How Important Are Brody Eldridge And Mike Hart To Colts Running Game? Answer: VERY!

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 01: Mike Hart #32 of Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 1 2010 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

I touched on this in my last article, and now I'd like to flush it out (or 'flesh it out,' depending on what you think of me as a writer) a little bit.

During this 1-3 stretch, the Colts have run the ball 74 times for 233 yards at a 3.1 yards-per-rush average. In the four games prior to this stretch, the Colts ran the ball 107 times for 432 yards at a much more respectable 4 yards a carry.

They were 3-1 in that stretch, with the one loss being that Jaguars miracle 59-yard FG in Week Four.

Lots of injuries occurred between those two stretches, but arguably the to most significant were to blocking tight end Brody Eldridge and running back Mike Hart. With them, Indy was able to run the ball.

Without them... ugh.

Prior to getting injured during the Colts' Week eight victory over the Texans, Mike Hart was averaging 5.2 yards a rush behind, essentially, the same Colts offensive line that has looked so putrid the last four games. Assisting Hart during that stretch was blocking tight end Brody Eldridge, who was also injured in that Texans game.

You might recall that after both those guys left the Texans game, which was broadcast on ESPN's Monday Night Football, color analyst Jon Gruden noted just how poor the Colts run game was performing.

Since that game, and since both Hart and Joseph Addai were knocked out with various injuries, back-up Donald Brown (first round pick in 2009) has averaged roughly two yards less per carry than Hart behind the same o-line, sans Brody Eldridge. Now, it's been fashionable for blowhards like me to bash Brown this year because, quite frankly, he's been a big disappointment. When you're a runningback drafted in the first round, you're expected to make an immediate impact. Donald hasn't done that, unless you think a career rushing average of 3.5 a carry and four TDs is 'making an impact.'

But, in Donald's defense, it might not be all his fault.

Recently, Bill Polian spoke about Donald on his Monday radio show, and had this to say about the disappointing second-year back:

Donald is a stretch-play runner, which used to be the staple of our offense. He's an outside-the-tackles runner, basically. He's a really good pass-catcher, very good in space. He's a good finisher and he has really good ability to slash – and good vision. He is much more like a Dominic Rhodes than he is Shonn Green (of the New York Jets), for example. If you ask him to run a belly play straight-ahead and you don't get anybody blocked in the middle of the line, then he's not going anywhere. Donald is 205 pounds, so he's not going to run over anybody. It looks ugly, but as I said, in that case, it's 90 percent blocking. The back has to have a place to run unless he's 255 pounds. And even in the case of their guy, who's a solid, hard-hitting, 240-pound back, he was getting two yards because Pat's (Angerer) collisioning him in the hole or Philip's (Wheeler) collisioning him in the hole. He's falling forward for two yards, so it wasn't like Donald was terrible. It's really a function of style. Mike Hart would be better-suited to that kind of game than Donald would be but, of course, we didn't have Mike.

Notice in Polian's comments how he indicates that the stretch run play is now in the past tense. The one-time staple of this offense, which Peyton Manning owes so many play action TD passes to, is now seemingly gone.

Why?

Well, as Polian seems to suggest, our 'new' offensive line can't block the stretch play anymore. The irony here is Ryan Lilja was outstanding at pulling out on stretch runs, but he's now doing that for the Chiefs, who are averaging 174 rushing yards a game this season. So, instead of stretch running, which is what Brown was pretty much drafted to do, the Colts are running belly plays straight-ahead, which are ideally suited for stronger backs like Addai and Hart. In addition, Brody Eldridge is a very good in-block blocker, suited for straight ahead runs.

Thus, Addai and Hart have great run averages while Brown struggles.

As Hart, Addai, and Eldridge come back, we should likely see the rushing averages improve. But, long term, what does this mean for Donald Brown? It seems as if his rushing style does not fit what the Colts do offensively anymore, which begs the question as to why he was drafted in the first place? Hart and Addai were already on the roster when Brown was drafted, and now both are much better 'fits' for this offense than Brown.

Other injuries have likely factored into the death of the stretch, such as the loss of Dallas Clark (who was excellent blocking on stretch runs). But, even when Clark was in there this year, the Colts weren't running the stretch and Brown wasn't averaging much behind this Colts line of blockers. It seems that the one thing Donald Brown was drafted to do is something the Colts don't do anymore.

FYI: Players Polian passed on to take Donald Brown include center Eric Wood, offensive tackle Eben Britton, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, and wideout Hakeem Nicks. All are starters for their respective teams now, and all are playing well. Just saying.

I realize hindsight is 20-20, but it is starting to look like yet another first round pick is not going to pan out for the Colts. In this case, it seems the player taken simply doesn't fit the system, and Bill Polian is paid lots and lots of money to make certain screw-ups like that don't happen. It's also unlikely that the transition from head coach Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell last year, or from o-line coach Howard Mudd to Pete Metzelaars this year, affected the way Indy blocks today. Both transitions were planned years in advance.

In any case, I'm going to refrain from bashing Donald Brown going forward. He has talent, but that talent cannot thrive within Indy's system as it is. It's a shame.

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