INDIANAPOLIS – In a week where the members of the Colts offense challenged each other to alleviate some of the pressure off of quarterback Andrew Luck's arm, they answered the bell thanks to a pair of young running backs paving the way for a balanced offensive effort.
Rookie running back Vick Ballard got his second career start on Sunday and set career highs with 20 carries for 84 yards, including a game-clinching 26-yard scamper with less than two minutes to go.
For the past two years at Mississippi State, Ballard was on the short end of a pair of matchups with Browns running back, and former Alabama back, Trent Richardson.
On Sunday though the revenge was sweet, as the Colts' run game stole the spotlight with Richardson being held to eight yards on eight carries while battling a rib cartilage injury.
For the first time all season, the Colts out-gained their opponent in the rushing department (148-55) as Indianapolis set a season-high in rushing attempts with 37.
"It was just assignments and attention to detail," Ballard said of the key to the run game success. "Last week, I think we kind of shied away from some of those things and we weren't successful running the ball. (We) just got back to basics, and that was the key to the game."
During the offseason, Head Coach Chuck Pagano and his staff preached the importance of a reliable ground game.
Through the first five games, the Colts admitted they were not where they wanted to be in that department, but Sunday was a step in the right direction.
"That was a better balanced football team for us today and we have to stay that way. We can't be one-dimensional, and we don't want to be," interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.
Luck came into Sunday's game second in the league in pass attempts per game, but the balanced offense even allowed him to use his feet and account for each of the Colts' two touchdowns.
Thanks to the defense holding ground for much of the second half, Indianapolis had a chance to run out the clock late in the fourth quarter.
Facing a second-and-13 from the Indianapolis 36-yard line, Ballard broke a tackle off the left side of the line to rip off a 26-yard run. The rookie did go out of bounds on the play, a mistake that even he laughed about while talking about the win.
"It's definitely a learning experience because in a situation like that, you want to stay in bounds and let the clock run," Ballard said with a smile. "But it kind of surprised me and I forgot the situation, so I ended up running out of bounds. But we got the win so I didn't have to pay for it."
Ballard's day started with 37 total yards on the Colts' first drive. It ended in a three-yard touchdown run by Luck.
While Ballard had his career high on the ground, second-year running back Delone Carter added the punch in short-yardage situations for the Colts.
Carter had a season-high 11 carries for 41 yards and picked up a critical fourth-and-one late in the third quarter which led to a Colts field goal and a 17-13 lead.
"Running the ball, period, was the key this week," Carter said. "Just getting the ball, getting downhill, and getting on top of defenders."
Last week against the Jets, the Colts misfired on several short-yardage situations through the air. The fortunes changed on Sunday with Indianapolis pounding the ball on the ground several times to keep drives alive.
"B.A. (Arians) said instead of passing the ball on third down, we were going to run it on third down this week," Ballard said. "Last week, we had a couple of third-and-shorts and tried to throw the ball, and we weren't successful. We went with the run this week and it turned out nice for us."
One wrinkle in the run game this week was using Colts offensive lineman Tony Hills as a tackle eligible.
Both running backs credited the play of the guys up front, and the line was satisfied with a performance they hope serves as a building block moving forward.
"It feels good for me as an offensive lineman," offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo said of the rushing effort. "I think it feels good for the whole team. It's something that we take some pride in and it's something that we aim to do, so it's nice to see that."
Of the Colts' 37 carries on Sunday, 15 went for at least five yards. The Indianapolis offense showed its balance with 10 of its 21 first downs coming via the ground.
In a week the ground game was challenged, it was a young running back duo and a seven-man offensive line that took it upon itself to help Indianapolis even its record as it approaches the halfway point of the season.
"It puts us right where we want to be. We said we wanted to get to 3-3, and that's what we came out there and did," Ballard said.