Colts taking the reins off Frank Gore

Frank Gore hadn’t had 28 carries in an NFL game since 2011, back when he was a mere 28 years old and in his seventh pro season.

He did it again last week against the Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts running back finishing with 83 hard-earned yards against one of the NFL’s stoutest and hardest-hitting defenses.

So, naturally, several questions had to be asked: How did it feel? How deep was the bruising? How painful was the soreness? How long was the recovery? Gore politely interrupts.

“I don’t get hit,” he said, practically amused by the line of questioning. “They can’t really hit me (with) a clean shot. I guess I’ve just been blessed.”

This is one of the things Gore sees as a secret to his success, his uncanny ability to avoid the kind of frequent, bone-crushing hits that ensure running backs have maybe the shortest life spans of NFL players. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, whose team hosts the Colts on Sunday (1 p.m., CBS), said it’s a product of Gore’s unbelievable vision.

This is also, perhaps, the reason the Colts can entertain the idea of unleashing Gore a bit. He’s been restricted to this point by what coach Chuck Pagano has described as a pitch count, an undisclosed number of carries the Colts would like to limit Gore to this season.

But circumstances have changed. The Colts are 4-5. They’re barely holding onto first place in their terrible division. And, by the way, their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck, is out for an undetermined length of time with a lacerated kidney.

This does not feel like the time to place limitations on one of the team’s most productive offensive players. Prudence is an admirable quality – and it’s what led the Colts to institute modest workload limits on their 32-year-old runner in the first place.

Then again, what’s that saying about desperate times and desperate measures?

“If he’s rolling like that,” Pagano said Wednesday, “and we’re staying balanced and he feels good, we’re going to do what we have to do to win the ball game.”

That’s a clear indication the Colts are willing to break with their adherence to the limits initially placed on Gore. It’s also a direct contradiction of Pagano’s earlier statements on this topic.

Here’s what he said on the subject days before the season opener in September: “We’ve got to be smart with the amount of carries. He’s going to want to play every snap… I think we all know that we can’t do that. We need him. It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. So, we’ve got him on a pitch count and we’re going to stick to it.”

The addition of backup running back Ahmad Bradshaw to the roster last month reduces some of the load on Gore, so the Colts don’t necessarily have to get too far out of proportion with Gore’s carries. Bradshaw is operating as the third-down back right now, giving the Colts good pass protection but also reliable hands as a receiver, if needed.

But the Colts’ running game starts and ends with Gore. The lack of a consistent running game the past couple of seasons prompted General Manager Ryan Grigson to make Gore a prime free agent target, and the move is paying off. Gore, with 599 yards through nine games, is on pace to become the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Joseph Addai in 2007. It would be Gore’s fifth consecutive season achieving the 1,000-yard threshold.

But Gore doesn’t come off as the sort of guy who knows his numbers. He’s more interested in winning. If you don’t believe that, you should have a conversation with him in the locker room after a loss, when his emotions are at their rawest.

What Gore is aware of, however, is that the Colts had their most balanced offensive performance of the season before their bye last weekend. Against the Broncos, the Colts had 34 called runs versus 43 pass dropbacks. Their 40 total rushing attempts were a season high.

“I think playing the game of football should be like that,” Gore said. “It helps the defense control the clock, puts us in better situations, puts the passing game in a better situation, so I think that probably was (our) best offensive game.”

Across the locker room, Bradshaw joined in the chorus.

“I believe in setting the tone every game,” he said. “When I was raised up, we played smash-mouth, power football. Know what I mean? That’s what I try to do when I touch the ball. I feel like the running backs can take a lot of pressure off the quarterback.”

Speaking of which, 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck could use the help. He hasn’t made more than two consecutive starts since 2012. Now, he faces the potential of starting an undetermined number of games because Luck’s absence could last as long as six weeks.

“There’s a bigger role for everybody considering the circumstances,” Pagano said.

Especially Gore. And he’s ready. Remember, they can’t hit him. He feels just fine.

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