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Colts’ Offensive Woes Call For a Change In Their Running Game

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

With the knowledge that Andrew Luck will be sidelined a bit longer due to soreness in his shoulder after a return to practice last week, it is even more imperative that the Colts both get their running game going and stick with it when it is working. Keeping a disciplined balance between the running and passing games is something this team has failed at badly, and that cannot continue if they want to win games.

The Jaguars have arguably the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. Lesser defensive backfields have shut down the Colts receivers this season, so there is little reason to expect major production from anyone this week. Also, they lead the league in sacks as a team with 23. If T.Y. Hilton isn’t busy designing his newest backpack with his own face on it, maybe he could make an appearance in the game. They obviously play better when that happens:

Assuming that the receivers are unable to be a major impact, it is critical that the Colts get their running game going. Not only so that they can help the passing game become more effective, but also to slow the inevitable pass rush and keep Jacoby Brissett on his feet.

The good news is that this is where the Colts have a couple of their best playmakers. Marlon Mack is tied for fourth in the league in runs of 20+ yards and has done that on just 27 attempts. He is averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

Frank Gore has looked better so far this season than last, showing more speed and burst, although still not wowing anyone with those traits. His main strengths remain his excellent vision, patience, his ability to make something out of nothing, and his superb pass blocking. It is this particular skill, his pass protection, which we will be talking about today.

Gore is excellent in pass protection. Need proof? Check out any number of compilation videos on the internet of him throwing nasty blocks. Or check this out from Monday night:

Here, Gore does what every coach wants. He destroys a defensive end who is on his way to crushing the quarterback. That kind of reliability and sacrifice are needed for a running back to be successful in an NFL that is pass-first. Frank Gore has made a career of doing it.

While Gore is very talented, at 34 years old, he is not the runner he once was. He is reliable, doesn’t make mistakes, and he is an asset in pass protection. The Colts won’t be putting themselves in danger with him carrying the football 20 times a game, but Frank Gore is not breaking open any games for them either. If you are holding out for him to do that, you either don’t watch a lot of football or you have too much of a soft spot for Frank Gore to provide reliable analysis.

That is where Marlon Mack comes in. Mack has “it.” Not the book by Stephen King, he might, but that is not what I’m talking about. When Mack is on the field, defenses have to account for him. Frank Gore is not outrunning any cornerbacks. It is highly unlikely that he is scoring on you from outside the red zone. Marlon Mack looks like he is a bad angle or an Antonio Morrison away from scoring on you on every play.

On this play for example. Le’Raven Clark gets beat when his man makes a quick lateral move and Clark loses his balance. Brett Mock breaks down more of Clark’s game here. He also is not able to get a hand on the linebacker who quickly moves into what is supposed to be a hole for Mack to run through. Everything about this play goes wrong.

Then Marlon Mack happens. He effortlessly changes direction and makes a defender miss before cutting back to the place where the original hole should have been. It is now wide open because the defender who was in it just had his ankles broken and is calling for a medic. Then it is off to the races. If Kamar Aiken is able to get even a decent block on his man this is a 60-yard touchdown. Off a busted play. That is what Marlon Mack brings to the table.

Now the commonly echoed sentiment around the media, local included, is that Mack needs lots of work in his pass protection before he can take on a bigger role in the offense. That is totally understandable because with your quarterback already hurt, you cannot have any unnecessary hits on your backup. No one wants to see Scott Tolzien again. There is just one problem with that narrative. Mack has not had any notable problems with pass protection.

I watched all the offensive snaps from the Titans game, because on the Around the NFL podcast, of which I am a big fan, Gregg Rosenthal claims that on a couple of plays Mack absolutely gets Brissett killed because he misses blocks. Also, Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star repeatedly has stated that Mack isn’t getting as much playing time because this is a deficiency in his game. These guys are both good at their jobs typically, so it would be easy to take them at their word, but I wanted to see for myself.

I won’t show you every play he was involved in, but here for your judgment is Mack’s worst pass protection play from Monday night.

It is not very impressive. Jack Doyle gets beat and Mack steps into the right spot, but he doesn’t get very physical with his block and gets pushed aside with relative ease. He pursues the defender and so doesn’t see the other defensive lineman or the two linebackers coming, but in this case, one running back is going to do very little to stop all three of these guys.

Brissett is as much to blame here for holding the ball too long. The ball is in his hand 4 seconds before he lets it go, despite the obvious pressure in his face. Then there is Doyle who is at least equally to blame for getting beaten so badly by his man. All in all, hard to say this is all on Marlon Mack. Certainly not so much his fault as to warrant limiting his role in the offense.

But let’s say that we are concerned with his pass protection anyway. During a conversation amongst some Stampede Blue writers, Jake Arthur and Stephen Reed brought up an interesting idea. If you think Mack poses a risk in pass protection, why not flip his and Gore’s roles in the offense?

If you were to reverse the roles of Gore and Mack, it would mean having Gore in the game on obvious passing downs. As the better pass protector that makes sense. Also, he offers their best option for goal line and short-yardage situations. However, on 1st and 2nd down, where the playbook is more open, Mack would be the sensible choice.

Why? He poses a real threat to defensive backs. If Gore gets in space he can do some damage, but he is not a threat to take the ball to the house like Mack is. That means that the play-action holds more weight because safeties and linebackers have to take him seriously. Also, for teams like the Jaguars that have excellent cornerbacks and a nasty pass rush, the threat of a screen pass to a weapon like Marlon Mack is likely to slow down blitzes on the quarterback or at least make them pay for them if they don’t get home.

This simple change could alleviate pressure on Brissett in a very real way while creating more opportunities for one of the most explosive players on the team to make big plays.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

I want to make it clear that I am not advocating that Gore’s role should shrink at all. He has done well and been a reliable contributor. The reality is that the Colts are not running the ball enough. Personally, I think they need to be running the ball around 25-30 times per game to be successful. That would make the run game fairly evenly balanced with the passing game and take a ton of pressure off of Brissett.

It should not come as a surprise that in the two games the Colts won they ran the ball 27 and 31 times. The next highest was 23 against the Cardinals, a game which they narrowly lost. Against Tennessee? They ran the ball just 15 times.

That is not going to cut it with a young quarterback who is not Andrew Luck. To have any success offensively that has to change, and the first step is to use their backs in a way that sets them both up to succeed in the roles that best fit them. Situational football has been a weakness of Pagano coached teams, so I do not anticipate this happening entirely. If they were to implement it, I think it would help the offense run smoother as well as making both backs look better.

Finally, for your entertainment and irritation, here is Pagano talking about how his running backs will be used going forward.