Frank Reich’s objective: Take a good Colts’ run game and make it great (or at least top-5)

Colts Head Coach Frank Reich

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Frank Reich intends to take his Indianapolis Colts where they’ve rarely gone.

After overseeing a 2018 offense that was one of the NFL’s most robust during his first year on the job – 7th in total yards per game, 6th in passing, 5th in scoring – he wants more.

To be more precise, he wants more from his running game.

“We have to run the football,’’ Reich said. “Our goal is going to be a top-5 rushing football team.’’

Let that sink in.

Now, we’ll offer some Colts-related perspective that accentuates the rarity should that actually happen.

Since 1968, the Colts have fielded a top-5 rushing attack five times. The last time was in 1994 when Reich was still wingin’ it as Jim Kelly’s backup with the Buffalo Bills.

During the ultra-successful years with Peyton Manning under center, the Colts’ ground game cracked the top-10 once (7th in 2001). It was 18th or worse 10 times. It won Super Bowl XLI against Chicago after the 2006 season with the NFL’s 18th-ranked run game. When they reached Super Bowl XLIV and lost to New Orleans after ’09, their run game was 32nd.

Early, the singular brilliance of Edgerrin James skewed the overall league rankings. He personified a “one-back’’ attack, which tamped down the overall rushing totals.

Throughout Manning’s 13-year run, the Colts were a passing terror. They ranked in the top-10 each season, were No. 1 three times and No. 2 on four occasions.

But back to Reich.

His aim isn’t to disarm Andrew Luck and hike the offense onto the collective shoulders (legs?) of Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Spencer Ware and Jonathan Williams.

It’s to maximize Luck’s efficiency and even increase his productivity with a more consistent and proficient ground game.

“I mean, I know everybody is going to talk about Andrew and the pass game, and we are going to throw it and hopefully throw a lot of touchdowns,’’ Reich said. “But really what is going to set the tone for us is going to be how we run the football.

“That is not going to change. We have to run the football.’’

That’s when he mentioned the desire for Luck to direct a top-5 rushing attack.

“That will set up the play-action pass,’’ he said. “That will set up all the big chunk plays.’’

That will help slow the pass rush and aid an offensive line that allowed a league-low 18 sacks last season.

“To me,’’ Reich said, “that will get us where we want to go.’’

Which is deep into the playoffs, perhaps even to South Florida, site of Super Bowl LIV Feb. 2.

Quenton Nelson’s eyes lit up when Reich’s top-5 run-game commitment was mentioned. He was instrumental in the dramatic transformation of the offensive line from pedestrian to elite last season. The 6th-overall pick in the draft stepped in immediately at left guard and injected a nasty edge in the group. Individually, he earned first-team All-Pro recognition.

And now, the offensive line again can look forward to not only keeping Luck clean but exerting its collective will on defenses in the run game.

“Yeah, that fires us up,’’ Nelson said. “We put together some good games last year as an offensive line; the running backs, too, running hard and making people miss. We also had some games where we didn’t play as well as we wanted to.

“This year it’s all about being consistent with the run game, calling the plays and then us executing. Bringing everyone back on the offensive line this year, having a year of experience together, a year of coach Frank and coach (Nick) Sirianni’s offense . . . we’re capable of doing that.’’

Here’s where it’s worth pointing out the Colts were hardly run-deficient last season even though their league rankings were modest: 20th in yards per game (107.4) and 22nd in yards per attempt (4.2).

Two factors kept them easing everyone’s concerns regarding the running game and achieving a loftier ranking: injuries and the understandable pass-heavy approach.

With Luck regaining his form after missing 2017 with his shoulder issues, Reich and Sirianni leaned on their franchise QB. The Colts offense operated on a 61.9-38.1 percent pass-run split, the league’s fifth-most lopsided in terms of passing. That was exacerbated during Indy’s 1-5 start when Luck attempted 288 passes, an NFL record for the first six games of a season.

And that brings us to the injury factor.

A hamstring injury kept left tackle Anthony Castonzo out of the first five games. A similar issue limited Mack to one game and 10 carries in the first five weeks. Also, injuries resulted in three starting right tackles in the first four games – J’Marcus Webb, Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good – until the coaching staff moved rookie Braden Smith from backup guard to right tackle in week 5. In week 6, Mark Glowinski replaced injured Matt Slauson at right guard.

With Castonzo, Mack, Smith and Glowinski in place for the bulk of the final 11 games, the running game took off.

The raw numbers were undeniable, and impressive. Over the final 11 games, the Colts rushed for averages of 121.1 yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt. That rushing total would have tied Chicago for 11th-best in the league. The averages in the first five games: 77.2 yards per game, 3.8 per attempt.

Remember weeks 7-8 against Buffalo and Oakland? The Colts piled up over 200 rushing yards in each win, the first time they rushed for at least 200 yards twice in the same season since 1985.

Mack established himself as one of the league’s rising stars. He became the first Colts since Joe Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards in four games, and over the final 11 regular-season games averaged 79.5 yards per game and 4.7 per attempt. In the first-round playoff win at Houston, Mack set a franchise postseason record with 148 yards.

Again, the challenge from Reich is getting more from that ground game.

And Mack is eager to further elevate his game. He wants to be harder to bring down.

“Me personally, just hitting the hole more, getting through it, bursting through,’’ he said. “I could get better picking up my feet. I fell a couple of times (last season from) shoe tackles.

“That’s something I can definitely get better at.’’

Reich and Sirianni undoubtedly will maximize the running backs that make the 53-man roster, but Mack remains the focal point.

“He’s got burst and he’s got that speed, but he’s a good inside runner,’’ Reich said at the owners’ meetings. “He’s got good play strength. That’s one of the phrases we talk about: What’s his play strength like?

“He’s been a little dinged up, so just need a couple of years producing, and producing those kind of numbers.’’

The combination of everything – primarily an available Mack and an offensive line that returns intact – has spiked Reich’s optimism.

“My expectations this year for our run game,’’ he said, “are really, really high.

“Really high.’’

Be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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