INDIANAPOLIS – A facet of the Indianapolis offense that has shown improvement in 2011 has been the running game.
The club has had a little deeper commitment to producing on the ground than it has had in past seasons, and Indianapolis is on pace to record a 4.0 team rushing average for the first time since 2006.
This year a trio of backs has helped carry the load. While sixth-year veteran Joseph Addai and rookie Delone Carter have contributed to the attack at different points, third-year pro Donald Brown has been the most consistent presence in the backfield, and he has performed well.
Brown started one of 11 games as a rookie in 2009, carrying 78 times for a 3.6 rushing average, while catching 11 passes. In 2010, Brown appeared in 13 games, starting eight. He rushed for 497 yards and a 3.9 average and scored two touchdowns.
This season, Brown has appeared in every outing and has been the team's leading rusher seven different times. He has 621 yards on 126 attempts and has scored five touchdowns. With Addai battling injuries and Carter adapting to the sport at its highest level, Brown has responded to opportunity with a series of solid performances.
For him it has been a matter of maturation, and that process has provided comfort and expertise.
"I think I'm much more comfortable with the system," said Brown. "Coach (David) Walker has really helped out with the run reads and things like that. The more confident you are and the more knowledgeable you are, the better you will play. The more experience you get, I think the more comfortable you get and the faster you can play. That's the name of the game. Also, I just feel the offensive line is doing a great job of opening up holes."
Earlier this season, Brown had 10 or more rushing attempts in seven straight games, the best stretch of his career. He had 80 yards on 14 attempts against Carolina, including a 17-yard scoring run. Brown had 24-yard bursts against New Orleans and Jacksonville and netted 70 yards on 16 carries against Atlanta. At Cincinnati, he had a 7.0 average and scored on an 18-yard run, and he had a 4.8 average on eight carries against Kansas City.
Two weeks ago against Tennessee, Brown rushed for 161 yards on 16 attempts, and he helped seal the club's first win of the season with an 80-yard touchdown run with 3:26 remaining. Indianapolis had its 20-6 lead trimmed to 20-13 in the waning moments before Brown's scoring burst. He started to the right side on the play before reversing field. He picked up key blocks from quarterback Dan Orlovsky and wide receiver Reggie Wayne and scooted down the left sidelines to the end zone. The 80-yard run tied the longest rushing play in Colts history. Running back Tom Matte set the mark back in 1964, and now Brown's name goes alongside Matte's in the record book.
The production is noticed by others.
"He's running the ball real good right now," said guard Mike Pollak. "He's the same guy he's always been. He comes to work every day the same. Maybe things are just starting to click for him. He's running the heck out of the ball. Hopefully, we can keep opening up holes and get even bigger runs out of him."
For years, Indianapolis operated with a one-back attack. Marshall Faulk was that player for the Colts from 1994 through 1998. Edgerrin James took that role from 1999 through 2005. To produce well for that long of a time with a one-back approach was uncommon. The team shared the role with Addai and Dominic Rhodes in 2006 in winning a Super Bowl, and the team has varied its personnel in the backfield since then.
Brown now serves as a key component to the attack, and his head coach likes the performance.
"I think Donald just keeps getting better," said Jim Caldwell. "He's really kind of finding his niche. He's always been able to pop some plays in there, and he's been explosive through the years. If you just look back, he's been able to hit some for some long gains here and there on different style plays, traps, off-tackle plays and things of that nature. I just think he's playing well right now.
"It's a maturation process. I think he has gotten a better feel for what's required of him physically. I think he's gotten his body where it can handle the rigors of this league. I think that was one of the things he just battled with his first couple of years, getting himself in the position where he wasn't hampered by nagging injuries. He'd have spurts early on, make some big plays here and there, then he'd be out for a game or two. This particular year, he's been pretty healthy the entire way, and I think you can see him growing and developing where he's running with a lot more confidence. I do think he's more familiar with the offense. Also, we do a little bit better job of allowing him to do what he does best.
