Two weeks ago, the Colts running game looked effective and strong in pre-season against the Philadelphia Eagles. Last Saturday, Indy's running game looked anything but good against the Detroit Lions. In 2008, Indianapolis' rushing attack was the second worst in the NFL (only the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals were worse... proving once again just how "vital" it is to run the ball). In '08, Indy was ranked 19th in rushing TDs, 31st in yards, 30th in attempts, and dead, stinking last in yards per attempt (3.4 a carry). The season prior (2007), the Colts running game was #2 in TDs (19 scored!), 22nd in yards per attempt (3.8 a carry), 18th in total rushing yards, and 12th in carries.
So, what did Indy have in 2007 that they didn't have in 2008? What did Indy have against the Eagles that they didn't have against the Lions?
Answer: Offensive guard Ryan Lilja
Let's harp on it one. more. friggin. time. The health of Ryan Lilja is paramount to any success the Colts can have this season running the ball. He is the only guard on the roster worth a damn, mainly because he is one of the more under-rated offensive linemen in football. Against the Lions Saturday, Lilja did not play. He was recovering from a shoulder injury, which is unrelated to the knee injury that kept him out of the entire 2008 season. Lilja is expected to start Week One against the Jaguars, which is a HUGE boost to Indy's offense to open the season.
While second year player Mike Pollak has indeed improved as a guard (he played center at Arizona State), he still is not a sure bet. I've seen him get pushed back far too many times to feel good about him kicking out for a stretch play run. Other back-ups like Jamey Richard and Kyle DeVan are good players, but they are not starting caliber guards at this point. And unlike Pollak (second round pick in 2008, and first pick overall for the Colts), Richard and DeVan are not highly touted draft picks. Richard was a 7th round pick, and DeVan is a free agent.
With Lilja, the offensive line is more physical, able to attack defenses and utilize technique and scheme to overpower opponents. Without him, Colts running backs are stuffed at the line of scrimmage by the "immortal" defensive line of the Lions.
Just as Ed Johnson seems key for success on the d-line, Ryan Lilja is almost as vital to the o-line as Jeff Saturday. Maybe even more so. This year is a very important year for the o-line. Tony Ugoh has been benched and Jeff Saturday ain't getting any younger. Guys like Pollak better see the writing on the wall and start playing with some attitude. With Joseph Addai healthy and the electrifying Donald Brown added to the roster, if the Colts struggle to run the ball this year as they did last year, the finger of blame falls solely on the offensive line and Senior Offensive Line Coach Howard Mudd.
With Lilja back, the running game should be better, but if anything happens to Lilja, it seems (right now anyway), that the Colts do not have much quality at guard besides Lilja.