The Fifth in an Off-Season Position-by-Position Series on the Colts
INDIANAPOLIS – The reason, as Charlie Johnson saw it, was simple.
Not that it was easy.
Johnson, the Colts' sixth-year veteran left offensive tackle, said what the Colts did late in the season by improving the running game and making a steady run to the playoffs wasn't easy at all. It took a measured focus, and something of a shift in approach.
But the reason it happened, Johnson said, wasn't complex.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell talked to the offensive line late in the season, and Johnson said the ensuing conversation helped shape the running offense – and the line – the remainder of the season.
It also helped shape the Colts' season.
"Coach Caldwell approached us and said, 'We're not going to go anywhere without you guys,' Johnson said late in the season. "It kind of stuck with us and was one of those things where you said, 'Wow. He's right. As we go, the team kind of goes.' You can kind of see it, with the way were been able to run the ball, and the way Peyton's been able to throw the ball. It's kind of opened us up.
"We accepted the challenge."
The Colts' running offense – thanks in large part to the offensive line – not only improved late in the season, it did so in striking fashion.
After finishing 31st in the NFL in rushing in 2008 and 32nd in 2009, the Colts ranked 32nd in the area much of this past season, and in only three of the first 13 games did they rush for more than 100 yards – victories over the New York Giants (160 yards), Washington (170) and Houston (107).
They also rushed for 97 yards in a victory over Kansas City.
The Colts in Games 14 and 15 rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown against Jacksonville and added a season-high 191 yards the following Sunday against Oakland.
It was the first time since 2006 the Colts had rushed for more than 150 yards in back-to-back games, and in the game before that, the Colts rushed for 87 yards against Tennessee.
The Colts won all three games, ending a three-game losing streak and moving from second-place in the AFC South into first-place in the division.
"The last few weeks have been really good," Colts center Jeff Saturday said late in the season. "I feel like the coaching staff has committed to it and our running backs are running hard. The line's blocking well.
"You talk about the run game: the more you do it, the better you're going to be at it."
Run-blocking wasn't the only area at which the Colts' line excelled last season, and the unit – playing its first season with Pete Metzelaars as offensive line coach – played through adversity to help the offense finish fourth in the NFL in total yardage, first in passing offense.
The line started four different lineups through the season, and only Saturday and right tackle Ryan Diem started all 16 games.
Johnson started 15 of 16 games at left tackle, with Kyle DeVan – a starter throughout much of the 2009 season – again moving into the lineup and starting 12 games. Mike Pollak, a starter in 2008, started 13 games, and rookie free agent Jeff Linkenbach opened one game at tackle and three at guard.
Jamey Richard also started four of the first five games at guard.
"When you have guys who miss time it throws the timing off," Johnson said. "You're playing next to a guy who you might not be playing next to in the regular season. At the same time, it gives those guys a chance to work with the first group, because they're going to play at some point."
Said Diem, "Obviously, preseason was kind of a mish-mash with Charlie and Jeff out. We were shuffling guys around all over the place. To get them in there and get some consistency in the lineup was important."
The offensive line play, which has helped the team to 13 consecutive seasons with at least 5,000 yards of net offense, has registered most of the best ratios of sacks-per-pass attempt in franchise history in the last 13 seasons.
The best in franchise history came in 2009, when it held opponents to one sack in every 47.2 pass plays, and this past season in Metzelaars' first season, opponents sacked Colts quarterback Peyton Manning just once every 43.4 pass attempts.
The Colts allowed just 16 sacks in 695 pass plays, and that came after a preseason in which Johnson and Saturday missed significant time with injuries.
The Colts allowed two sacks in a season-opening loss at Houston, but allowed multiple sacks in just two games thereafter.
"I think it was just getting the guys who were going to play on the practice field and working together," Johnson said. "You can't have a group of five guys come together and they not work together."
While Saturday said health and continuity – the line started the same lineup five consecutive weeks at the end of the regular season – played a role in the improvement in the running game, Caldwell said the line's focus at the end of the season was critical to a late-season run that clinched the AFC South title.
"I do think we have a group of guys who do respond, particularly when they know something has to change in terms of just getting us to the point where we're better in some areas," Caldwell said. "I think our offensive line did a tremendous job over the last few weeks of just kind of taking it upon themselves to find a way to be very consistent in that phase.
"I would attribute most of it to those guys playing together well. They have good, solid leadership, and I think we saw some of the results of their hard work."