INDIANAPOLIS – Compared to recent team history, the Colts run game in 2019 was unquestionably a massive improvement.
They ran for the franchise’s most rushing yards (2,130) in a season since 1988. They had the team’s highest yards per carry since 1985 (4.52).
Frank Reich’s biggest offensive focus entering last season—running the football more, and better—was achieved.
“We made some good strides in the running game,” Reich said at the end of the 2019 season. “That’s a very important step for our team and where we’re going and how we get to the next level.”
But even the best rushing performance this franchise has seen in more than 30 years didn’t lead to a .500 season.
Well, there are many reasons, non-run game related, for that.
However, even the Colts’ biggest strength did not hold up when facing the best rushing defenses.
The Colts finished last year 7th in the league in rushing yards per game (133.1) and 11th in yards per carry (4.52), which are very respectable marks.
But, ‘run the damn ball’ turned into ‘run the darn ball’ against the league’s top rush Ds.
In 2019, the Colts faced three defenses that finished last season in the top-10 of run defenses.
Oakland: 81 yards on 23 carries, 3.3 YPC
Tampa Bay: 66 yards on 22 carries, 3.0 YPC
New Orleans: 46 yards on 17 carries, 2.7 YPC
Totals: 193 yards on 62 carries, 3.1 YPC
It was hardly the same bite the Colts had when they were busy feasting among other middle of the pack, and bottom feeder, rushing defenses.
Expecting the Colts to be at a 4.5 YPC mark against those better run defense teams is unfair, but having them closer to 3.5 or 4.0 YPC is a reasonable expectation.
Instead of the Colts being able to dictate when they could run the football, when facing another stout unit, they became the below average unit.
That’s what kept the Colts from having an ‘elite’ rushing attack, a la what the Titans did to the rest of the NFL, particularly in the playoffs.
Moving forward into 2020, the Colts return all their key assets from the run game (all 5 starting offensive linemen, 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack and their top tight end).
They’ve added to the mantra with the explosive Jonathan Taylor, and even want to use a fullback at various points in a game.
If the Colts can show the ability to run it at a more competent level against the league’s best (4 top-10 rush defenses from last year are on the 2020 schedule), that will open up another element of a strong rushing attack.
“I get excited about that with our running attack combined with how good Philip (Rivers) is in the play-action game,” offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni says. “That’s obviously very exciting for us because they can’t stack the box. If they stack the box, Philip can make them pay with our receivers and tight ends. They don’t stack the box and they keep two-high (safety) look, we can run the football. Obviously, very exciting and we become even more multiple of how we attack a defense, which is always to our benefit.”
It’s all about trying to take this improved run game another rung up the elite ladder.