September has, historically, been Tony Dungy's best month during his tenure with the Colts, as he has gotten the team off to fast — often undefeated — starts in the first quarter of the season. That's not the case right now, though, as Indianapolis ranks 31st in rushing offense, 20th in overall offense, 25th in scoring offense, 21st in scoring defense, 22nd in total defense, and 30th against the run — That last ranking is actually surprising that they're not 32nd, considering how porous the run defense has been so far.
Injuries have played a factor, so the bye week gives everyone a chance to get healthy, but what else can the Colts staff and players do to right the ship?
Even for a squad that has a reputation for being a passing team, the fact that the Colts currently rank 31st in rush offense (64 yards per game) is inexcusable.
Part of the problem is that they faced three quality run defenses in the Vikings (first in rush defense in 2006 and 2007), Bears, and Jaguars (even without Marcus Stroud).
Part of the problem is that they have had to work with an offensive line that has been held together by duct tape and hope — though Jacksonville fared very well in Week 3 in a similar situation. The biggest issue has been execution and the fact that they have been limited in their play selection due to Peyton Manning's knee injury.
Jeff Saturday's earlier-than-expected return will help the Colts get their running game going
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
In order to run the stretch and slant plays that have been so effective for the Colts over the years, Manning needs to take the snap, get off the line very quickly, and execute a smooth handoff to the tailback. Since Manning's mobility has been limited, Indianapolis has been unable to run these plays as efficiently as they are accustomed and have taken to running more tosses and sweeps, giving the opposing defense more time to close on the ball carrier.
It is officially time to hold out hope, even with a week to rest, that Manning will be whole, have full range of motion in his knees, and that the offense will be able to put the stretch and slant plays back in the playbook. It is officially time to use the bye week to adjust.
This is not a personnel grouping, regardless of who is healthy and who is not, that will be able to consistently line up against a defense and simply beat them. Therefore, the Colts must use the personnel that they have at their disposal.
They have a very athletic and mobile front five that can trap, pull, and counter with the best in the league. By running more counters, draws, and traps, they will be able to take advantage of the speed of Joseph Addai and the footwork of Dominic Rhodes in order to create seams and rush lanes.
The biggest edge that they have is that they are quicker to the point of attack than the defense and they need to use that edge to open up holes in the running game. The return of Jeff Saturday has already helped considerably, as evidenced by the improved performance of Addai against a very stout Jaguars run defense, and the return of Ryan Lilja in Week 6 will help as well.
In the meantime and moving forward, they need to use the overpursuit and aggressiveness of opposing defenses against them. Howard Mudd has his work cut out for him — and he has been limited by his own physical ailments as well — but the time off should be put to good use, to make the Colts offensive linemen realize the advantage that they hold over opposing defenses and how best to exploit that advantage.
Of course, the best way to improve running game would be to make the enemy focus once again on the passing game.
Manning's knee injury would not seem, at first glance, to be affecting the way the Colts passing game operates, since they are currently ranked eighth in the league in passing offense, with 249 yards per game. However, Manning's current yards per attempt average of 6.5 is well below his career average of 7.7, and he has been forced to throw 120 passes thus far.
With a hobbled offensive line and a hobbled quarterback, it is now time for the Colts to get back to basics. One of the strengths of the Colts offense under Manning has been its ability to shift on the fly, take what the defense gives them, and expose every possible weakness along the way.
Peyton Manning needs to rely on his supporting cast now more than ever
AP Photo/Jim Mone
Blitzing Manning has proven to be a death sentence for opposing defensive coordinators, as has stacking the box and daring the Indianapolis offense to beat them with the pass. In the 2008 season, though, both have proven to be sound strategies.
Dallas Clark has a week to recover, which is a salve for a struggling passing attack. He will allow the Colts to attack every level of the defense, something that was missing with him either inactive or less effective due to injury.
Clark and Anthony Gonzalez need to attack the middle of the defense and Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne the perimeter. Manning will only have time to execute two reads with his current protection options, so Wayne or Harrison need to be his first read outside, either running an out or an in, and Clark or Gonzalez his second read, either running a slant or a post, with Addai serving as a safety valve.
With the preponderance of first-round selections among the offensive weapons at his disposal, Manning should be able to find and target the man that is the most open. However, since they have spent such a long time holding a talent advantage as well as a scheme advantage, it has been a challenge for the coaching staff — and Manning — to properly maximize opportunity, since time to make a decision had not previously been a limiting factor.
By simplifying things in order to exploit a personnel advantage — by, say, allowing their exceptionally talented skill position players to beat their man — the Colts will experience more success.
Early in his career, Manning was limited by his lack of experience, so he needed to depend upon the playmakers around him to make plays.
The curse of age and injury is that, once the mind figures things out, the body is unable. Given his current ailments and the talent around him, Manning needs to take his experience and apply it to putting the ball in the hands of the talent surrounding him. It will be a stretch and a significant release in control, since Manning is so accustomed to having complete control over the offense, but the Colts did not draft and develop all that talent for their nothing.
They drafted and developed that talent to help Manning and, at this moment ... and for the rest of the season, he needs their help. He needs to let them help him.
Throughout the course of their playoff run following the 2006 season, the Colts prevailed over their opponents as a result of their mental fortitude, their ability to take what the other team gave them, bide their time, and pounce when the opportunity presented itself. In Super Bowl XLI, Manning emerged victorious because he was more mentally tough than the entire Bears defense.
Since their bodies are failing them, the Colts offense — and Manning in particular — needs to dominate mentally and in terms of discipline to sustain drives and score points, thus dominating on the scoreboard.
The more Manning can prove capable of beating a team, the more the running game will open up, the more long drives will occur, and the less time the defense will need to be on the field, which was one of the keys to their considerable success in 2007.