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Which team will run with its opportunity?
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.In the wake of the Colts' win over the Jets in the AFC title game, Indy's much-criticized running game was credited with keeping the vaunted New York defense just honest enough to let Peyton Manning work his magic.
For the record, the Colts ran for all of 101 yards and none of their four touchdowns came via the ground.
Meanwhile, Reggie Bush's eye-catching performance during New Orleans' divisional-round win over Arizona — in which he had both a 46-yard touchdown run and an 83-yard punt return for a score — has helped turn him into a Super Bowl week darling.
At the same time, that single game has conveniently obscured the fact that the former No. 2 overall pick was the Saints' third-leading rusher in the regular season and the Houston Texans weren't being mocked quite so much for taking Mario Williams ahead of Bush.
It's safe to say the bar's been lowered a little bit for both teams' running games heading into Super Bowl XLIV.
"For me to tell you that's a figment of someone's imagination, that's not the case," Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said, talking only about his own team's rushing attack. "It's an area we know needs improving, we work on constantly and an area of emphasis."
Perhaps it's to be expected when you've got All-World quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees directing the No. 2 and No. 4-ranked passing offenses, respectively. It certainly doesn't help that the Colts are attempting to become the first team in NFL history to lift the Lombardi Trophy despite ranking last in the regular season in rushing offense. And maybe a little spin is necessary to gloss over just the fourth Super Bowl since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule (not including a pair of strike-shortened seasons) in 1978 that didn't feature a 1,000-yard rusher on either team.
But while Sunday is widely expected to turn into a Manning-Brees shootout, either team's ability to effectively establish the run could prove crucial to the final outcome.
With the Saints looking to lay a few "remember me" hits on Manning — per defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' quasi-controversial marching orders — the Colts would do well not to rely entirely on Manning's quick release and preternatural ability to avoid pressure to keep their quarterback out of harm's way and their offense moving.
That's where Joseph Addai comes in.
The four-year veteran was fresh out of LSU when the Colts took on the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. After leading all rookie rushers during the regular season with 1,081 yards, Addai played a key role during Indy's 29-17 win, running for 77 yards and hauling in a Super Bowl-record (for running backs) 10 passes.
Since then, however, he has heard the critics' voices grow steadily louder where the Colts' running game was concerned. But he remains convinced that when he is needed Sunday, he'll be ready to deliver.
"When coach calls our number, we do answer," Addai said. "We understand it's more of a passing offense, but when it's time for us to do what we have to do, we do answer."
Answering the call when it comes — more so than putting up huge numbers — is what the Colts are looking for from their running game Sunday.
"It goes back to efficiency," Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore said. "In other words, I don’t know how many yards we're going to get running. It really doesn't make any difference. The real thing is being efficient and that’s in your run game or your pass game. That's what you're striving for. All the numbers take care of themselves at the end of the game."
While the Colts will likely use Addai and rookie backup Donald Brown just enough to keep the Saints from throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Manning, the Saints actually have a genuine matchup advantage to exploit when it comes to running the football.
Indianapolis boasts the 24th-ranked defense against the run. And while injured Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney is primarily known as a pass-rush specialist, he's also deceptively tough against the run and his presence would be missed there as well. That could open the door for the Saints, who actually possess a strong running game.
When most people think of the Saints, the first thing that typically comes to mind is Brees and the team's multifaceted aerial attack. But New Orleans had the sixth-best rushing offense in the league during the regular season, running for 131.6 yards a game behind the three-headed monster of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Bush. And they apparently plan on taking full advantage of that advantage Sunday.
"When we get the ball in our hands, it’s our job to set the tone, and we’re going to have to do that on Sunday," Bush said. "We can’t allow the Indianapolis Colts to slow down our running attack, because we need a balanced attack to win this game. If you look back, the teams who have won the Super Bowl, they ran the ball well. When the Steelers won it, they ran the ball well. We have to run the ball well if we want to even have a fighting chance to win this game.”
There's another benefit for New Orleans if they're able to establish an effective ground game: Peyton Manning will be on the sideline.
Manning proved earlier this season that he doesn't need the ball for very long to deliver the Colts to victory; Indy had the ball for just 15 minutes of their Week 2 win over the Dolphins. But when you consider that Manning is the most significant advantage the Colts possess in this contest, the fewer chances he's given, the better it will be for the Saints.
"You definitely want to keep him on the sidelines, because he's an outstanding player," Thomas said. "The things he does out there are just unbelievable."
You better believe he is. Just like you better believe that before it's all said and done, the running game is going to matter.
No spin necessary.