Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said Wednesday Indianapolis’ inability to run the football consistently has led directly to its struggles the past two games.
Now, as they face the Tennessee Titans Sunday at the RCA Dome, the Colts might have to do their rushing this week without star running back Edgerrin James.
James, who missed a portion of last season with a left knee injury, is doubtful for Sunday’s game with Tennessee because of a right hamstring injury.
“I guess they are saying he is doubtful right now; I am not sure what that means,” Manning said. “Sounds like it is going to be a game time decision.”
Colts coach Tony Dungy also sounded skeptical about James’ chances to play on Sunday.
“His chances probably aren’t very good as we look at it right now,” Dungy said. “He’s got a strained hamstring. If he’s close to 100 percent, we’ll play him, but it’s pretty doubtful at this point. So we’re planning on going in without him.”
If James cannot go, Ricky Williams – not the Dolphins running back, but an undrafted rookie from Texas Tech – would likely get the call for Indy. He had 21 yards rushing on three carries and one catch for 20 yards off the bench last week.
“That is part of football. You prepare to play both ways, if he is going to be there or if he is not going to be there,” Manning said of James. “Obviously it is the old cliché, when one of your top players is not available, everyone else has to step their level of play up.”
“We can’t really let it change too much [of what we do],” Dungy said. “I think Ricky Williams is going to do a great job for us if he plays. We can do a lot of the same things. Obviously, he doesn’t have the experience and hasn’t done it in our offense, but he can catch the ball and can run.”
Even with James, the Colts’ rushing attack has sputtered this season, ranking 27th in yards per game. James has not rushed for more than 62 yards in the past four weeks, and the lack of a running game has bitten the Colts severely the past two games with losses to Pittsburgh and Washington.
“We have definitely struggled running the football these past few weeks. We have not run it very effectively and that is really where our offense — I don't if where it starts is the right word, but it is a big part of our offense,” Manning said. “I think we are at our best when on first down we are an equal threat to run the ball, drop back and pass or run play action. Right now I don't know if defenses feel that threat. I think defenses on first and second down are playing the pass.”
Without or without James — and Titans coach Jeff Fisher said he is preparing as if James will play — Tennessee expects the Colts to still try and establish the run some way in order to use their play action passes and the full complement of their offense.
“Even if Edgerrin is not in there, they still run the same things, and Ricky Williams came in last week and did a wonderful job,” Titans defensive end Kevin Carter said.
For the Titans, playing the pass has been their Achilles’ heel, as teams have often spread them out in sub-packages and racked up huge yardage and point totals via the passing game. It happened again in Cincinnati, even after a week of working on it during the bye.
“We’ve only had one game, and I don’t think we played to our expectations or our potential last week, and we were in our nickel and dime packages most of the ballgames,” Fisher said. “It’s become our base.”
Manning and the Colts will likely employ quite a bit of that to test the Titans. They’ve been three-wide sets considerably anyway. The Titans know all about Manning’s many talents.
“He is able to dissect opposing defenses like a biologist would a frog,” Titans defensive tackle Henry Ford said. “Peyton is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL. He is the nucleus of their offense.”
Regardless, even Manning will need some help from the rushing game. The Colts, in their past two losses, have turned the ball over six times with five of those coming via Manning interceptions.
Titans quarterback Steve McNair knows full well about the struggles of playing quarterback without a consistent running game from earlier experiences this season. It is no coincidence that since the Titans running game has gotten rolling, McNair has not thrown any interceptions.
“It’s kind of hard to go out and throw the ball 30-something times without a running game to go with it,” McNair said. “When you look at it, they’re going through the same things that we were going through early in the year. I had seven interceptions in two weeks. When the running game isn’t working, it puts a lot of pressure on a quarterback, and teams just sit back there and wait on you.”
And that is what the Colts are faced with now, says Dungy.
“That’s our challenge right now, and we’ve got to get our running game going,” Dungy said. “Had Edgerrin been healthy and 100 percent, we’ve still got to run it better.”