Saturday, September 18, 2004

Titans will test Colts' running game

The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS - There will come a time during Sunday's AFC South clash between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans in Nashville when running back Edgerrin James pops up after a carry, looks to the sideline and waves his hand.

That's Dominic Rhodes' cue.

"I always have to be ready," Rhodes said. "That's always been my role. You never know when it's your time."

James remains the indisputable focal point of the Colts' ground game. The team's career rushing leader opened his sixth season with a 30-carry, 142-yard outing at New England.

But unlike many of his previous games, James wasn't a one-man battering ram against the Patriots, and won't be as long as Rhodes is around. He provided James with an occasional breather at New England, rushing 10 times for 42 yards.

"That's pretty much how the team wants to work it out: I usually get about 10 touches and Edge gets his 30," Rhodes said. "That's a pretty good mix for everybody."

The idea behind the tag-team approach is twofold. It maximizes the talent at the disposal of coordinator Tom Moore. James is a two-time league rushing champ. Rhodes rushed for 1,104 yards in 2001 when James was felled at midseason by a knee injury. It also should ensure James is fresh for the end of games and the end of the season.

"If everybody's healthy, I'm going to come out whenever I need a breather, but I want to stay in when I'm not tired," James said. "I have to be honest in doing that."

In most cases, it's James' call. But the team also will monitor his workload during a game.

"A lot of it is when he's had a few (carries) in a row, he's able to come out," coach Tony Dungy said. "It's good that he can feel that comfortable doing that, knowing that Dominic can go in and break the big one as well."

There was a time James wasn't receptive to sharing the load, and the team obliged by riding him from start to finish. While winning consecutive league rushing titles in 1999-2000, he accounted for 98.8 percent of the rushing yards by running backs (3,262 of 3,302) and 97.5 percent of the attempts (756 of 775).

James still was a busy back in 2003. He averaged 23.8 carries, which was a notch above his per-game average of his first five seasons (22.8). But the Colts were able to function when James missed three games with a back injury, and provide him with an occasional rest by turning to Rhodes, James Mungro and Ricky Williams.

This year, Rhodes figures to be the primary understudy. He's two years removed from reconstructive surgery on his right knee that forced him to miss the 2002 season.

"Everything is awesome right now," Rhodes said. "I've got my quickness back. I've got my jukes back. I've got my power back.

"I'm able to be the back I know I can be."

The Titans will represent a solid test for the Colts' two-headed ground game. Their run defense has resided in the top five of the NFL rankings in each of the past four seasons, including No. 1 in 2003 and No. 2 in '02. They are No. 4 after allowing Miami just 65 yards on 20 carries in a 17-7 win over the Dolphins last Saturday.

Tennessee's defense hasn't allowed a running back to hit the 100-yard mark in 29 consecutive home games, the longest active streak in the league. The Titans yielded only one 100-yard game last year - to James, who gouged them for 120 yards on 30 carries in the Colts' 37-7 win in the RCA Dome. He rushed for 97 yards when the Colts completed their seasonal sweep with a 29-27 win in The Coliseum.

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