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Colts big-play ground game on pace for 25-year high in explosive rushes

Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

How impressive has the Indianapolis Colts’ running game been this season? It’s been a major talking point thus far through the first six weeks of the season, both locally and nationally.

The Colts have posted at least 165 rushing yards in three of their first five games, and we’ve witnessed Marlon Mack grow into what we’d all hoped he would — a big-play threat, but also a workhorse back in his third season with the Colts.

His 6-foot, 210-pound frame sounds powerful on the surface, yet he’s still more of a quick-twitch speed back as opposed to a pounding force in the team’s running game. One thing that he does have the ability to do, though, is to continuously run between the tackles in spite of his running style.

Mack has remained largely healthy this season, allowing him to break out with some big games, and have assisted in giving the Colts a chance to win each week. He’s averaging more than 20 carries per game, and has only carried the ball less than 16 times once on the season.

Overall, the Colts’ ground attack has blown away anything we’ve seen from them in the recent past. Even last season as we began to see Mack’s emergence, and the offensive line was one of the top units in the league, the end results were Mack playing in 12 games, and the running game being pretty average.

However, the Colts’ success on the ground has been very defined in terms of where their ground game is getting the most favorable matchups.

The big plays have been a sizable piece for the Colts offense this year. In just their first five games, the Colts have 5 runs of 20 yards or more. That’s more than the team had in 2016 for the entire season, and the Colts haven’t had more than 10 in a season since 2013 (11).

Currently they’re on pace for 16 runs of 20-plus yards, which would be the most they’ve had in a season since 1994 when they totaled 20 big runs on the shoulders of a little-known guy named Marshall Faulk. That’s 25 years if you’re counting.

Also, this season, the Colts are averaging 142 rushing yards per game (5th in the NFL), more than 30 yards per game better than the past six seasons. Their rushes per game are also up (31.8 APG) which matters, but only by an average of 5.87 attempts per game over the past six years.

As mentioned earlier, the Colts success on the ground is coming primarily between the tackles and are doing pretty well off of the right end as well.

The Colts are tops in the league in Adjusted Line Yards running at Anthony Castonzo, but are only running in his direction 4 percent of the time. That one’s a little hard to quantify with such a small sample size.

On the other hand, the Colts are running up the gut (middle/guard) 60 percent of the time, and are sitting at 14th in the league in ALY. The Colts are getting good play out of the right side of their line on the ground as well getting 4.75 ALYs over right tackle (13th), and 5.56 ALYs off the right end (6th) respectively.

Additionally, Mack is 11th in DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards above Replacement) and the Colts are 9th in RB yards (4.70) which ultimately signifies yards he’s created himself.

The combination of Frank Reich keeping his play-calling creative, the development of Mack, and the offensive line doing their part, has put the Colts’ ground game amongst the league’s best nearing the midway point in the season.

The one direction in which the Colts should think twice about running is off the left end. They’re 30th in the league (1.78 ALYs), and are running there far too often (20% of RB rushes) to continuously be getting negative results. Too many negative plays, and not enough big plays are coming for Reich to keep making those calls.

The offense is simply too successful elsewhere to put your offense in long-yardage, second - or third-down opportunities to warrant those play calls.

But, in the end, the Colts’ rushing attack is one of the best in the league. Among running backs with at least 60 attempts, Marlon Mack is 1st in the league in first down runs (31), 7th with 2.4 yards after contact, 7th in rushing yards (470), 9th in yards per attempt (4.7), and 5th with 94 rushing yards per game.

Things in Indy are looking good so long as the offensive line can continue to protect Jacoby Brissett, and open these running lanes for Mack and the rest of the running backs. Can they maintain that same level of success throughout the entire season though, and in the playoffs if they earn a berth? That’s the real question. 16 games is a long season.