Colts may run it just well enough

The Colts have run the ball efficiently this season, but can they lean on the run game if they need to protect a fourth-quarter lead? Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- By conventional standards, the Colts don't run well. They and the San Diego Chargers, in fact, are the two worst running teams in the league.

But as Indy prepares for Saturday night’s divisional playoff game against Baltimore, the team looks at running the ball in a different way.

It’s not so much about yardage totals, which is the measure for those rusher ratings. It’s about efficiency. And if you look at the Colts based on efficiency, as Football Outsiders does, they rank 22nd, not 32nd.

Their 14-2 record and No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs suggest that has been good enough when paired with a passing offense that is second in the league’s rankings and sixth in Football Outsiders’.

The Eagles (22nd in the NFL rankings), Cardinals (28th), Chargers (31st) and Colts (32nd) all came into the playoffs with less-than-premier running games.

If a third of the postseason field doesn’t run the ball well, what does it say about the long-held tenant that an effective ground game is a must to get to the playoffs and to succeed there?

We won’t know for sure until the Lombardi Trophy is passed out. But this weekend’s two AFC divisional playoff games may do a lot to give us a sense. Can the run-based Jets and Ravens score upsets over the Chargers and Colts?

Whatever unfolds, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders isn’t seeing the trend we might expect.

“I don't think these teams indicate a shift in the traditional thinking about having to run well to win in crunch time,” he said. “I think they indicate a shift in the traditional thinking about having to run well early in games. These teams understand that you pass to get the lead. Passing is more important than running.”

Colts GM Bill Polian has banged home the point about running efficiency this season.

And the Colts don’t often employ personnel groupings we typically see premier run teams using.

“Evolution has created many more open sets, which of course give receivers more opportunities,” he said. “It’s a little more difficult to run out of three-wides, one-back than it is to run out of a two-back set with a fullback and a tight end. In that sense, people who employ that kind of offense are going to put up pretty good yardage totals.”

With Joseph Addai leading the way, the Colts have run effectively in the context of what they do, which is certainly centered around Peyton Manning and the pass attack.

They need to run enough to sell play-action. They need to gain a couple of tough yards here and there. They need not to get hit for losses or no gains when they hand it off.

Addai converted three-quarters of his 12 third-and-1 chances. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he was 10th in the NFL in rushing up the middle, with a 4.8-yard average -- better than four of the six backs named to the Pro Bowl.

Center Jeff Saturday jokes that he can slant the statistics.

Let him factor in the negative yardage of all of Manning’s kneel-downs at the end of all of those wins and he can boost the average per carry, he said. Heck, give him a more mobile quarterback, too. (Obviously, he’ll take the one he has, and the team’s 3.5-yard per rush average along with him.)

“The reality of it is that you have to be effective in [the running game],” Saturday said. “When you do dial up a run, you can’t be getting losses. You have to be getting something to keep defenses honest. But as far as being a run-dominant team?

“I think you’ve seen New England win a bunch of championships where they were not a run-first team at all. We’ve won. And even Pittsburgh the last couple years, they were not just dialing in runs every play. They’ve had a great quarterback and receivers making plays. So I think there is a shift. It’s just allowing your players you feel are going to make the plays, letting them have the ball at the end of the game no matter who they are.”

As is often the case with the Colts, Saturday’s perception sounds like it’s been passed down philosophically from the team's brass.

“I think oftentimes at this stage of the game, you have to play to your strengths,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “We certainly don’t try to hide from things that we consider to be weaknesses. Our running game certainly has not put up the kind of numbers that we would anticipate and would hope. But all in all we’ve been efficient runners, I think.

“We’ve run the ball when we’ve had to. I think Joe has been a real efficient runner and [Donald] Brown when he’s been up has been efficient as well. Not gaudy numbers; 31st or 32nd in the league. That’s not that impressive. But when you look at the body of work, you might be able to see that we do run it in some stages pretty well.”

Earlier we heard Schatz say Indy and San Diego are breaking the mold in terms of the need to run early.

The big, lingering run question for Schatz about the Colts pertains to a different stage of the game.

The team’s unwillingness to hand it off when it needed 2 yards to clinch a first-round win in San Diego last season showed how little confidence it had in its situational ground game.

That resonated through the offseason, and I don’t know that we’ve found out for sure how different the Colts are now.

“The Colts have had all those come-from-behind victories, we haven't seen a lot of them trying to protect leads,” Schatz said.

Lisa Brooks of ESPN Stats & Information says Indy had fourth-quarter leads in a dozen games. When protecting those leads, the Colts ran for only 2.8 yards a carry -- 24th in the NFL.

If they are working with a two-score lead, that will be fine.

If not, we may be left dissecting poor numbers and talking again in January about how the Colts need to find a way to run it better.