If you've followed the Colts this offseason you'll no doubt have heard the common theme of the Colts need and effort to improve short yardage running. Key failures in the playoffs the last two years (both coming in the shadows of their own endzone) sear that issue into the minds of those that followed the team.
But are those two plays a culmination of a nagging issue, or outliers that are skewing the offseason narrative around Indy?
The fine folks at Football Outsiders keep a "power success" stat in their suite of OL evaluation metrics. It's one of the simplest stats you'll find at FO. Power Success is the % runs that go for 1st down or touchdown either on 3rd and 4th down running plays with 2 or less to go, or any down inside the 2 yard line. So where do the Colts and their lacking ground game rank?
12th in the league at 66%. The Colts were slightly above league average (64%) in short yardage running last year. While in 2008 they were a slightly below average 62%, in 2007 they led the league at 78%. The last 3 years the Colts have ranged from a bit subpar to elite in short yardage success. Why has the offseason been largely dominated by talk of needing short yardage upgrades?
Three clear reasons in my mind. Most obviously the two aforementioned short yardage failures in the playoffs. Those two plays are far more likely to be remembered than the many, less pivotally timed, successes. Also easy to recognize is the Colts style of smaller linemen and pass heavy play calling. The Colts style doesn't lend itself to a hardnosed short yardage reputation, no matter the results. When you think short yardage you think big fatties and a massive straight ahead pounder of a back. Not a bunch of athletic, undersized, technicians and the slippery Addai with the side to side bounce in his step.
Finally the Colts short yardage game is cited as a concern because it's very close to a real area of weakness. While the Colts short yardage game has been far better than the bad rap it's been given. The running game as a whole is not deceptively solid in the same vein.
While the short yardage competence and great ball security gives the Colts run game a solid boost in the eyes of FO's DVOA system, they are still a utterly unspectacular 20th in the league.
So if short yardage isn't what's wrong with the Colts running game, what is?
Two areas in which the Colts run game struggle massively is in breaking runs beyond 10 yards, which can be attributed largely to Addai's style of play and Brown's struggle to keep his home run abilities on the field last year. The Colts ranked 29th in "Open Field" yards, yards gained beyond the first 10.
The other area, which falls largely on the blocking is a consistent inability to keep defenders out of the backfield. The Colts had over 1/5th of their runs go for 0 or negative yardage, the 6th worst figure in the league at 22%.
So really the net effect is the same. The Colts need better blocking and a healthy season from Don to be successful on the ground, but the real area for improvement is not short yardage running as the popular narrative suggests. Two key plays and the Colts style put the short yardage struggles stamp on the team, but looking at their success in those situations as a whole it's seriously overblown.