The Colts rush offense was dreadful in 2008, ranking 31st in the NFL and averaging a paltry 79.6 yards per game on the ground.
Inside the Numbers:
When a team averages a league-worst 3.4 yards per carry, it is difficult to narrow down where they specifically went wrong and even more difficult to find aspects of the running game that were successful.
The Colts had their most success when they ran to Ugoh's side in 2008
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Indianapolis rushed 194 times on first down, averaging 3.13 yards per carry, which is not a good start. On second down, the number fell to a still respectable 120 attempts and the yards per carry rose to 3.81 yards.
Since the Colts also averaged 6.48 yards per pass on first down, it would seem to make sense to save running the ball for second down, but their best average — 4.59 yards per carry — came when it was second and six to ten yards go, which did not get them a first down. Also, being a pass first team on first down is not a sustainable strategy.
They had only 49 total rushing attempts on third and fourth down, averaging 3.49 yards per carry, so that basically gets lost in the wash.
Directionally, they averaged only 3.05 yards per attempt on 112 rushes up the middle and 3.31 yards per carry running up the middle or off left or right guard. Obviously, their money was not being made by focusing between the tackles. Even when they ran wide right — either off right tackle or around right end — they averaged 3.22 yards per carry.
However, not all hope should be lost. When they ran in the direction of Tony Ugoh, they had considerably more success, with runs off left tackle averaging 3.86 yards per carry and runs to the left end averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
All told, when they ran wide to the left, they gained 475 yards on 102 carries for an average of 4.66 yards per carry.
Early in the season, an injury to Peyton Manning caused him to be unable to run the stretch play, which meant that in inordinate number of running plays went straight up the gut.
In addition, Indianapolis was breaking in new starters at right guard, left guard, and center, due to the loss of Jake Scott and injuries to Jeff Saturday and Ryan Lilja. Compounding those issues was the fact that defenses did not fear the passing game and stacked the box, effectively daring Manning to beat them.
As Manning healed, Saturday returned to the lineup, and the passing game rebounded, the running game re-gained some of its effectiveness, but, ultimately, the stats should have normalized to the point that the early season struggles should not have thrown off the curve for the entire season.
The bottom line is that various injuries to Joseph Addai set the running game back as a whole, given that Dominic Rhodes doesn't have the speed to get to the edge and the Colts were forced to play to their weakness — running the ball between the tackles.
Without a suitable replacement for Addai, the stretch play — even when Manning was able to run it — was not as successful and teams were able to key on the middle of the field, where there is less space and more bodies.
Having Manning healthy to start the 2009 season, as well as returning all three starters along the interior will certainly help.
Indianapolis already took a major step towards solving the problem by drafting Donald Brown in the first round of this year's draft. Brown has the speed and explosiveness to do a great deal of damage on the edge. Even if Addai misses time, the Colts will not struggle running off tackle or around end.
Keeping Pollak and Saturday healthy would be a big boost to the interior running game
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But, just like not running the ball on first down is not sustainable, simply running to Ugoh's side time and time again is not sustainable.
One of the primary reasons that the numbers were so much better running around left end was the blocking of Gijon Robinson in two tight end sets.
Early in the season, the Colts can simply run the stretch play to Robinson's side with either Addai or Brown. As defenses begin to catch on to this strategy, they can start running to the "weak" side, or rather the side where Robinson is not lined up.
By mixing these plays up, as well as catching the defense off guard by actually running between the tackles, Indianapolis will be well on their way to once again being able to dictate to the defense.
By far, the biggest issue for the running game in 2008 was that they had too many weaknesses and not enough strengths, which is a combination of all the factors discussed in this article. By eliminating the weaknesses present last season and focusing on strengths in the coming season, they should be considerably more successful.
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