INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The overriding objective evaporated in a wave of missed kicks, missed throws and mounting injuries.
Reaching the playoffs is a goal for next season.
However, a few notable individual milestones remain within reach as the Indianapolis Colts head into the final two games of a season that’s meandering to a finish after an encouraging start.
Justin Houston, one of general manager Chris Ballard’s best offseason free-agent acquisitions, needs 1 sack to join a small group of Colts not named Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney to register at least 10 in a season. The current collection includes just seven players since sacks became an official stat in 1982, and only two have reached double digits in the past 20 years: Erik Walden with 11 in 2016 and Chad Bratzke with 12 in 1999.
Marlon Mack, meanwhile, is chugging toward 1,000 yards. He needs 81 yards over the final two games to stand alongside Frank Gore (2016) and Joseph Addai (2006, ’07) as the only players to breach the 1,000-yard mark since the departure of Edgerrin James in 2005.
It would seem inevitable for Mack to each 1,000 and perhaps finish among the NFL’s top-10 rushers – his 919 yards rank 13th – but the Colts’ running game has hit a major speed bump. In the last two losses at Tampa Bay and New Orleans, it’s been stymied: a combined 112 yards on 39 carries. In the 34-7 loss to the Saints, the Colts experienced season lows with 17 rushes and 46 yards.
“We have not run the ball like we want to or should run the ball,’’ Frank Reich said.
There was no disagreement from Quenton Nelson.
“Yeah, it’s been frustrating,’’ said the Pro Bowl left guard. “That’s not the way we wanted the season to go. The only thing we can do is show up to work and work as hard as we can.
“We’ve got two more games left and we’re looking to end on a high note.’’
The reasons for the drastic decline in the run game are varied, and go beyond facing “heavy boxes.’’
“Maybe a little more than normal,’’ Reich said of defenses recently bringing a safety close to the line of scrimmage to bolster run support, “but we see it all the time.’’
The offensive line has been unable to win enough at the point of attack, but the overall ineffectiveness has been more of a domino effect involving a once-efficient offense.
For much of the season, the Colts were among the NFL’s best at converting third downs. They’ve slipped to 11th (42.4 percent) after converting just 9-of-28 (32.1 percent) the last two weeks. Jacoby Brissett’s erratic play has been a major factor, especially early in games. In the first half against the Bucs and Saints, he was a combined 11-of-31 passing for 193 yards and the Colts converted just 6-of-15 third-down situations.
When an offense isn’t moving the chains with any consistency, it’s difficult to establish anything resembling rhythm in the run game. Against the Bucs and Saints, Indy ran 24 times for 61 yards in the first half.
The inability of Brissett to get the passing game untracked exacerbates the problem. Defenses aren’t going to loosen up until he forces them to.
Also, the inability of the offense to stay on the field obviously skews time of possession and actual plays. It ran 59 plays at Tampa and 52 at New Orleans, the two lowest totals of the season. The offense was on the field for an average of 24 minutes, 40 seconds.
“When you only get that many calls . . . just like you get in a rhythm with the passing game, you also get in a rhythm in the running game,’’ Reich said.
The goal is to get a minimum of 25 rushing attempts per game, which the Colts have reached nine times this season.
“But really if you ask me what the true number is, I want to get 30 runs called,’’ Reich said.
“When you only get (50-some) plays, that’s hard.’’
Perhaps the cure to what’s ailing the running game is visiting Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday.
The Carolina Panthers bring with them bizarre defense. It’s tied for the NFL lead with 49 sacks, but has been awful against the run: 30th in yards per game allowed (140.2) and 32nd in yards per attempt (5.2).
The Panthers have yielded at least 149 rushing yards seven times and at least 232 twice. They’re mired in a six-game losing streak and have allowed an average of 187 yards per game and 5.8 per attempt over the last three.
Reich’s preseason goal was to field a top-5 rushing attack. The last two games have made that unlikely. But the Colts could finish in the top-10 for the first time since 2001 (7th).
And there’s Mack’s pursuit of 1,000.
“Absolutely,’’ Nelson said. “It’s definitely a goal. You definitely want a 1,000-yard rusher.’’
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