from ourselves,” Addai said. “I think when it’s third down and they call for us to run the ball, they don’t fear us not getting the job done. That’s never been a worry. At times you get stopped.”
There is more talk between the backs and the line, Addai said, and at this stage of offensive development, they are more in sync than they were a year ago.
Colts president Bill Polian said there is also the fullback question, where the team could use Mike Hart or someone else in that role at times.
But the team doesn’t have a full-time fullback and Polian’s not shopping for one.
“We think we have guys on the club that can fill that role,” Polian said. “We’ll see as we go through the preseason.”
Polian invested a fifth-round pick in Brody Eldridge, a tight end from Oklahoma who, at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, is 4 inches and 10 pounds bigger than Robinson.
“If you have a tight end who’s going to be crushing down sides, that will definitely go a long way towards helping your run game,” Saturday said. “... Hopefully Brody’s going to be a difference-maker in the blocking game. But you can’t depend on one guy; it’s got to be everybody up front making it happen.”
“That would help a lot just coming around that edge,” Addai said. “Any running back loves to get around that edge and just go. I’m pretty sure [Eldridge] will do what he’s been brought here to do. If that happens, all of us will be happy.”
It’s very difficult to judge a guy as a blocker out of minicamp work. Eldridge did show he’s got the potential to be more than that, working smoothly as a target for Manning and running well.
Tinkering with short yardage will continue to be a point of emphasis for the Colts through the remainder of their OTAs and the preseason. We won’t be able to determine much, really, until the next crucial third-and-short, and it would be a good while before we see if the alterations result in more success.
“We were among the top 10 in the league [in short-yardage situations],” Polian said. “That said, we target it as something we should be a little bit better at. So we took a look at some personnel groupings, we took a look at some issues we felt we could improve, and it’s a work in progress. We’ll see.”