INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – You can see the look in their eyes. Think of someone who loves rolling of his sleeves, unleashing his inner nasty self and flat wearing you out with a harsh brand of physical football.
That’s the demeanor of an offensive linemen when the run game is clicking. They take no prisoners, and take great pleasure in it.
“It takes their lungs away,’’ offered guard Mark Glowinski.
Imagine the Indianapolis Colts pounding away at the Houston Texans in Saturday’s wild-card game 35 times for a team-playoff record 200 yards.
“Run blocking,’’ added rookie right tackle Braden Smith, “let’s you get your hands on guys and do whatever you want with them. It’s all about a mentality at that point.’’
Imagine Marlon Mack turning 24 handoffs from Andrew Luck into 148 yards against the Texans’ No. 3-ranked run defense, another club postseason mark.
“It’s controlled, aggressive run blocking,’’ said veteran center Ryan Kelly.
At some point when the running game continues to churn out the yards, a defense gives hints it’s had enough.
“Yeah,’’ Kelly said with that look in his eye. “They don’t want to fight the double teams. They don’t want to do other things.
“You see it with linebackers, too. Guys who initially were going to come down and hit you square-on, head-to-head, they’re moving out of the way. When they do that, you can move them and they can lose their gap integrity. That’s where some of the big runs come.’’
Luck has been the offensive centerpiece during this season to remember and season that’s still going. He passed for 39 touchdowns and 4,593 yards, and his 98.7 passer rating was a career best. He tossed two more TDs in the first-round win over the Texans.
But it was Mack and the ground game that ripped the heart out of a Texans defense that hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. The Colts’ longest offensive play was Luck’s 38-yard laser to T.Y. Hilton on the opening drive that set up Luck’s 6-yard TD to Eric Ebron. The next three chunk plays belonged to Mack: runs of 29, 26 and 25 yards. The two longest came in the second half when Houston was sucking air.
“You feel their energy go,’’ said Glowinski. “They’re going to get worn down. If they keep getting knocked down, they’re going to start holding on.
“That’s what you want to do as an offensive lineman.’’
And that’s what the Colts undoubtedly will attempt to do again Saturday against Kansas City in an AFC divisional game. Luck won’t hesitate to limber up his arm if needed, but the Chiefs’ defense was among the NFL’s absolute worst against the run: 27th in yards per game (132.1) and 31st in yards per attempt (5.0).
“Shoot, we know how important running the football is,’’ Luck said. “To run the ball is important, and on the road, in the elements especially.’’
The addition of Quenton Nelson has been instrumental in the massive upgrade of the offensive line. The sixth overall pick in the draft has brought a nasty, play-to-the-echo-of-the-whistle mentality to the unit, and more than lived up to the hype. He’s the first Colts’ rookie offensive lineman to be named first-team All-Pro.
And let’s not forget about the insertion of Smith into the starting lineup in October. A natural guard at Auburn, the second-round draft pick has been a revelation at right tackle.
“Braden is like the best-kept secret in the NFL as far as I’m concerned,’’ Frank Reich said.
That’s not hyperbole, and neither is considering the Colts’ offensive line among the NFL’s very best as they’ve fought through early-season injuries and settled on the formidable starting combination of Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Nelson at left guard, Kelly, Glowinski and Smith.
“They’re arguably the best in the business at what they do,’’ Kansas City’s Andy Reid said. “I mean, they’ve had a good year. They are well-coached and Chris (Ballard) has done a nice job of putting those guys together. He made that a point of emphasis.’’
What’s worth emphasizing is the effectiveness of the current starting group. They’ve been together six games and the results have been withering. The running game has averaged 158.7 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt. Mack has averaged 97.5 yards per game, 5.4 per attempt.
The Colts have rushed for at least 200 yards three times in a season for the first time since 1988, and each time behind Castonzo, Nelson, Kelly, Glowinski and Smith.
It all began Oct. 21 against Buffalo in Lucas Oil Stadium when the Colts rushed for 220 yards, then followed it up with 222 yards at Oakland.
“Ever since Buffalo we’ve taken it upon ourselves that that’s going to be a staple of what we do,’’ Kelly said. “We’re going to run the ball. Frank knows we can go to the run game when it’s third-and-1.’’
In their 1-5 start, Mack missed four games with a hamstring injury and the Colts were too reliant on Luck. He averaged 48 pass attempts per game, and delivered 121 in consecutive losses to Houston and New England, the second-most in back-to-back games in NFL history.
Throwing the football that much, admitted Kelly, “sucks.’’
“You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to win,’’ Smith added, “but we love to run the ball downhill.’’
Mack’s emergence has made it possible.
As a rookie, he showed flashes as Frank Gore’s understudy with six runs of at least 20 yards. But he averaged 3.8 yards per attempt and suffered too many negative plays behind a substandard line. Of his 93 attempts, 19 (20 percent) lost yardage.
In year 2, Mack has shown a willingness to work between the tackles, a patience to follow his blockers, the shiftiness to make defenders miss and the speed to break long runs. He had seven 20-plus runs in the regular season, and three more at Houston. He’s had only 12 negative attempts.
“I give a lot of credit to Marlon,’’ Kelly said. “He’s staying focused on his hole. He’s staying in there. (Position coach Tom) Rathman does a great job of making sure those guys know where their read is, and they read it so well.
“You look at him and he might hit it out of the backfield really fast, stall for a second and then hit it again. Those 6- or 7-yard gains ultimately break because he knows exactly where he’s supposed to go and he trusts our guys.’’
Mack and rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins just keep after it, wearing down the defense.
“You guys know I like to use a boxing (analogy),’’ he said. “I think it’s just like body blows. It’s blows to the midsection. It’s the constant pounding of that.
“I think it just wears the other team down.’’
Pass protect? Run block?
“I think there’s no doubt an offensive lineman, if you asked him, ‘Hey, you’ve got a chance to run for 150 yards or throw it 50 times without a sack,’ they’re going to say 10 times out of 10, ‘Give me 150 yards,’’’ Reich said.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.