An obvious emphasis during offseason training activities was the Indianapolis Colts’ insistence that the offense improve to be top five in rushing.
That’s quite a lofty goal considering the Colts were 20th in rushing in 2019. It sounds like the kind of benchmark that’s set too high, but coaches want to ensure the offense is striving to climb as high as possible in that area.
To be blunt, the goal doesn’t sound realistic.
But let’s look at the Colts’ rushing trends in 2019. The team got off to a slow 1-5 start in part because left tackle Anthony Castonzo was sidelined for five starts and running back Marlon Mack missed four of the first five games.
In those first five games, the Colts ran the ball 101 times for 372 yards, an average of 3.7 yards per carry.
When Castonzo and Mack returned to the fold, the run game picked up. In the last 11 regular-season games, the Colts ran the ball 307 times for 1,346 yards, an average of 4.4 yards per carry.
That’s not quite enough to suggest the Colts can reach top five, but there’s reason to believe the run game can improve substantially.
That is, if players can stay healthy. And that’s always the key.
Mack has been a capable runner for most of his two seasons, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in 26 games. But he’s missed six games due to injuries. And therein lies the concern. He has to show he can be durable to lead the backfield.
The Colts have decent backups in Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, but they were both rookies last year and it’s obvious general manager Chris Ballard was looking to upgrade the running back position when he signed veteran Spencer Ware.
Unfortunately, Ware will start the season on the physically unable to perform list due to a muscle injury. Ware was expected to provide more of a punishing presence as a physical back who can earn the hard yards.
But as he alluded to in OTAs, he’s had injury issues. He missed 10 games in three seasons with Kansas City. And that’s followed him to Indianapolis.
Wilkins is also hurt while the Colts work out in training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield. The Colts claimed running back D’onta Foreman off waivers from Houston.
Foreman entered the NFL as a promising prospect, drafted by the Texans in the third round. He rushed for 327 yards on 78 carries with one touchdown as a rookie, but then suffered a torn Achilles tendon. He’s been recovering from that injury ever since.
If any running back stood out in the Colts’ 24-16 road loss to Buffalo in the preseason opener, and this is a modest compliment at best considering the Colts didn’t run the ball well, it was Jonathan Williams. The fourth-year pro who has dressed for just three NFL games and not yet had a pro carry, rushed for 24 yards on eight carries, 3 yards per carry. But he did catch five passes for 33 yards and showed a bit of burst.
The Colts have added incentive to be more productive in the run game when considering quarterback Andrew Luck is sidelined with a calf strain that owner Jim Irsay revealed also involves a small bone issue in his foot.
While the Colts continue to be confident Luck will be ready to go for the regular season, it’s even more important to be balanced to take the offensive burden off his shoulders. Too many times in the past, we’ve seen Luck carry this team with high passing numbers and too many pass attempts.
If Luck isn’t ready by September, the Colts must run the ball because backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett can’t always carry the load. He’s shown flashes of decent potential, but defenses would undoubtedly load up the box to take away the run and put more pressure on Brissett to loosen up those schemes.
The Colts won 10 of 11 to make the playoffs last season for the first time since 2014, in part, because they were more offensively balanced.
They rushed for 220 yards in a home rout of Buffalo at home, 222 yards in a win at Oakland and 178 yards in a home shutout of Dallas. In a win-and-your-in, all-important season finale at Tennessee, the Colts ran for 158 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry to prevail.
In the AFC wild-card round of the playoffs, Mack rushed for a career-high 148 yards on 24 carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry. He had four 100-yard games in the regular season, too — 139 against Dallas, 132 at Oakland, 126 against Buffalo and 119 in that season finale at Tennessee.
The obvious trend is that when Mack ran for 100 yards, the Colts were 5-0 last year.
The Colts offensive line returns intact, so how much the run game can improve sure looks to be an undeniable key to success.
Top five? Perhaps not. But if the Colts can push up into the top 10, that should translate to the offensive balance needed.