Colts Need to Improve Running Game, Manning Says
INDIANAPOLIS – The message and mission were clear.
And Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said this week it was crucial enough to be an early topic in preparations for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The message: the Colts' running game must improve.
And just because the opponent this week typically makes even the most-effective running teams decidedly ineffective, the message isn't any less imant.
"That's what the coaches talked about, that we need to find a way to run the ball better," Manning said as the Colts (4-4) prepared to play the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) at Heinz Field Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
"I know that will be a focus this week."
The Colts, while not traditionally one of the league's dominant rushing offenses, typically have run efficiently over the past decade.
Since Manning's 1998 arrival, they have ranked in the Top 20 in rushing eight of 10 seasons, with the lone exceptions being 1998 – when the team finished 3-13 – and 2002, when then-running back Edgerrin James was returning from a season-ending knee injury the season before.
Those seasons also coincided with the team's two lowest overall offensive rankings in the last decade. The Colts were ninth in the NFL in total offense in 2002, and 12th in 1998.
Since 2002, they have ranked in the Top 5 in total offense each season. But this season, the Colts rank 22nd in the NFL in total offense through eight games. Their rushing ranking is thirty-second, last in the NFL.
"Everybody's frustrated – us (running backs), the linemen, the coaches," Colts running back Dominic Rhodes said. "We know we what we need to do to beat a good team. We have to run the ball. Everybody's frustrated, but we can make it through this. We've persevered through other things."
The Colts' emphasis when running the ball, Head Coach Tony Dungy often has said, isn't as much to control the game's momentum with running, or to build possession time. Rather, Dungy said the Colts have strived to run effectively enough to allow the offense as a whole – including the team's dropback and play-action passing game – to operate efficiently.
The Colts, who have averaged 70.1 yards per game this season, have done that at times this season, and Dungy said it did so as recently as two weeks ago in a 31-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Colts that night rushed for 94 yards on 22 carries, a 4.3-yards-per-carry average.
"You have to be able to run effectively," Dungy said. "We need to run better than we have, but I thought we ran well enough against Tennessee (Oct. 27) and put ourselves in position to be in 2nd-and-shorts and 3rd-and-mediums. We ran the ball and controlled it. We just didn't have enough runs."
Against the Patriots this past week, the Colts rushed for 47 yards on 21 carries, which Dungy said wasn't enough.
The Steelers enter Sunday's game ranked first in the NFL in total defense, and have been dominant at times this season against the run. They have allowed just 2.9 yards per run and their 70.1 yards rushing allowed per game is third in the NFL.
They have allowed more than 100 yards rushing just once – 103 to the Baltimore Ravens on September 29.
The Colts' lone 100-yard rushing game came in Week 3 against Jacksonville, when they rushed for 114 yards. Addai, a Pro Bowl selection last season, has rushed for 248 yards and four touchdowns on 79 carries, a 3.1-yards-per-carry average – in five games this season. Rhodes, who re-signed with Indianapolis after a season in Oakland, has rushed for 262 yards and three touchdowns on 73 carries.
"It (running effectively) is the same thing as the run defense," Dungy said. "You have to do it right and sometimes you have to block good people. It'll be a tough test (at Pittsburgh) because these guys are good and they aren't giving up a lot of run yardage against anybody.
"But, we have to run well enough to keep them off balance, to run when we want to, to stay out of 2nd-and-11s, 2nd-and-9s and get in 2nd-and-7s and 2nd-and-6s."
With Addai injured early in a victory over Baltimore, Rhodes had the majority of the carries that week, and also the following two weeks in losses to Green Bay and Tennessee. Against the Patriots this past week, Addai rushed for 32 yards on 17 carries and Rhodes carried four times for 15 yards.
The disparity of carries, Dungy said, was caused in part because of extended drives by the Patriots, which allowed Addai to rest between Colts series.
"Every game is different," Dungy said. "That was really a strange game (against New England). We were going to try to keep Joseph rested, but unfortunately, he got a lot of rest in between times we had the ball.
"It was just one of those days where it worked out that way, but, yes, we would anticipate Dom getting more carries."
While Dungy said playing effective offensively – and winning – is difficult without a solid running offense, he said improving the area is not a prerequisite for winning.
"I never say that," Dungy said. "I always think there are ways you can do it. People said we couldn't get to the Super Bowl with our run defense the way it was (in 2006), and it never did get straightened out until the playoffs. We won a bunch of games that year and played well enough in the playoffs to win it. There are always ways to win.
"You can win with the return game, you can win with special teams, with takeaways, with big plays. Obviously, the better we run it the easier it's going to be, but if we're not running any better, we have to find other ways to win."
Rhodes and Manning said the idea is not necessarily to have to find other ways, and that although the task of improving against a run-stuffing defense is difficult, that difficulty shouldn't mean they can't accomplish the mission.
"We have another tough test, but hopefully, we can bounce back," Rhodes said. "It's just us being on the same page, execution. It's not just the linemen. It's the receivers – the backs hitting the right holes, doing all the right things. We have to execute and make sure we're on our assignment and the running game will get going."
Said Manning, "That sure would help. That's something that we continue to work on during the week of practice and try to find something that works a little bit. It's been a challenge for whatever reason, and this would be a great week to try to get a little running game going."