Can a failed third-and-2 spark run-game revival?

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- The line on a crucial play in the NFL's statistical game book read the same as any other.

3-2-IND 9 (2:30) (Shotgun) P.Manning sacked at IND 1 for -8 yards (T.Dobbins).

Were it annotated, that sack of Peyton Manning on the final play before the 2-minute warning of the Indianapolis-San Diego wild-card playoff game Jan. 3 could also read:

Season-ender symbolized season-long inability to gain a couple of yards on the ground when needed, caused sleepless nights.

If the Colts could have converted that third-and-2 from deep in their own end, they could have run out the clock and advanced to a divisional-round game in Pittsburgh. Instead, they punted the ball back to the Chargers, watched San Diego drive to a tying field goal, win the overtime coin toss and move 75 yards to a game-winning touchdown.

Those six feet cost Indianapolis at least one additional week of playoff life.

And those six feet drove a lot of offseason work -- on execution, on the run game, even, perhaps, on the roster.

A championship-caliber team, no matter how pass-reliant, needs to be able to turn and hand the ball off and come up with 2 yards on a crucial play. The Colts didn't even try to run it. Their intention was a short pass. But the line was out of sync at the snap, tight end Gijon Robinson let linebacker Tim Dobbins break free immediately and Manning had no choice but to swallow it as Dobbins quickly wrapped him up and dropped him.

"It was the play, when you really try to narrow it down, that kept us from advancing," said head coach Jim Caldwell, then the associate head coach. "And when you have something like that, obviously it's going to leave an impression, an indelible mark that you won't forget. It's important for us to improve in that area and make certain that doesn't happen to us again."

Robinson said once the game was over he let it go and moved on, looking to learn from it. He couldn't, or chose not to, recall how things unfolded.

"I made a mistake," he said. "I definitely want to get out there and show and prove to everyone that I am going to be twice as good as I was."

The result was hardly a drastic overhaul. The line expects to be healthier and welcomes back Ryan Lilja, probably the team's best run-blocker, to right guard after a season lost to a knee injury. The primary runner should be healthier, with Joseph Addai no longer dealing with a troublesome knee. There is a new, additional option in first-round pick Donald Brown, also a running back.

But new injuries will surface and the Colts will need to be able to play through them as they did, often successfully, last year. Perhaps a rededication to a mindset will be the biggest change.

"You know that you did it to yourself," center Jeff Saturday said. "When you don't execute on the most important play of the game, it's insulting. Very few times in Tony Dungy's tenure as a head coach did we beat ourselves and that was a time that we did. Not to say that San Diego didn't play a heck of a football game, because they did. But you're at third-and-2, everything should be leaning your way that you get that.

"Look at statistics and what the chances are of you getting it and they're high and you can go out and close the game, run the clock. You don't do it, there is nothing to look at but yourself. You look at the play, we were all disheveled, we didn't have it dialed in the way that we should have, and that's a direct reflection of what we have to do as professionals."

Lilja wasn't part of it, but suffered the result just the same. More than seven months later, he still feels it, pointing to the "game of inches" cliché and to the wisdom of senior offensive line coach Howard Mudd.

"Howard likes to say most games in that atmosphere are going to be lost, not won," Lilja said. "And he feels that we lost that game because of plays like that. When you've got two good teams it's going to come down to who can stop who on the line of scrimmage for all the marbles. That's kind of their symbolic message, I guess."

"That kind of puts a chip on our shoulder as an offensive line unit, that we didn't get it done. There are a lot of upset guys in our room when they hear stuff like that because they know that's on us."

It was the failed execution more than the inability to run that got to team president Bill Polian, the decision-maker who spent the 27th overall pick on Brown.

"We didn't execute and that sticks in your craw, it's that simple," he said. "... This is a game where you must function under pressure, you've got to execute and we have a segment that we've practiced forever called the four-minute, and that was the epitome of four-minute and we didn't execute. So sometimes you do, sometimes you don't, but you've got to do your best to make sure that you do.

"We had a play that should have been quite good and would have been quite good, would have gained the 2 yards but we had a mental error which negated the play."

The 2008 Colts were overly reliant on Manning, who produced his third MVP season despite a slow start resulting from an offseason knee injury that required two surgeries and forced him to sit out all of training camp and the preseason.

They ranked 31st in rushing yards per game (79.6), their lowest since 1992, and dead last in rushing average (3.4 yards a carry), tied for their lowest since 1992.

The stretch play that's been a hallmark of the run game during the Manning era was ineffective and used far less frequently. Addai missed four games but his counterpart, Dominic Rhodes, shared the exact same 3.5-yard rushing average on the season.

"From my perspective, you can't have a glaring weakness and be a championship team," Colts owner Jim Irsay said.
"And we all know you have to be able to run the ball and the way we were running the ball during the year concerned me, it concerned us all. And those things catch up to you. If there are trends that are there in the regular season, when everything is on the line that trend is going to pop up, so you want to try to eliminate it. I thought we weren't running the ball well enough and it came back to haunt us and that wasn't a surprise."

Pride was dented. Now the Colts are working to feel fixed, to be whole again on offense.

Indy's run game doesn't have to be one of the league's best to be a success, just a functional complementary piece to the passing attack. The year the Colts won the Super Bowl, they ran for 110.1 yards a game and ranked 18th in the league.

"It was terrible last year," said Saturday, who also missed four games with injuries. "I think we were last in the league in rushing, I don't know what we were on third and short. We didn't do a good job. And if we don't do a good job, no matter how good the quarterback is, if you lay every game on his shoulders, you're not going to win consistently. When you play better teams in the playoffs, you definitely won't win.

"So we need to give him some help, rush the football better, make our offense better as a whole."