INDIANAPOLIS – The Colts were 6-6 with four games to go in the 2010 regular season and needed wins in the remaining games to reach the playoffs.
What had worked well in a season turbulent with injuries was a certain rushing barometer. The Colts were 6-0 in outings when it had rushed the ball 22 or more times.
The approach for the next four games? Run the ball. Indianapolis did, staying on the ground 32, 24, 39 and 25 times in beating Jacksonville, Oakland and Tennessee twice. Quarterback Peyton Manning even got into the spirit with a 27-yard dash at the Raiders to seal a 31-26 victory. Indianapolis was playoff bound.
The Colts finished the season 10-0 in games when it rushed 22 or more times. Indianapolis was 10-1 in such games in 2009, losing only to the New York Jets in week 15 when the club was prepping for the playoffs. In 2008, the Colts were 7-2 when keeping it on the ground as often.
The 2011 season has been unlike many others for the club. Manning has not been available because of a neck injury. Indianapolis has employed three different starting quarterbacks, with Dan Orlovsky being the most recent starter. He has done so for the last three outings.
The template that had worked well in the past took lumps this year. Entering yesterday's game with Tennessee, Indianapolis had failed to win in eight outings when rushing at least 22 times. Having difficulty in getting leads in games limited the effectiveness of the approach that had worked so well.
That changed against Tennessee when the club rushed 34 times for 205 yards. It marked the most attempts in a game by Indianapolis since a week two win over the New York Giants last season, while being the first 200 game by the club since a 2007 win over Denver.
Indianapolis was able to hold the lead twice against Tennessee and did not surrender it after gaining a 10-6 foothold early in the third quarter. The team was able to rush strategically and successfully. The final nail was an 80-yard scoring burst by running back Donald Brown with 3:26 remaining. Indianapolis had won.
This year, the Colts' stated commitment to the run has taken a different tactic with the addition of fullbacks on the roster. Indianapolis started the season with Chris Gronkowski and after he was hurt, the team added Jerome Felton and Ryan Mahaffey to the mix. Those additions were vivid changes to past offensive attacks, and they are part of the reason the club has been able to manage a 4.4 seasonal rushing average. This marks the first time since 2006 the club might top a 4.0 mark for an entire year.
Head Coach Jim Caldwell likes the philosophy of the club in trying to run the ball to a greater extent. It takes a complete team effort in addition to having fullbacks in the attack.
"I think there are a lot of things that go into it. I don't think there is just one factor," said Caldwell about the presence of fullbacks in the offense. "I think we have a combination of things that are occurring. Once we settled in, we were able to use our personnel as such where we had two healthy fullbacks. We started out a few weeks back with one, then we got injured and had to change in the middle of a game. Now, we have a couple of guys who have been able to work that position. Even if we have an injury, we have someone else who can come in and still carry on.
"We've made a concerted effort to run the ball. You can see by the numbers in previous weeks our numbers have been increasing steadily. We're not quite certain we want our numbers like they were (against Tennessee), 34 attempts rushing and 17 passing, but the running game is important to us. It's how at this point in time we're going to win games. We have to be able to control the line of scrimmage. Certainly there is a commitment there (to run the ball). Our backs are doing a good job of running the ball. Our offensive line, fullbacks and tight ends are all doing a good job of creating creases as well. The perimeter (is, too). You can't have a good running game without everybody being sold on it."
For long-tenured Colts fans who could count on one hand the number of true fullbacks the club has carried in recent seasons, Caldwell indicates the approach is firm for the remaining games.
"Whether or not we have two up or one up (for games), it kind of depends on what we're facing and what we have to deal with from the opposition," said Caldwell. "We'll have one (fullback) certainly on our roster on game day."
Running back Donald Brown has topped the club in rushing in seven different games this season, including Sunday against the Titans. Brown had 16 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee, the best yardage day by a Colts back since 2006. His 80-yard scoring run with less than four minutes to go accounted for the final 27-13 margin. It tied the longest run in Colts history, tying running back Tom Matte's previous franchise mark set in 1964.
The tally allowed Indianapolis a luxury it had not enjoyed all season. Orlovsky, after providing a huge assist on the scoring run, was able to take a knee twice to drain the final 1:17 off the clock.
Indianapolis needed Brown's score, and Caldwell remembers in detail all that transpired.
"The odd thing was that we had to the front side point of attack where he originally was supposed to head toward we had a little problem," said Caldwell. "The guy got some penetration on us and forced him (Brown) to turn back in the opposite direction. The safety also started to cheat down into the box because they knew in those situations we wanted to run and try to run the clock out. We just needed six plays, one first down after 2:40 and the game's over. That's what we were trying to fight toward. He was able to bounce that thing back in the opposite direction. The guy who sprung him was Dan (Orlovsky). If Dan does not get a block, he (Brown) doesn't have an opportunity to get square and head up the field. The entire defense sort of flowed to the action side, and he was able to get a little crease down there. Reggie (Wayne) threw a block for him and he was off and running."