This is Part 4 in my 10-Part Second-Year Running Back Series. For the Lamar Miller, David Wilson, and Bryce Brown writeups, click here:
A fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State, Ballard opened his rookie year as the Colts' change-of-pace back behind Donald Brown. When Brown suffered a Week 5 knee injury that required surgery, Ballard took over as Indy's feature runner and never relinquished the role. He went on to rank fourth among all rookies in carries (211) and fifth in rushing yards (814). While offensive line play deserves its share of blame, the run game was Indianapolis' weak link all season. The Colts ranked 22nd in rushing, 25th in yards-per-carry average (3.80), and 30th in 20-plus-yard runs (5).
For a piece like this, I think it's important to be completely transparent about any preconceived opinions. I had a somewhat sour taste in my mouth about Ballard once the season ended. I watched him consistently during the year and thought he lacked special qualities as a runner. Ballard failed to demonstrate big-play ability, and gave Indianapolis' rushing attack little juice.
I also think it's important to isolate running back performance from line play, which obviously can be difficult when a front five allows frequent penetration. So I didn't hold it against Ballard when J.J. Watt butterknifed through the Indianapolis line and buried him in the backfield. The 2012 Colts' most common O-Line read, from left to right, LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Joe Reitz, C Samson Satele, RG Mike McGlynn, and RT Winston Justice. Only Castonzo and Satele will return as 2013 starters. This was a very weak unit and GM Ryan Grigson knew it.
Based on my attempt to isolate Ballard's play from that of his blockers, these were my observations after re-watching and charting his four heaviest workloads of the season. They were Week 7 vs. Cleveland, Week 16 at Kansas City, Week 17 vs. Houston, and the Colts' Wild Card Round loss to Baltimore. All in all, I reviewed 93 Ballard touches.
Schematically, it stood out that playcaller Bruce Arians liked to run out of single-back sets with three receivers on the field. The 2012 Colts were not an I-formation team. They rarely used a lead blocker, and when they did it was usually tight end Dwayne Allen. The single-back, three-wide look ("11 personnel") isn't necessarily a running-friendly package. Ballard handled 66 of the 93 touches (71.0 percent) I charted in single-back sets. Since Arians is now in Arizona and Indy will play more two-tight end offense under new coordinator Pep Hamilton, this fact may be more relevant for Rashard Mendenhall than Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw in forward-thinking terms.
Strictly as a runner, Ballard came off as a try-hard back who could get what was blocked but didn't give the Colts a whole lot more. He is an inside grinder with plus vision, capable of identifying cutback lanes and using foot quickness to exploit them. In most cases, a team's usage of a player tells you a lot about the strengths and weaknesses the team perceives in that player. Ballard lacks speed to beat second- and third-level defenders to the corner, so Arians rarely used him on the edge. Of the 89 carries I charted, I noted just eight (9.0 percent) as designed "outside" runs. Ballard received two toss sweeps, and was stuffed for one yard on each.
Ballard could add yardage to inside runs if cutback opportunities opened. If not, he wasn't going to turn in chain-moving gains unless the run blocking in front of him was effective.
Ballard does run with some wiggle and shiftiness, and can make himself skinny in the hole. He is an athletic-looking, seemingly smart player with grit. Ballard consistently finished runs by driving into defenders and keeping his body north-south. In that respect, he didn't leave much yardage on the field. On the rare occasions Ballard was sprung out into the open, he didn't even try to make defenders miss, ostensibly realizing his own limitations. He was satisfied to simply fall forward.
Ultimately, Ballard's run talent is not in the same ballpark as fellow rising second-year backs Lamar Miller, David Wilson, and Bryce Brown. Beyond 290-plus-pound linemen, there aren't many NFL defenders Ballard is capable of out-running. Ballard can't stick his foot in the ground and explode upfield with acceleration. He is a measured, methodical back who relies on vision and patience, and earns playing time by staying reliably assignment sound.
As a rookie, Ballard demonstrated an ability to handle significant workloads and perform in a workmanlike manner. Even if his pass protection wasn't consistently stout, the Colts' coaching staff trusted Ballard to perform in those situations and by the end of the season he was being employed as a legitimate every-down running back. Ballard is slippery enough to avoid big blows. He is capable of functioning as a volume runner, but at the same time is volume dependent in the sense that Ballard is a pedestrian talent lacking big-play skills.
I think it's pretty clear Ahmad Bradshaw will be the Colts' lead runner so long as his troublesome feet cooperate. Superior in pass pro with more quick-twitch running ability, Bradshaw is an upgrade on Ballard in virtually every area. Ballard looks to me like a player who can operate passably in a temporary spot starter's role, but long term would be best utilized as a No. 2 NFL back.