Colts Running Game Improving Through First Half of the Season
INDIANAPOLIS – In recent weeks, Jeff Saturday said he's seen progress.
Saturday, the Colts' four-time Pro Bowl center and the most-tenured player on the offensive line, said no way has the running offense this season been perfect, not even in the last few games.
But it has improved, and Saturday said in recent games the Colts have run when runs have been available, and that's not only a good start, it's a step towards their preseason goal.
"That's what we're shooting for," Saturday said this week as the AFC South Colts (5-2) prepared to play the Philadelphia Eagles (4-3) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa., Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
It's something for which the Colts have been shooting for several seasons.
The Colts, who finished 31st in the NFL in rushing in 2008, vowed each of the past two off-seasons to improve the running game. They progressed at times last season, and ran effectively in three post-season games – including the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLIV – but they finished the regular season 32nd in the league in rushing, and again spent the off-season focused on improving the area.
Through seven games, they have done so.
And in recent weeks that has been particularly true.
The Colts, after rushing for 44 yards on 10 carries in a season-opening loss to the Houston Texans, rushed for 160 yards on 43 carries the following week in a victory over the New York Giants. They averaged less than 50 yards rushing in each of the next two games, but after rushing for 58 yards on 19 carries in a loss at Jacksonville, the Indianapolis offense has rushed for:
*97 yards and a touchdown in a 19-9 victory over Kansas City.
*170 yards and a touchdown in a 27-24 victory over Washington.
*107 yards in a 30-17 victory over Houston.
Three games. Three solid rushing efforts.
The efforts also have contributed to three victories – and sole possession of first place in the AFC South for the first time this season.
"We've been able to continue to get a little bit better," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said. "I think we've been able to run it with a little bit more consistency. That's been good. We've just got to keep progressing. Right now we're in a situation where obviously we've had a couple of decent weeks at running the ball."
The Colts, who now rank 23rd in the NFL in rushing for the season at 96.6 yards per game after rushing for 79.6 yards per game in 2008 and 80.9 a game in 2009, have made their improvements in recent weeks despite significant injuries at the running back position.
Backup Donald Brown, a first-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, missed three consecutive games with a hamstring before playing a limited role last week. He rushed for 16 yards on nine carries last week, and has rushed for 97 yards on 32 carries this season.
Starter Joseph Addai, after rushing for 406 yards and three touchdowns in the first six games of the season, missed this past week's game with a neck injury, and with Addai out and Brown limited, third-team running back Mike Hart rushed for 84 yards on 12 carries.
"I think Mike's averages were pretty good," Caldwell said. "We just want to keep that going if we can."
While Hart missed practice Wednesday with an ankle injury sustained late in the Houston game, and while Addai also missed Wednesday, Brown returned and practiced full. But whatever back is available, Saturday said, "You want to be able to put up 100 yards a game and do some things like that."
"It's getting there," Saturday said. "It's slow and steady, and we know it's not all going to be solved in one week. Like everything else in our game plan, we have to be consistent in the running game."
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said the improvement in the area from the start of the season was evident Sunday. Whereas in the season-opening loss to Houston the Texans outrushed the Colts 257-44, Houston on Monday outrushed the Colts by just one yard, 108-107.
Manning long has said that establishing the possibility that the Colts can run effectively is critical to the Colts' offensive success. If defenses believe the Colts can run effectively enough to gain yardage on first down and create what the Colts call second-down and third-down manageable situations, it makes the overall offense better able to function. It also, Manning has said often this season, is critical for the Colts to run effectively when opposing defenses play seven and eight defensive backs.
The Colts' offense often calls for runs to be used in such situations, and Manning said when the Colts can't run effectively against such defenses, the overall offense struggles.
"It certainly was imant the other night to establish the run," Manning said. "I thought as much as anything, we almost flipped roles on Houston. The first game they ran the ball so well and kept our offense off the field. I thought we really kept their offense from getting any kind of rhythm. Thirty-six minutes of possession, we got the lead, which was important.
"I think the ability, the threat of being able to run the ball, it certainly keeps their defense from being able to hone in and stop one phase of your offense."