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What the numbers suggest toward Indy’s rush-attack aspirations

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NFL’s realignment in 2002, the Indianapolis Colts have been one of the most consistent and successful teams in football. Their 174-98 record is the third-best winning percentage in football behind New England and Pittsburgh, and their four AFC Championship appearances are second to the Patriots’ 12.

While its success is undeniable, Indianapolis has had one glaring, consistent shortcoming since the early 2000s: its rushing attack. In 17 seasons, the Colts have finished with roughly the 23rd-best run total in the regular season. They’ve ranked below 25th three times as much as they’ve finished at 16th or higher, and their best finish was 15th in 2005. Even though they finished the 2018 regular season on a hot-streak with several strong rushing performances, their 1,718 yards still finished just 20th in the entire league.

Knowing how critical the a strong run game is to the success of an organization, it’s no surprise the Colts want to break away from their poor stretch of rushing performances. Quenton Nelson’s “run the damn ball” hat echoes the words of head coach Frank Reich, who said he wants the Colts to have a top-five rushing attack this upcoming season.

Nelson’s key to attaining one of the best run-offenses? Running it back. The Colts plan to return all five starting offensive lineman in 2019, Spencer Ware has been added to the Marlon Mack-Nyheim Hines-Jordan Wilkins trio, and it’ll be year two of Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni running the offense.

But for a franchise that’s consistently struggled to run the ball, jumping into the top-five will be no easy feat. Health can always cripple a team’s ability to run a balanced offense, and there’s no guarantee that a steady progression is in place for every member of the offensive system.

Given the Colts’ high aspirations, I decided to take a look at other teams’ recent success to determine what the Colts’ offense would need to look like for a top-five rush offense in 2019. To better determine or narrow the lens, I’ve hand-picked teams that’ve finished inside the top five in recent years that share the same offensive makeup as this year’s Colts.

This eliminates teams that highlight one feature running back like the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars and the 2017 and 2016 Dallas Cowboys, or non-complex offensive schemes like the 2018 Seattle Seahawks and the 2016 Buffalo Bills. My final criteria, an above-average or better starting quarterback that isn’t a massive threat in the run game, has wiped away teams like the 2018 Baltimore Ravens, the 2018 and 2017 Carolina Panthers and the 2016 Tennessee Titans.

With all that said and done, I was left with the 2018 New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints, and the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. All were top-five offenses, and, in my mind, closely resemble the offensive composition of the 2019 Colts.

Let’s see how these teams found their success in the trenches and predict if the Colts are capable of matching this production.

Criteria No. 1: Strong production from the No. 2 runner

All of these five teams have either a top running back in football or one of the deeper stables across the league. All except the 2018 Rams had three runners contribute 20+ rushing yards a game — something the Colts were 0.4 yards per game (by Nyheim Hines) from completing. While the Colts have the stable to replicate, and most likely improve upon, that number in 2019, they need a much stronger contribution from its No. 2 rusher; whether that’s Hines, Wilkins or Ware.

In 2016, the Falcons got 40 rushing yards a game from Tevin Coleman. In 2017, the Saints were complemented with 45.5 yards from Alvin Kamara and the Eagles strongly benefitted from 47.9 yards by LeGarrette Blount. C.J. Anderson’s contributions were a huge part of the Rams success on the ground last season, and the Patriots had the benefit of 104.3 yards per game from their No. 2-5 rushers. Meanwhile, Wilkins — the Colts No. 2 rusher — added just 21 rushing yards per game.

Now, the Colts’ backup runners did show flashes at different points in the season — Hines averaged 46 yards from Week 5-8, and Wilkins averaged 35.8 yards between Weeks 7 and 10 — but neither found that steady production behind Mack’s 75.7 yards per game.

This may be where Ware is able to step in and make his greatest impact. Granted, it _was_ years ago, but Ware was able to chime in with 36.6 yards a game as the second option with the Chiefs in 2015.

While it isn’t detrimental to creating a top-five rush attack, and the Colts could just aim for a 2018 New England team with three backup runners averaging 20+, having one of the three step up their contributions to the 35-45 yards per game total will be huge for being able to stay committed to the ground game.

Criteria No. 2: A strong balance in the run- and pass-games

The NFL has been on a steady incline toward a passing league for quite some time, but the number suggest that these teams with the best balance not only get the best production out of their running games, but that it also translates to success in the win column.

Last season the Patriots and the Rams were the seventh and ninth teams, respectively, in terms of rushing play percentage — both just a couple percentage points away from a 50-50 split. Likewise, the 2017 Eagles and the 2016 Falcons ranked in the top-11 in terms of best balance, and the 2017 Saints were 13th; running the ball 43.6% of the time.

To silence any notion that balance doesn’t play a key role in success, all but the 2017 Saints made the Super Bowl in their respective seasons — and the Saints were only a whiffed tackle away from the NFC Championship game.

So how did the Colts do last year in terms of balance? Not so well. They finished 24th and had a 61.6-38.4 percent split in favor of the pass. It did get closer as the year went on, and they actually finished their final three games with a split of 55.73-44.27 percent.

Whether that number got better because of a stronger commitment to the run game on the backend of the season or worry over health along the offensive unit to begin the season, it does seem as though the Colts could be headed toward having one of the most balanced offenses in 2019.

Criteria No. 3: Dominance and consistency on the interior offensive line

This one just sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s easily one of the important three-man combos to success in the trenches. Not to discredit the need for strong tackles, but guard and center play correlates to success running the ball and ties all these five teams in with one-another as a highlight to their ability to win on the ground.

The Patriots have graded in the top-four of offensive lines the last two seasons by PFF, and you could easily make the argument that Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason are the best trio of interior offensive linemen in football. The Eagles had the No. 1 offensive line by PFF’s standards in 2017, and center Jason Kelce graded as the top lineman in football. The Falcons combo of Andy Levitre and Alex Mack bolstered the Falcons o-line to the sixth-best unit in 2016, and both the 2018 Rams and 2017 Saints ranked in the top nine.

This one won’t take too much thought for the Colts, as they finished the 2018 grading out as the third-best offensive line in football, behind the Steelers and Browns. Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelley are easily some of the brighter, young names at their position, and Mark Glowinski was a nice surprise at right guard after an up-and-down stint with the Seahawks. While I don’t believe we can count on the same high level of production from Glow next year, the impact Howard Mudd could have on this offensive line’s growth into the next season could make them far-and-away the best line in the league.

So what do you think about the Colts chances to put out a top-five rushing attack next season? What criteria above (or one I didn’t address) do you think is most crucial for the Colts to make the jump? Let us know in the comments.