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Surprising team’s ground game takes on added importance

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When opportunity first knocked, Vick Ballard didn’t exactly throw open the door.

He barely cracked it open.

Through the Indianapolis Colts’ first five games, the rookie running back carried 29 times for 67 yards and a dismal 2.3-yard average — totals that did nothing to enhance his standing in a backfield in desperate need of fortifying.

Fortunately for Ballard, he had a true believer in interim coach Bruce Arians, who never doubted the fifth-round draft pick’s ability to be THE guy to carry the Colt’s ground game.

As reflected by recent performances, Ballard is starting to justify Arians’ confidence.

One of the few bright spots in Sunday’s 29-17 loss at Houston, Ballard ran for a career-high 105 yards and has rushed for a combined 353 yards in the past five games. He has averaged 4.7 yards per carry during the stretch and firmly established himself as the Colts’ feature back — not only this season, but possibly beyond.

“Oh, there’s never been any doubt in my mind. I’ve always thought that from when we brought him in,” Arians said. “I think everyone is starting to see it now, that he’s a guy that can tote the ball the whole game.”

For the most part, it’s a role a Ballard has filled since Oct. 21, when he carried 20 times for 84 yards during a 17-13 win against the visiting Cleveland Browns. The occasion marked the first time he had double-digit attempts and topped 25 yards.

Since then, the unheralded player from Mississippi State has had double-figure carries in all but one game and has averaged 4.0-plus yards per attempt in all but two of those outings.

Although the numbers aren’t gaudy, they are encouraging in light of circumstances. Ballard operates behind a patchwork offensive line in an offense built around the right arm of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

Yet Ballard has provided just enough of a spark in a backfield that lacked fire and a clear No. 1 runner, in the first five games this season to help position the Colts (9-5) for the playoffs.

Indianapolis can clinch the postseason with a win Sunday at Kansas City (2-14).

“It is very important. Our coaches talk about we don’t want to sit back and wait for somebody else to lose to probably increase our chances to make it,” Ballard said. “We want to handle our business.

“We didn’t get it done this past week, so this coming week we want to accomplish that.”

Ballard’s contributions in recent weeks have made the Colts’ offense a bit less reliant on Luck and the passing which, in turn, has eased some of the pressure on Luck.

Ballard has rushed for a combined 199 yards the past two games, including 94 during a 27-23 win against visiting Tennessee on Dec. 16 — the same opponent against whom he first made a name for himself, and highlight reels, after converting a 16-yard pass from Luck into a game-winning headfirst dive into the end zone during a 19-13 road win on Oct. 28.

The Colts have leaned heavily on the young back ever since.

“He’s been steady all year, but I think he’s just getting stronger as the season’s gone on, (grown) more comfortable, more confident,” Luck said. “He’s a heck of a back. He does a great job of making guys miss in confined spaces.

“He just keeps getting better.”

Because of the outcome, Ballard exacted no personal satisfaction from the last week’s 100-yard performance, the first of his career. But he looks forward to doing it during a win, which he is confident will happen at Kansas City.

He’s already forgotten about doing it during a loss.

“Twenty-four hour rule. Win, lose or draw, you know that last game is over with,” Ballard said. “You’ve got to look forward to the next week, and we are going to come in and get ready for Kansas City so we can hopefully give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs.”

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