INDIANAPOLIS – The first six games of the season have presented challenges for the Colts on both sides of the ball.
While the bottom line is winning and the club is seeking its first victory, there have been areas functioning well.
One such aspect of the club's play is the rushing game. An area targeted for improvement is showing signs through six games. The club has had at least a 4.0 rushing average in four games and dating back to the last three games of 2010, the team has accomplished it seven times in the last nine outings.
Obstacles to doing so this year have come across the board. Peyton Manning is not able to play at this point and the club has used both Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter at quarterback, giving the team more starters at that position this year than it had for the 13 previous seasons.
Indianapolis has been met with injuries along the offensive line, including the losses of the club's top two draft picks in offensive tackles Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana. Both were hurt in the season's fourth game, and Ijalana is lost for the season. Castonzo started the first four games at left tackle, next to left guard Joe Reitz who is starting for the first time as well. Veteran Ryan Diem opened the first two games at right guard before missing three outings with an ankle injury. He returned to start at right tackle at Cincinnati. Mike Pollak has started the last four games at right guard, while Jeff Linkenbach opened the last two at left tackle after doing so the first four on the opposite side.
As if those were not challenges enough, starting running back Joseph Addai injured a hamstring after gaining 19 yards on six rushes against Kansas City in the fifth game of the year.
Every circumstance provides opportunity along with adversity. After Addai averaged 4.9, 4.6 and 5.1 averages in the first three games, rookie Delone Carter and Donald Brown have performed well in the past two outings. Brown sported a 4.8 average against Kansas City by gaining 38 yards on eight attempts, then he gained 35 yards on five attempts at Cincinnati last week, including an 18-yard scoring run. Carter rushed for his first career score against the Chiefs, and he gained 45 yards on 14 rushes at the Bengals.
Indianapolis has converted four red zone possessions in the last two weeks into four touchdowns. Against Kansas City, two 80-yard marches produced 10 of the team's 15 first downs and the Colts scored on a rush and a pass. At Cincinnati, 66- and 74-yard drives produced nine of the team's 18 first downs and the team scored against on a rush and a pass. It is the threat of the running game that can open passing lanes.
Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian noted the team's play in the run game at Cincinnati.
"We blocked the run very well. Our running backs ran exceptionally well," said Polian. "For those who think Donald Brown is not a good player, you saw what he could do. He's not an inside pounder, but he can make big yards and big plays when he gets some daylight. He did that (at Cincinnati) on more than a few occasions. Delone Carter ran very, very well. We've become a much better running football team this year than we have been in a long, long time. That's a credit to the offensive line for working on their techniques and the running backs for doing everything right, hitting holes, staying behind their pads and taking care of the football."
Polian also cited the work of the coaches and the offensive line for its assistance in helping the ground game get going.
"They're (the linemen) playing very well. (Offensive line coach) Pete (Metzelaars) and (assistant offensive line coach) Ron (Prince) are not happy, they haven't played a flawless game yet. In terms of getting the job done, executing, not making mistakes, helping each other out, they've done a terrific job. Obviously, (the line is) missing two young players (Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana) who we counted upon to be starters and who came in and proved they could be. We've had to ask back-up players to step in the do the job, like Quinn Ojinnaka. He did a great job (against Kansas City). Link (Jeff Linkenbach) did a great job (at Cincinnati). Mike Pollak's been fine at right guard. Joe Reitz has been fine at left guard. Jeff (Saturday) is having his best year in a long, long time, amazingly. He's injury-free, thank God, and keeps playing very well. His leadership has made a difference for that group. That's a group that's not only played well, they've improved from day one. The running backs have gotten better every week. We're doing some good things."
In addition to red zone production, Indianapolis was perfect on four third-and-one conversions at Cincinnati, something that Polian pointed to as improvements. He likes the line play and the contributions of Carter.
"Huge improvement," said Polian of the club's ground efforts. "The ability to run that ball on third-and-one and fourth-and-one is what opened up the (touchdown) pass to Dallas (Clark). If you can run the ball in that situation (in the red zone), then they've got to honor it. With Delone Carter, he's a guy if you give him just a little crack he's liable to run through the second-level defender. In fact, he will very often. That's a skill we've been sorely lacking and one that we saw in Delone and we said, 'This is the kind of guy who can help our football team in that one specific area.' "
Polian has seen a difference in Brown this year. He believes Brown has toiled to improve his game and it is something Polian believes will help the club.
"Donald is a big-play runner in that he's 205 pounds and he's a guy that who relies on speed and acceleration to make plays," said Polian. "He has improved greatly this year in being a downhill runner. He's running much more behind his pads. He's running much more in a situation where he's getting low and being able to drive his legs and shear off tackles. He's learned to use his speed in such a way that helps him running downhill. Coach (David) Walker has done a terrific job working with him on that, and he's (Brown) done a terrific job developing it. It's hard to change your style. He was kind of a bounce-out runner, a bounce-outside runner prior to this year. He's really worked hard to develop that, and, of course, he is a home-run hitter. When he gets outside, he can take (it) the distance. He's got the great vision. He can see it and he can outrun almost anybody. Donald's done a terrific job in developing his skills."
The Colts' rushing game has accounted for 29.5 percent of its net yards this season, the highest percentage for the attack since 2007. The team is rushing the ball on 38.3 percent of its plays in 2011, the best balance since 2007 as well.
A stated barometer for success is when the club attempts at least 22 rushes in a contest. The Colts were 10-0 in such games in 2010, 10-1 in 2009 and 7-2 in 2008. The club won its last five games in 2008 when having at least 22 rushes, and the lone setback in 2009 was against the Jets in game 15. Indianapolis had 26 rushes against Cleveland, 27 against Kansas City and 23 at Cincinnati. Though none equated with victory, the club intends to keep at it.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell likes the way the line has played and for the results it has had on the running game. Like any coach who notes improved play, he wants it continued and honed even further.
"I think that's kind of the process with a number of different phases of where we are right now. We just have to be able to sustain it (the running attack) an entire game," said Caldwell. "We've done some things well for a quarter, some things well for a half, some things well for three quarters of a game and in certain spurts, we've shown some signs in the fourth quarter, like the defense playing well in the fourth quarter and getting the ball back for the offense and this past game. There are a number of things that are moving in the right direction. We just have to get them to move a little bit more quickly."