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Colts working with rare imbalance on offense

Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on September 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – What we’re talking about is either an aberration or a seismic shift in offensive approach.

And before we dive into it, let’s make one thing clear: we’re talking about a small sample size. Two games.

While it’s risky – even ridiculous – to draw a meaningful conclusion following eight quarters, there’s no denying these aren’t your Peyton Manning-led or Andrew Luck-directed Colts. Not even close.

Consider where Frank Reich’s offense ranks after splitting with the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans: 2nd in rushing, 32nd in passing.

2nd in rushing. 32nd in passing.

“Yeah, that’s crazy,’’ Anthony Castonzo said.

He’s in his ninth season as the team’s durable/reliable left tackle. Four times, Castonzo was instrumental in the Colts ranking 7th or better in passing. In 2014, they were No. 1 as Luck passed for a franchise-record 4,761 yards and NFL-best 40 touchdowns.

And let’s not forget the incredibly consistent/elite passing antics of Manning’s Colts. They ranked no worse than No. 6 in each of his 13 seasons. They were No. 1 three times, No. 2 four times.

To add further context to the rarity of the upside-down nature of the first two weeks of the season, here’s where we remind everyone of the historical inadequacy of Indy’s running game. It’s ranked 20th or lower in 11th straight seasons. That includes going totally against the grain in 2009 when it ranked 32nd – dead last – en route to Super Bowl XLIV.

The Colts have had a top-10 ground attack just five times since their relocation in 1984, and not since 2001 (No. 7 when undrafted rookie Dominic Rhodes replaced injured Edgerrin James.)

Frank Reich set a goal of a top-5 ground game this season. So far, so good. The Colts are averaging 185 yards per game and their 370 yards in the first two games are the most in their Indy era and the third-most in franchise history.

“Running the ball’s fun,’’ Castonzo said. “The whole offensive line takes pride in that.’’

Is it realistic to expect Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni to remain so run-reliant?

“If we can run the ball for 200 yards a game, I don’t see why not,’’ Castonzo said with a smile. “Great if it can continue.’’

There’s every reason to believe Reich will continue to accentuate the run. He’s got one of the NFL’s best and most physical offensive lines, and an emerging Marlon Mack.

Also, Reich trusts the analytics. Over the last 10 seasons, 25 percent of the teams with a top-5 ground attack (20 of 80) reached the divisional round of the playoffs and 40 percent (eight of 20) advanced to the Super Bowl.

But top-5 passing teams have been a tad more successful: 26 of 80 reached the divisional round (32.5 percent) and 10 of 20 reached the Super Bowl.

We’re splitting hairs to some degree, but it’s fair to wonder whether the current imbalance is sustainable.

“Probably not,’’ Castonzo said. “This is the NFL.’’

Reich admitted as much.

“If we can run the football, be good on third down and be good in the red zone, we are going to win a lot of games,’’ he said. “So that’s kind of the model.’’

Brissett has been about quality rather than quantity. The Colts are tied for 3rd in red-zone efficiency (five TDs in six trips) and 15th on converting third downs (51.9 percent).

But at some point, more will be needed. The Colts have snapped 127 offensive plays: 67 rushes, 60 drop-backs.

“Do we need to get more production out of the passing game? Yeah we do, and I believe we will,” Reich said.

The early portion of the season has done the Colts no favors. The Chargers’ pass defense is tied-for-8th while the Titans’ is No. 2. Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons bring the NFL’s top-rated pass defense to Lucas Oil Stadium.

Sirianni conceded games normally “come down to being able to execute in the pass game also, and the run game. You have to be balanced.’’

While the raw numbers through the air are lacking, he pointed to the effective balance the offense displayed on its game-tying drive in regulation against the Chargers. The 16-play, 80-yard drive included 11 rushes for 41 yards.

But the most significant plays were delivered by Brissett. On third-and-22, he hit T.Y. Hilton for 19, then converted fourth-and-3 with a tight 8-yard completion to Devin Funchess. Hilton capped the drive with a scintillating 19-yard catch-and-run TD.

Mack’s powerful 2-point conversion sent the game in to overtime.

On the game-winning drive at Tennessee, Jordan Wilkins’ career-long 55-yard run set up Brissett’s 4-yard TD to Hilton.

“If you are one-dimensional in anything that you do, I think that’s an issue,’’ Sirianni said. “So we know we have to be top-notch in both areas to accomplish our goals.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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