Friday, March 26, 2010 Updated: March 27, 7:45 PM ET
Tip Sheet: Colts must get bigger
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
The Colts have more than enough weapons at WR. It's in the backfield where they need help.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Questioned at his Tuesday morning breakfast with the media here about how he might employ the recovering Anthony Gonzalez in 2010 with a three-wide-receiver formation that already includes four-time Pro Bowl performer Reggie Wayne and emerging young standouts Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, Jim Caldwell replied with equal parts aplomb and sarcasm.
"We may use four wideouts," said the Indianapolis Colts' second-year coach, laughing, and noting the continuing but on-time rehabilitation of Gonzalez, the former first-round choice who was limited to one game in 2009 because of a knee injury. "I mean, it's one of our strengths, right? But, no, seriously."
Seriously, the Colts will attempt to win one more playoff game than in 2009 during this coming season, perhaps by subjugating one of their longtime strengths for, well, some more strength.
The Colts, who finished last in the NFL in rushing offense in 2009 and haven't rated in the top half of the league since 2005 or the top 10 since 2001, already have signaled their intentions by releasing left guard and line mainstay Ryan Lilja. Although he ranked second in starts among the 20 guards who started at least one game in the Peyton Manning era, the six-year veteran also weighs only 290 pounds, and the new-look Colts are seeking more muscle for their running game in 2010.
Blistering speed is out, and bullying, it seems, is the new goal.
Caldwell, who led his team to a league-best 14-2 record in his first season, hinted more moves could be on the way. The Colts, he broadly suggested, could revamp a unit that has long relied on a smaller and quicker profile but has become outmoded (if not quite overwhelmed) in the bigger-is-better NFL of recent seasons. Indianapolis, which has essentially used a one-back, three-wideout base package highlighting the abilities of Manning, might even add a classic, lead-blocking fullback in 2010, Caldwell said. Certainly there will be more girth at both the guard spots and at left tackle, and Indianapolis will try to improve its average of 3.5 yards per rush, next-to-worst in 2009.
Said Caldwell: "We don't have to be the best [at running the ball]. We've just got to get up to average."
Bigger Is Better?
The Indianapolis offensive line, according to NFL coach-supplied figures, averaged 303.2 pounds in 2009, and only four units were lighter. Here is a look at the 10 heaviest line units, by average, and where they ranked in rushing offense for the '09 season:
But even that won't be so easy, given the track records of offenses that have ranked last in the NFL in rushing for the past decade. Since 2002, when the league went to a 32-team format, only one club ranked last in rushing offense one season and rose to the top half of the league the next year. That was Kansas City, which jumped to No. 16 in 2007 after finishing No. 32 the previous season.
Only three franchises finished last one season and ascended into the top 20 the next year.
Indianapolis was not only last in rushing yards per game (80.9) in 2009 and 31st in average yards per run, but was 29th in runs of 20 or more yards (six) and last in rushing first downs (69). The Colts were mediocre on third-and-short and experienced difficulties in the red zone, but they did finish 12th in touchdowns on the ground (16). The running-game woes seemed to crystallize in Super Bowl XLIV, when tailback Mike Hart failed to convert a critical third-and-1 run late in the first half.
For Manning to be more effective, if that's possible, the Colts have to take some pressure off the four-time most valuable player and put him in fewer positions where the game's outcome is on his shoulders. Caldwell alluded to former offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who will serve as a consultant his year, and noted Moore's rationale that it didn't matter what a defense did, as long as the Indianapolis offense had the last say. For 2010, the Colts plan to give Manning more say-so, but in different ways.
"We definitely have to give him some more help," said owner Jim Irsay, who reiterated his Super Bowl remarks that a new contract is in the offing for Manning this spring.
That could mean that Indianapolis, which has invested two of its past three first-round choices on tailbacks, adds a blocking fullback in the draft. It could mean that first-year offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars places more emphasis on moving defenders off the line of scrimmage than did his predecessor, the retired Howard Mudd, who placed a high value on Manning's protection. It could mean that the Colts, who haven't used a first-round choice on an offensive lineman since tabbing tackle Tarik Glenn in 1997, will select a massive blocker with the 31st selection in the opening round.
Only six of the 10 heaviest line units ranked in the top half of the league in rushing in 2009, but the Colts' brain trust seems to feel that more muscle will provide the offense more oomph in the ground game.
Still, as Caldwell noted, it probably also means more commitment to the run in general, and more emphasis on doing the little things better, even if some little things are considerably bigger in 2010. Make no mistake: It means more size.
"We don't want to do a [wholesale] about-face," said Caldwell, who, despite making it to the Super Bowl in his first season, never attracted more than five media visitors during Tuesday's one-hour session. "That's not us. We want the same approach. We just want to do it better, that's all."
And do it bigger, too, in 2010.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.