Tale of the Tape: Evaluating the Run Game vs. the Titans

Earlier this week, I was contemplating what I should look at for this week's film review. So, I posed the question on Twitter, and got two responses regarding the offensive lines in the Colts-Titans game.

First, was the Colts' makeshift offensive line really performing well in the run game, or were the running backs (specifically Delone Carter) merely grinding out the yards? Second, what did the Titans' offense do to neutralize Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis? The two defensive ends have been relatively invisible for the last four weeks, and while the loss of Eric Foster and Drake Nevis have had an impact, that shouldn't be the only reason.

After the jump, we'll take a look at the Colts offensive line and running backs, and tomorrow we'll look at the defensive ends and the Titan's offensive strategy.The Colts ran for 158 yards (although half was by Curtis Painter), with the running backs running for 79 yards on 19 carries, a 4.16 average. After watching the game, and reviewing the stats from the rest of the year, it seems pretty clear that both the offensive line and the two running backs are performing well.

During the Titans game, the running backs had 19 carries. On six of those plays, the offensive line got very good push as a whole, creating a huge lane for the running back to run through. These plays resulted in 40 yards, a 6.67 average. Two of those runs were by Donald Brown, for nine yards. Carter had 31 yards on 4 carries, including a 14 yard run.

On seven of the running plays, the offensive line opened up a "crease," a small hole, or lost their blocks prematurely. On these runs, the Colts gained 33 yards, a 4.71 average. Carter had three of these plays, for 12 yards. Brown, on the other hand, had four carries for 21 yards.

For four of the 19 plays, the offensive line had one or two breakdowns, allowing a defensive lineman to penetrate the backfield. This included two runs by Delone Carter, a 5 yard play (made the DL miss in backfield) and a one yard loss. Donald Brown also had two runs in this scenario, just getting back to the line on one, and getting a two yard gain on the other as he cut back, making one man miss and falling forward with the tackle (something he's failed to do in the past).

Besides those 17 plays, there were two plays that failed to fit into one of the categories. The first was a 0 yard run by Donald Brown with about 28 seconds left in the third quarter, on 2nd and one. On the play, the line really failed to open anything up, but Brown didn't hit the line and try to get the yard, but instead hesitating, leading to no gain on the play.

Jim Caldwell seemed very unhappy with Brown on the play, and the announcers killed him for hesitating, but I don't think it's as bad of a job by Brown as it seems, under the circumstances. The play was 2nd and one, so in my opinion, the Colts can afford to have Brown wait and try to make something more out of it instead of grinding out the yard on this play. If it was a third and one, I'd be livid, but on second and one, if he doesn't lose yardage, I'm okay with that.

The second play also included Brown, and happened on the very next run play (14:33 in the 4th). Brown took the hand-off on a stretch play, and took it to the edge, but got stopped by the cornerback, a two yard gain. On this play, the blame lies not in the offensive line (who held their blocks well) or Donald Brown, but in Pierre Garcon. Garcon went right by the corner back on this play, attempting to block the safety, leaving the cornerback a free shot at Brown in limited space (approaching the sideline).

I don't know if this was by design, or just a poor decision by Garcon, but the play almost certainly would have had more success if the corner had been blocked, and the safety had to come down and make the play.

Overall, this performance lines up well with what advanced statistics tell us: the Colts' improved run game is due to better performance by both the offensive line and the running backs. The Colts offensive line is currently 7th in the league at adjusted line yards, and are ranked 4th in "Stuffed Rank," a percentage of running plays that produce zero or negative yards (Colts' are at 16%).

In 2010 and 2009, the Colts were 20th and 27th (respectively) in this category, getting stuffed 20% and 22% of the time.

The running backs are also doing their part. Among "starting" running backs, Delone Carter is 13th in the league in DVOA, with 8.0%, as well as being 12th in success rate at 49%. Donald Brown's DVOA of 23.2% is third among backs with at least 30 carries, behind only Darren Sproles (41.1%!) and LeSean McCoy (34.7%). Now, Brown's success rate is currently 47%, good enough for 18th in the league among starting backs. Of course, before the Titans game Brown's success rate was 59%, but the Titans game was an awful game in terms of success rate for Brown (20%).

The improved running game is definitely a plus for the Colts in 2011, and the fans should be excited for the prospect of it in the future. Of course, it also goes to show that the Colts' coaches have been dropping the ball in terms of installing a run-heavy game plan.

Against the Titans, the Colts dropped back to pass on 58 plays (2 were sacks, 7 were QB scrambles), and ran it on 19. They continue to insist on passing on first down, which continually leaves them in long second downs, where they often choose to run (6 times out of 19 carries). Running on 2nd and 10 generally leaves them in long third downs, which they are terrible at converting.

Why the Colts refuse to do this with a below-average quarterback and successful run game is beyond me. But, despite the coaching problems, the vastly improved run game should be a cause for relief, as both the running backs themselves and the offensive line are performing at a much higher level this year.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.