Resurgent Running Game Key to Late-Season Playoff Run
INDIANAPOLIS – As Joseph Addai saw it, the reason was clear.
And it wasn't real complicated, either.
Addai, the Colts' running back who will enter his sixth NFL season next season, said the improvement in the running game late in the season wasn't because of one thing, necessarily, but the major reason was simple when you looked at the season closely.
For much of the season, the Colts' running back group was depleted by injury.
By late in the season, that wasn't true anymore, and the result was a running offense that finished as one of the NFL's most productive units.
"I think it's good to have depth at the running back position," Addai said. "Early on you were saying, 'Where are we going to find a back?' Now, everybody is kind of healthy. I think it's a good thing that you could put anybody in and be comfortable.
"Now, it's not two of us. It's three of us that can run the ball and do some things."
At times for the Colts this season, it was more than that. A lot more.
While Addai continued to be the Colts' starter and leading rusher when healthy, circumstances led to the team using a slew of different players at the running back position throughout the season:
*Addai, who rushed for 495 yards and four touchdowns in a little more than half a season.
*Second-year veteran Donald Brown, who rushed for 497 yards and two touchdowns on 129 carries.
*Veteran Dominic Rhodes, who re-joined the team for the last four games of the regular seasons, playing three and rushing for 172 yards on 37 carries.
*Third-year veteran Mike Hart, who rushed for 185 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries in seven games.
*Rookie free agent Javarris James, who rushed for 112 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries in 10 games.
The members of the offensive line, after two consecutive seasons ranked 31st and 32nd in the NFL, respectively, also entered the season focused on improving the run, and after the first half of the season, they did just that.
The Colts, while finishing 29th in the NFL in rushing, averaged 92.7 yards per game – an improvement from the past two seasons – and late in the season, it was the running game that helped spur the team to a dramatic December run to the playoffs.
After ranking 32nd in the NFL much of the season, and after rushing for more than 100 yards just three times in the first 12 games, the Colts opened December by turning in a solid rushing performance in a key victory at Tennessee. They rushed for 87 yards, and the running game helped the Colts gain control of momentum in a 30-28 victory.
The Colts in the next two games rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville and added a season-high 191 yards in Game 15 against Oakland.
They then closed the season with a 101-yard rushing performance in a home victory over Tennessee, an outcome that clinched a seventh division title in eight seasons.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell late in the season talked about a good balance offensively, and center Jeff Saturday – who made the Pro Bowl for a fifth season – said commitment was the key to the late-season improvement. Saturday said while health and continuity played a role in the improvement, what also has mattered was an increased commitment to the area.
"The last few weeks have been really good," Saturday said late in the season. "I feel like the coaching staff has committed to it and our running backs are running hard. The line's blocking well. You talk about the run game: the more you do it, the better you're going to be at it."
The Colts rushed 32, 24, 39 and 25 times the last four games; in the five games before that they never rushed more than 22 times.
"You keep dialing them up, defenses get tired and you get into a rhythm on the offensive line the same way quarterbacks and receivers get into a rhythm in the passing game," Saturday said. "It shows up late in games, getting big yardage and chewing up clock late in games.
"Not every run is a great run. Not every run is a perfect run. It's exactly like the pass game, but we're growing as a group and guys are growing in confidence, and that goes a long way to making you a better player."
The victories over Jacksonville and Oakland marked the first time since 2006 the Colts rushed for more than 150 yards in back-to-back games, and late in the season, Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson traced the resurgence to a conversation the offensive line had with Caldwell.
"Coach Caldwell approached us and said, 'We're not going to go anywhere without you guys,' Johnson said. "It kind of stuck with us and was one of those things where you said, 'Wow. He's right. As we go, the team kind of goes.' You can kind of see it, with the way we've been able to run the ball the last couple of weeks, and the way Peyton's been able to throw the ball. It's kind of opened us up.
"We accepted the challenge, and hopefully, we'll improve and keep going."
Attaining that balance, while difficult, was crucial to success for the Colts. In six losses in 2010 season, the Colts rushed for less than 50 yards a game.
In 10 victories, they averaged just less than 120 yards rushing.
"I do think we have a group of guys who do respond, particularly when they know something has to change in terms of just getting us to the point where we're better in some areas," Caldwell said as the Colts prepared for the regular-season finale against Tennessee. "I think our offensive line did a tremendous job over the last few weeks of just kind of taking it upon themselves to find a way to be very consistent in that phase.
"I would attribute most of it to those guys playing together well. They have good, solid leadership, and I think we're seeing some of the results of their hard work."