"He's seeing things better. He's getting in creases a little more often. He's getting in position where he can use his speed more often than he had done previously as well."
Players often speak of the speed of the game and how it slows down for them as the maturation process happens. That is the case for Brown, and he wants to contribute in every way.
"It does slow down," said Brown. "The more you see it and the more experience you get, things do slow down. You see things a lot quicker and you sometimes know what's going to happen before it actually happens.
"I just try and bring as much to the table as possible in all three phases for a running back – with catching the ball, protecting the quarterback and running the ball. I think the more things you can bring to the table, the better the offense will be."
Another interested observer is Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian, who drafted Brown with the 27th choice in the 2009 draft. Polian likes what he sees.
"He can run the football," said Polian. "He's a good football player who has been playing good football for us. He's been a very fine contributor. He's worked very hard to finish runs and to adapt to a running style that's a bit different because of the way we're blocking it than we've done in the past. He's done a really good job at that. It's to his credit. He's done all that on his own and with the help of Coach (David) Walker. I think that's been a real plus and a real positive for us."
The multiple-back approach provides different styles for the club's runners, something Polian notes.
"We feel Donald is a terrific player," said Polian. "His talents are different than Delone Carter's. He's more of an outside, speed runner than he is an inside-the-tackles runner. He's more of a speed, outrun-you kind of runner than Joseph Addai is, who is much more of a shake-and-bake guy. The styles of the three backs are completely different, which is a good thing because you can run different plays with different guys. We like Donald Brown and always have liked Donald Brown and believed very strongly that he would contribute and play the way he has this year. He just needed touches, that's all.
"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. 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."
Quarterback Dan Orlovsky has started the last four games for Indianapolis, and he has observed the different styles of the club's three runners. Orlovsky likes the style Brown provides for the offense, particularly as a game gets into its flow.
"I think Donald (Brown) probably gets better the more carries he gets," said Orlovsky. "I think he's built to be a workhorse in a sense. He's a slash, put-your-foot-in-the-ground, get vertical guy."
With the season having one game to play, Brown is not ready to slow down. Having 60 minutes left to play provides more chances for contribution. Brown takes nothing for granted with his career, and he is appreciative of the direction the club's veterans have provided in tough times.
"I just want to try to make the most of the opportunities I've been given," said Brown. "Just try to help out the offense and team any way I can. I think that's what everybody's trying to do here. The offensive line has done a phenomenal job this year. Guys are really stepping up to the challenge and are trying to help out and take some of the pressure off the quarterback by trying to run the ball a little bit and trying to balance it (the attack) a little bit. We're just working hard.
"This season has been full of ups and downs and uncertainties. Nothing's ever certain in this league. You never know when your time is going to come. You have to be ready for every opportunity that is given. Obviously where we stand right now, nobody likes where we're at. Guys keep fighting and keep working hard. Eventually it will pay off. The past games have not turned out our way, but guys have kept fighting and are staying together. That's a compliment to the veteran leadership on the team."
Brown is one of many Colts who own college degrees. He earned his in exercise science from Connecticut. Brown joins many other teammates in immersing himself in the community and preparing for success after football.
With a keen interest in athletics and helping others, he spent time this past off-season observing Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass on site in Bloomington. Brown wants to prepare himself for such a role in the future.
"It's something I would like to think about after football," said Brown of his interest in directing athletics. "Obviously, I'm not expecting football to be over any time soon, but nothing's guaranteed in this business. God forbid, you (could) get a career-ending injury tomorrow. You have to be prepared for life after football. The off-season is a great time to do that. Going down to IU with Mr. Fred Glass, I think they run a great program down there. (I was) trying to see if that is something I would want to do, build a network (of contacts) and to see what (the role) of an athletic director is like. I was able to sit in on different meetings. You see the interactions around with the different coaches and things like that. It was a great experience. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity and for Mr. Glass allowing me to do that. I really appreciated it.
"I still want to be associated with sports. I'm not sure if I want a 'hands on' role as much as a coach. You never know. Nothing is set in stone right now. I am looking for possible options once football is done."