INDIANAPOLIS — Frank Reich has spent the better part of the last two-plus months evaluating what he liked — and what he didn't quite like — from the 2018 season, and then working with his coaches to formulate a plan on how to improve upon the latter.
And with the players due to return to the building for the beginning of the offseason workout program in just a couple weeks, Reich has identified area No. 1 that he wants his offense to address: the run game.
That's not to say the Colts struggled running the ball in 2018. But to get to the heights Reich believes his offense can reach, he said better consistency on the ground is a must.
In fact, Reich has a tangible goal in mind.
"Our goal will be to be a top-five, top-seven, rushing team," he told reporters this week at the NFL Owners Meetings in Phoenix.
Reich believes an effective run game keep an opposing defense off-balance is key, especially in an era in which passing records are seemingly being broken left and right.
"I just have a really strong conviction of that's what it takes. In this day of high scoring, crazy pass offenses, and that's all true, but if you look at the numbers, you gotta be good at running the football," Reich said. "There's exceptions to that, but the percentages are with you... if you're a top-10 rushing team, you gotta much better (chance to win)."
And in 2018, while it wasn't among the worst in the league, the Colts' run game, Reich said, just wasn't good enough — "We were 20th last year," Reich said with a scowl, referring to the team's NFL ranking in yards per game.
So how are the Colts going to get to where they want to go in this area? There are several ways to attack it, but the running backs and the offensive line are the key pieces in play.
Starting up front, while Reich and general manager Chris Ballard were overall pleased with the play of the Indy offensive line in 2018 — they "played their butts off," Ballard said this week from Arizona — the focus moving forward will be morphing from an elite pass-protecting line to being an elite all-around line.
The Colts, of course, allowed just 18 sacks in 2018, the fewest in the league, but their 4.2 yards-per-carry average ranked 22nd.
With a new offensive line coach, Chris Strausser, a new assistant offensive line coach, Klayton Adams, and with the return of legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd as a senior offensive assistant, the team is expecting to see immediate returns in the run game.
The fact that all five starting offensive linemen from that 2018 team are returning makes it all the better.
"It's huge," Reich said. "This day and age to get all five (back)? Continuity's huge at every position, but certainly at offensive line even more. … Obviously we led the league in fewest sacks per attempt, so that's huge, get those guys back, but now we just need to take the next big step in the running game."
Continuity should also be a theme at running back, where Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins all return for a second year in Reich's system under position coach Tom Rathman. Jonathan Williams, another running back the team holds in high regard that spent much of last season on the practice squad, is also back on the offseason roster.
Mack last year overcame a hamstring injury that kept him out of four of the team's first five games and turned in an impressive second NFL season, running the ball 195 times for 908 yards — an average of 4.7 yards per carry — and nine touchdowns. Had he been healthy for a full 16-game season, that would put Mack at more than 1,200 yards on the year.
Reich said this week that while he still believes his team will employ more of a "running back-by-committee" approach — Hines and Wilkins as rookies certainly flashed their unique talents throughout the year — Mack is unquestionably going to be the featured back heading into the 2019 season.
"He's got burst, he's really smart," Reich said of Mack. "And Marlon, he's got burst and he's got that speed, but he's a good inside runner. He's got good play strength — that's one of the phrases we talk about; what's his play strength like? He's got good burst, he's got good vision."
Factor everything together — the continuity up front and in the backfield and the addition of a fresh approach from a coaching perspective — and Reich is confident he'll see those rushing numbers improve dramatically in 2019.
"My expectations this year for our run game are really, really high," Reich said. "Really high."