Colts' running game key to Super Bowl run
By Len Pasquarelli
Overlooked amid the Indianapolis defense's suddenly stout performance against the run in the postseason is that the Colts' offense has taken care of the other half of football's most basic formula for playoff success.
Run the ball and stop the run. That's the simple equation, most NFL purists contend, for winning in the postseason.
And in advancing to the first Super Bowl appearance since the franchise relocated to Indianapolis in 1984, the Colts have surprised almost as many skeptics by achieving the first of those goals as they have by allowing just 76.7 yards rushing per game in their three postseason contests after surrendering a league-worst 173.0 yards per game rushing during the regular season.
Joseph Addai is one reason the Colts' running game has come alive in the postseason. Indianapolis has outrushed all three playoff opponents by a whopping average of 61.0 yards per game. The Colts, who averaged 110.1 rushing yards during the regular season, average 137.7 yards in the postseason. Their rushing attempts have risen, from 27.4 per outing to 35.0. And the offensive split has changed as well. During the season, the Colts ran the ball on 43.4 percent of their snaps. The quota is up to 46.5 percent in the playoffs.
"That might not seem like a lot," said tailback Dominic Rhodes. "But it's made a difference. Teams, I think, have been a little surprised by how we've stuck with the run. The good part is, we've run when we had to, and run when we wanted to. We've used the run to dictate to people and that's a good feeling."
Count the New England Patriots, who allowed 32 second-half points to the Colts in last week's 38-34 AFC championship game loss, among those stunned by the Indianapolis offense's unusual reliance on the running game.
"With them being down like they were at halftime by so much (a 21-6 score), I think we felt like they might come out desperate and just throw every down in the second half," said New England defensive end Ty Warren. "But they didn't panic and just go one-dimensional. They stayed with the run, and it kind of kept us off-balance, definitely."
In fact, in the second half, the Colts were surprisingly balanced for a team playing from so far in arrears. On its 45 second-half snaps, Indianapolis had 21 rushing plays and 24 pass plays. On the first two possessions of the second half, both of which culminated in touchdowns that lifted the Colts into a 21-21 tie, the offensive mix was 11 passes and 11 runs.
That the Colts didn't panic, and didn't completely abandon the run, had another ancillary benefit: It resulted in an incredibly lopsided snap-count, one that, combined with Indianapolis' no-huddle, "Quick" offense, physically drained the Patriots' defensive front seven.
Beginning with 3:06 left in the second quarter, until there were just four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Colts ripped off 34 offensive snaps, compared to only four by New England. For the game, the Colts had 80 snaps, while New England managed only 59 plays.
"It's probably the most ignored or underrated part of our offense," said Indianapolis Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. "For whatever reason, people keep hanging that finesse label on us. But we've shown that we can run the ball, that we can stay in the game running it, and close out games running it."
That has certainly been the case in the playoffs, where offensive coordinator Tom Moore and Peyton Manning, who has more freedom to audible than any quarterback in the league and makes most of his calls at the line of scrimmage, have blended the run brilliantly with the team's explosive passing game.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs, who were supposed to have the more dangerous rushing attack, the Colts ran for 188 yards and established tempo early. Their offensive mix defined balanced, with 40 passes and 40 runs.
In the divisional-round victory at Baltimore, which featured the NFL's top-rated defense overall, and second-ranked unit versus the run, Indianapolis had more rushes (35) than passes (31). And the defining moment of that game came in the final half of the fourth quarter, when the Colts just jammed the ball down the throats of the smack-talkin' Ravens. Leading 12-6 with 7:36 to play, the Colts put together a 12-play drive that included 11 runs, ended in Adam Vinatieri's game-clinching field goal, and bled all but 23 seconds from the clock.
"Peyton has really handled the run well," Saturday said. "His instincts have been tremendous."
Although it isn't a hard-and-fast rule of the Indianapolis offense, the Colts characteristically key off the alignment of the opponent's safeties to determine when they run. If the safeties are in a Cover 2 or split look, backed 10 to 12 yards off the line of scrimmage and essentially unable to play run support, Indianapolis will usually run. When there is just a single high safety, Manning will throw.
The formula has been a successful one for the Colts. All they need is for it to work one more time now and they'll have run themselves to a Super Bowl title.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.