Let me get this out of the way first: I am an advocate of the Colts’ commitment to improving the running game. What Pep Hamilton has been selling, I have bought.
For all of the reasons Hamilton has stated, it is critical to the team’s growth to establish that threat for a variety of reasons: expand the stable of playmakers, keep the chains moving and the clock running, give opposing defenses something else to think about and, ultimately, reduce the pressure on Andrew Luck to do everything.
But if the way the run was used in the 21-17 non-loss against Oakland Sunday is any indication of just what lies in store for the Colts offense, I may have to resign my membership in the Woody Hayes Fan Club.
In the box score, it appeared the Colts ran the ball effectively: 26 carries, 127 yards, a 4.9 average. Vick Ballard had a solid game with 63 yards on 13 tries. Ahmad Bradshaw played just enough to knock off the rust, carrying seven times for 26 yards. So the running backs carried it 20 times and produced 89 yards.
The biggest play of the game, in fact, was a run.
Therein was the problem.
The 19-yard game-winning touchdown was a scramble by Luck. It was his sixth run of the game. He dropped back 33 times and was either flushed, hit or sacked on 12.
If that’s what happens when the running game appears to be effective, what’s the toll going to be when it inevitably struggles?
There were a few other troubling indicators.
On nearly one-third of their offensive plays – 16 times – the Colts employed a single wide receiver. When either T.Y. Hilton or Darrius Heyward-Bey is on the bench, the defense breathes a little easier. When both are, you’re basically giving the cornerbacks and/or safeties a free pass to blitz.
Playmakers can’t make plays from the sidelines.
Reggie Wayne had a big game, but he was it as a receiving threat. DHB and T.Y. had three apiece, none longer than 16 yards. Dwayne Allen made a strong play on his 20-yard touchdown, but that was his only catch. Coby Fleener? One for seven.
Running the ball is supposed to open up options for the passing game, not close them down.The odd thing was, it all seemed in harmony on the first two drives. Ballard gained 23 yards on four first-down carries. Luck completed all eight of his attempts to four different targets for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
It was 14-0 and all seemed right with the world.
Then: three-and-out, three-and-out, a drive that ended with a third-and-31 run, a drive that ended with a 13-yard sack on fourth-and-one and the next thing you know, Oakland was up 17-14.
The numbers looked like the ground game was effective. But the game itself followed a different script.
For the Raiders, it went like this this: “You want to run it? Go ahead. We’re going to send as many people as we can at your quarterback.”
Expect much the same approach from Miami this Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Dolphins held the Browns to 47 rushing yards, all by Trent Richardson. They had six sacks and three interceptions in a 23-10 victory in Cleveland.
Nobody’s suggesting the Colts abandon, or minimize, the running game. But running just for the sake of running is going to get them nowhere.