Bruce Arians is known for tutoring young quarterbacks. Peyton Manning, Tim Couch, Ben Roethlisberger and now Andrew Luck have all benefited from Arians' instruction. Arians has also developed another reputation over the years, one for having a running back who can move the chains in a game's waning moments, enabling a team with the lead to salt away the victory.
Vick Ballard is the latest incarnation of that role in Bruce Arians' offense with the Indianapolis Colts. Ballard wasn't heralded coming out of Mississippi State in the fifth round of this year's draft, but he's quickly becoming one of the most dependable late game backs in the NFL.
Arians' prototypical running back isn't necessarily a 1000 yard rusher or a guy with track speed who can beat defenders to the edge. Arians' MO over the years has been to use smaller, but sturdier backs who possess the ability to run effectively between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield.
In Cleveland, Arians had an undrafted back out of South Dakota named Jamel White. In three years operating in Arians' offense, White amasses nearly 2500 yards from scrimmage and scored 11 touchdowns. There weren't a lot of victories to put away in those early years with the new Cleveland Browns, but White was Arians' "go-to" back when he needed tough yardage or a third down conversion.
When he moved on to Pittsburgh, Arians found a stable of capable backs and a head coach in Mike Tomlin as committed to running the football as he was. In 2008, the Steelers signed Mewelde Moore as a free agent. The 5'11" 210 pound Moore would be Arians' perfect fit for the role of moving the chains.
In his four seasons as a Steeler, Moore picked up over 1700 yards in total offense and scored nine touchdowns. He was a major dual threat for the Steelers on third downs and in the red zone. He often drew single coverage from linebackers which either resulted in a mismatch for Moore or, if they used a safety or corner to account for Moore, prevented double coverage on Heath Miller or an inside receiver.
Arians sees Ballard developing into a back with similar skills, but also sees more potential for him than just being a third down back.
“He’s powerful. He’s a poor man’s Edge (Edgerrin James). He’s bowlegged like Edge and he’s about the same size and tough to bring down. He’s quick, he’s elusive, doesn’t have the great, great speed but he can make the first guy miss and he’s going to make a lot of yards because he makes people miss. He’s got a great future, stay healthy.”
Ballard came into the season playing behind incumbents Donald Brown and Delone Carter. But with both Carter and Brown missing time with injuries, Ballard has made the most of his opportunity to be the Colts' featured back.
Ballard has gradually seen his number of touches increase since the beginning of the season. This past week against Tennessee, he carried 19 times for 94 yards, 82 of which came in the second half. With the Colts leading 27-23 and 2:42 left in the game, Arians put the ball in Ballard's hands to put the game away. Ballard picked up 24 yards on three rushes, and combined with TE Dwayne Allen's first down catch, burned the remaining Titans' timeouts as well as the two-minute warning. That's textbook Bruce Arians football.
Whether Ballard continues to be the Colts' featured back or not going forward depends largely on Donald Brown's situation. Brown will continue to get his share of the carries going forward (if healthy). Brown is a free agent, however, after the season. Whether or not the Colts make a play to sign him will tell us a lot about how they feel about Ballard's ability to be an every down back.
Whether Ballard becomes the next Edgerrin James or the next Mewelde Moore, it's clear this quiet, unassuming young man from Pascagoula, MS has a bright future in the NFL.
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