Feed the Beast.
That phrase has gotten some humorous play around the media who cover the Indianapolis Colts in recent weeks. It all started when veteran running back Donald Brown began to play well earlier this year.
Brown had become something of an enigma for fans and the media the last couple of seasons. A first-round draft pick in 2009, the former University of Connecticut standout had not become the every-down performer that was envisioned by former Colts team president Bill Polian.
While Brown had his moments, the game-to-game consistency wasn't readily apparent. His seasonal stats have steadily improved, rushing for 281 yards as a rookie, 497 yards in 2010 and 645 yards last year. And then there were the issues about his ability to be a good pass blocker — necessary when a team features quarterbacks like, initially, Peyton Manning and now Andrew Luck.
Late last season, he had a breakdown performance in a 27-13 home-field win over Tennessee, rushing for a career-best 161 yards (including an 80-yard touchdown run). This year, Brown has again shown flashes of what Polian and the Colts' scouting department saw four years ago. He currently leads the team in rushing with 319 yards on 74 carries and has one rushing touchdown.
In last week's 19-13 overtime win at Tennessee, Brown returned from a two-week absence — after undergoing knee surgery — and had a team-high 80 yards rushing. It was his relatively quick return from injury, coupled with a hard-running style in the overtime (picking up 37 yards on the game-winning drive), that has caused fans to take a more appreciative view of the former Husky.
As for the phrase, “Feed the Beast,” the joke referred to the fact that the more times Brown carries the football, the better he seems to look.
Interestingly, Brown's resurgence can be tied directly to type of ground game that coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wanted to install with the Colts.
Pagano came to Indianapolis from the Baltimore Raven, which has had a strong tradition of running the football. Arians, meanwhile, was in charge of the offense in Pittsburgh that has always run the football with effectiveness.
While they both wanted to copy those styles in Indianapolis, putting together the offense also included combing a strong running game with an efficient passing attack.
The two can work in unison, which was exhibited in last week's win over the Titans. Rookie Vick Ballard, second-year running back Delone Carter and Brown have formed a running back by committee approach. The trio worked well together in the Tennessee win.
“Oh it does wonders for everybody. The play action passes which, [while] we haven’t got our chunks, but we’re getting chunks in the running game. And we did get a couple off the play action which keeps the quarterback a lot cleaner when you’re not dropping back in that pocket and have the bulls eye on your chest," Arians explained.
“It makes it a lot easier, especially when you’re trying to throw it down the field. It’s always a good feeling for the offensive line, and the team in general, when they can run the football. Stop the run and run the football, that’s where we want to be.”
Upon being hired by the Colts, Arians set about trying to find running plays in the offense that would best showcase Brown's talents. He went back and looked at game tape from the running back's college career, attempting to discern which type of running plays suited Brown best.
“I liked Donald coming out. I thought he was a hard downhill runner with great speed. He has shown flashes of that speed for us and I love speed," Arians said, adding that he has also been impressed by the running back's work ethic.
"He is more than a professional, he’s a top notch pro. He’s more than prepared every week. He prepares the young guys. He’s a great leader in his room and he’s an explosive player and you can’t have enough of those.”
Brown, though, is hard to type cast. Known more as a speed runner, he has also be effective at taking the football inside between the tackles.
“He has the ability to do both. As long as he’s making yards, I don’t care. The runner has to be a runner; he can’t be programmed to fit it into this box," Arians explained. "He’s got to see it, feel it. But [Brown] does have the great speed when he feels like taking it outside to outrun everybody and that’s never a bad thing."
Brown, usually quiet and reserved in the locker room and on the field, is just happy to be able to make a contribution to the Colts' success this year.
"Anybody is capable of stepping up there and making a difference. The more weapons we have, the more it helps the team and offense," he said late last week. "That’s what you work for, that’s what you hope for. When the offensive line is doing a great job like they did last Sunday, it makes my job a lot easier too.
“The offensive line is doing a great job. Just continued preparation, keep working hard. The run game, sometimes you are going to get stuffed for zero or one yard but you have to stay with it, stay confident and eventually that one-yard run is going to turn into a 20-yard run.”