By Tom James
TERRE HAUTE — Nearly two weeks into training camp and Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell is liking what he’s seeing from the team's much-maligned running attack.
Indianapolis struggled to get much going on the ground last season, with Joseph Addai rushing for a career low 544 yards on 155 carries and scoring five touchdowns. As an offense, the Colts averaged a meager 79.6 yards rushing.
Injuries along the offensive line, particularly to Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday and veteran offensive guard Ryan Lilja, were part of the problem. Being forced to play inexperienced rookies on the offensive line in their stead didn't matters any.
Throw in a nicked-up Addai, who joined offensive tackle Tony Ugoh in undergoing knee surgery in the offseason, and it’s easy to understand why the team couldn’t get much going on the ground.
Flash forward to the present. Saturday and Lilja are back in their familiar positions. Addai is looking — and running — pretty close to what he did as a rookie in 2006. Ugoh has been replaced at offensive left tackle by Charlie Johnson, but has moved over to play right offensive tackle as he has replaced an injured Ryan Diem for the time being.
Things are definitely looking better, so far, in the Colts running game. Of course, the final verdict won’t really be known until Indianapolis begins the regular season with a Sept. 13 home date against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“The true test is when we get out on the field, but we’ve certainly made the necessary changes to help us. But sometimes the indication and the results don’t show up right away. So I’m optimistic, and I think we are doing the right things, so we anticipate it is going to improve," Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday.
Addai will share time with rookie Donald Brown, Indianapolis’ first-round draft pick last spring. Brown is expected to get extensive playing time in Friday night’s preseason home opener with Minnesota.
“The years when we’ve been really effective, we’ve had someone who could take a little load off of the guy who was carrying it a majority of the time. When [Edgerrin James] was here, obviously Dominic [Rhodes] sort of helped him with that part of the game. And obviously Joseph and Dom teamed together and worked well. We anticipate the same thing will happen with the backs we have present as well.”
Team owner Jim Irsay seconds that opinion. Irsay spoke about the importance that he places on a much-improved running game when he visited practice on Tuesday.
“From my perspective, you can’t have a glaring weakness and be [a] championship team. And we all know you have to be able to run the ball. And the way we were running the ball [last] year concerned me. And those things catch up to you,” he said.
“If there are trends during the regular season, where everything is on the line, that trend is usually going to pop up, so you usually want to try and eliminate it. I thought that we weren’t running the ball well enough [in 2008] and that came back to haunt us. It was not a surprise.
“We have to be able to run the football. Where we ranked in rushing [last year], that was just not going to get it done, and we know that. It remains to be seen, but we have to be able to prove we can run the ball. And, I think also, for negative yards lost is a big negative, as well,” Irsay continued.
“You can’t go in there, second-and-eight, okay, but second-and-13, no. And that happened a lot. We had a lot of plays that were negative run plays and that’s just unacceptable. We all know it, and that’s where the focus is at out there.”