INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The perception: When we finally get to the games that matter, Frank Reich will reach over and flip a switch that instantly brings his running attack to life.
The reality: There’s no such switch.
And Reich knows it.
“Yeah,’’ he said, “there is no guarantee anything flips on, right? I mean we have to prove that.’’
Prove that what we’ve seen during the first two preseason games – and most likely in the final two, starting with Saturday’s meeting with the Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium – isn’t what we’ll see when the Indianapolis Colts wade into a season that holds so much potential.
As a reminder, the running game has been abysmal. The Colts are averaging 89 yards per game and 3.71 yards per attempt, each 20th in the league. But that includes a mobile quarterback group that’s generated 71 yards on eight attempts, highlighted by Chad Kelly’s improvised 33-yard touchdown run at Buffalo.
The yield for running backs: 107 yards on 40 carries (2.7). The top two backs – Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines – have combined for 20 yards on 13 attempts.
Reich described that area of the offense “subpar.’’ He was being generous, but it’s clear he isn’t in panic mode.
Reich oversees practice every day and has witnessed the primary parts coming together. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was held out of the first preseason game and center Ryan Kelly was out with a shoulder injury. Last week against Cleveland, Castonzo and Kelly returned, but left guard Quenton Nelson was out with an ankle injury.
Mack appears as healthy and vibrant as ever (knock on wood), but his preseason exposure will consist of 16 snaps and six carries against the Browns.
Yet confidence remains high that come week 1, Andrew Luck – or Jacoby Brissett; stay tuned for that – will have a reliable running game at his disposal.
“It’s just gelling with the guys, things coming together for us,’’ Mack said. “It’s just something we want. When we want to come around when it’s time, the energy level is just different. We believe.’’
That optimism trickles down from the top, and is a byproduct of what Reich has seen on a daily basis.
“Why I feel confident and why I’m not overly stressed that we haven’t run the ball well in two preseason games is there are a lot of moving parts,’’ he said. “I see the drill work. I see the independent moving parts. I see our personnel. I know what we are doing and what we are not doing from a game-plan standpoint.
“Those give me reason to be confident and optimistic.’’
Perhaps 2018 serves as further evidence that, when it matters, the running game will operate at an acceptable level.
Over the first five games, the Colts rushed for 74.4 yards per game and 3.6 per attempt. Over the final 11: 112.3 per game, 4.4 per attempt.
The overriding reason for the dramatic difference? The pieces finally fell into place against the New York Jets in week 6. Castonzo missed the first five games and Mack four of the first five with hamstring injuries. Rookie Braden Smith’s move to right tackle and Mark Glowinski stepping in at right guard further solidified the offensive line.
An ever-improving defense and suddenly-dependable running game were instrumental in the Colts reeling off nine wins in their final 10 games and earning a wild-card playoff spot.
Reich’s commitment to possessing a legit running game is unwavering, and rooted in the belief it allows his offense to assert itself week after week.
“A big part of offensive football is dictating the tempo and you can keep a team off balance by being multiple,’’ he said. “And I just think there’s something about running the football that creates an attitude on a team, that keeps teams honest.
“It’s not old school. I don’t believe you have to run to establish the play-action game. I don’t believe you have to run to establish the pass. I’m not in that old school.’’
Reich’s two-year stint as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia reinforced his game-day approach. The Eagles won Super Bowl LII after the 2017 season with an offense that thrived on multiple personnel groupings and leaned heavily on the run game. It ranked No 7 in total yards, No. 3 in rushing, No. 13 in passing, No. 3 in scoring and No. 1 in time of possession.
The euphoric finish – lifting the Lombardi Trophy at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis – was preceded by a faulty start.
“We didn’t run the ball in the first two games of the season,’’ Reich recalled.
The Eagles managed just 165 yards on 41 carries while splitting games with Washington and Kansas City. Then, some soul searching was required.
“It wasn’t looking good,’’ Reich said. “It was, ‘The sky is falling.’ And when we circled the wagons, it was, ‘Let’s double down on the run game. That’s what’s going to win games for us.’ That’s what we did.’’
In a week 3 win over the New York Giants, the Eagles rushed 39 times for 193 yards. The next week, they piled up 214 yards on 42 attempts.
Again, the objective is to run when you want to run, and pass when you want to pass. It’s forcing the defense to adjust to what you’re doing, not vice versa.
“That’s when you’re really in control,’’ Reich said.
An important byproduct, he added, is increased efficiency as the field shrinks. Typically, teams that are able to run the football are among the NFL’s better red-zone teams.
So-called pass-heavy teams, Reich said, “tend to struggle in the red zone. That’s been my personal experience.’’
As we mentioned, Reich’s 2017 Eagles were the NFL’s third-best rushing team. They were No. 1 in red-zone efficiency.
The immediate problem facing the Colts – and an anxious fan base – is dealing with what figures to be another preseason of inadequate rushing numbers.
Mack almost certainly won’t play Saturday against the Bears, and Reich might opt to keep Hines out of harm’s way as well. Jordan Wilkins (foot) and Jonathan Williams (ribs) are out with injuries. That would leave the running game in the hands of Aca’Cedric Ware, Charcandrick West and Marquis Young. And they would be working behind backup offensive line.
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