One of the feel good stories of the 2012 NFL season certainly had to be the Indianapolis Colts. Going through a period of transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck would have left many franchises marred out of contention for years to come. Rather, Luck, along with many unsung heroes, led the small-market Colts to the playoffs, shattering expectations but establishing new ones; expectations which have only been raised after an excellent free agency period and a draft which has filled a majority of the holes the team had.
One of the reasons the Colts were able to find success late in the season was the development of Vick Ballard, who earned the starting job from Donald Brown, the underachieving first-round draft pick. Brown is entering a contract year, eager for chances to perform, and will more than likely get more carries than he deserves at the third running back spot.
The Colts find themselves in a time of transition as Luck’s offensive coordinator from Stanford, Pep Hamilton, installs his “No Coast” offense in Indianapolis. The NFL itself has transitioned from a period of dominant single-back sets to the read option becoming the flavor of the month.
This year, the Colts certainly sized up their offensive line with players such as Gosder Cherilus in free agency, and guys like Khaled Holmes and Hugh Thorton in the draft. This means the Colts will likely lean towards a power running game to offset a traditional passing game such as the Green Bay Packers will attempt to establish with Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin.
And while Ballard has established himself as a solid running back, he is certain to be overshadowed by new acquisition Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a monster and hungry to once again become a prominent back on a contending team. While Ballard averaged 3.9 yards per carry his rookie year, Bradshaw has only had one year (2011) where he averaged 3.9 YPC. While Ballard averaged 8.9 yards per reception in 2012, Bradshaw was establishing himself as a versatile back in New York, where he averaged 10.7 yards per reception.
Although the NFL has morphed into a multiple-back league, Bradshaw will certainly be the “starter” with split carries. Yet, as the coaching staff looks to see what they are working with, look for Bradshaw to get some solid numbers and an opportunity to dominate against weak run defenses, facing both the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars within the first four weeks.
Another issue facing Ballard is his health. Anyone who has watched the Colts has noticed something about Ballard’s running style that can be a bit disconcerting, although certainly coachable. Last year, Ballard would usually turn his back to a defense after first contact was initiated, regardless of the situation. Although useful in gaining hard-fought yards, turning towards a defense leaves Ballard exposed to possible back, neck and head injuries in an NFL where running backs are expendable.
For the reasons listed above, namely the prescience of Brown, the arrival of Bradshaw and flawed mechanics, Ballard’s race to a 1000-yard season will have to wait. But barring any extreme change of heart, Ballard should be just fine as the Colts continue to climb the Power Rankings and drive further into the playoffs for years to come
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