INDIANAPOLIS – For critics counting Jonathan Taylor’s second-half reps, the Indianapolis Colts have made it elementary school-easy the last two games.
There were five snaps after halftime in Sunday’s loss to Baltimore.
And there were six in the second half the previous week at Detroit.
More to the point, the high-profile second-round draft pick essentially has been a non-factor in terms of doing what he does best, which is run with the football and wear down defenses with his game-breaking, power style as a game unfolds. Taylor had one carry for no gain in the final two quarters against the Lions and one for a 1-yard gain against the Ravens following a crippling first-quarter fumble.
So, what’s up?
“It’s definitely a different role for him,’’ coach Frank Reich said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call.
In three years at Wisconsin, Taylor was a game-after-game workhorse while establishing himself as one of the most prolific backs in FBS history. He piled up 6,174 yards – 6th all-time – and did so by averaging 22.6 carries in his 42 games. He logged at least 20 carries 28 times and took at least 30 handoffs on four occasions.
“I know he wants the ball 30 times a game like you got in college,’’ Reich said, “but he’s willing to play the role that he’s in right now and grow into it.
“Very confident it’s going to work out for Jonathan in the long run.’’
But in the short term, Taylor is a spoke in the wheel, not the focal point.
And his role in the backs-by-committee approach recently has diminished. After being on the field for 58.7% of the offensive snaps in the week 7 win over Cincinnati, he’s experienced the two least-active games of his rookie season: 33.8% against the Lions, 30.9% against the Ravens.
At Detroit, Taylor’s lackluster first half – 10 carries, 22 yards – convinced Reich and position coach Tom Rathman to go with the “hot hand,’’ which was Jordan Wilkins. He finished with 89 yards on 20 carries, both career highs.
Against the Ravens, Taylor seemed on the verge of a solid afternoon. He skirted left end for 11 yards on the game’s opening play, then picked up 2 yards on a screen from Philip Rivers. After 3- and 2-yard runs, Taylor gave the Colts a 7-0 lead when he went over the top of the defense for a 1-yard TD.
There was more – 9 yards around the right side – before Taylor lost his first fumble of the season while fighting for extra yards. Baltimore safety Chuck Clark returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.
Taylor would remain in the running backs rotation – five snaps before halftime, six in the second half – but would only have one more rushing attempt. He spent his time either as part of the pass protection scheme or running a route out of the backfield.
Against Baltimore, Nyheim Hines handled 14 snaps and Wilkins nine. At Detroit, Wilkins dominated the second-half action with 22 snaps.
Reich hasn’t discussed the new role or recent diminished reps with Taylor, leaving that to Rathman.
“I know Rath has had that conversation with him and is talking to him all the time,’’ he said. “Jonathan, as you guys know, is the real deal, not only as far as a player but as a person.
“It’s just part of the process of becoming a pro, and thankful for him.’’
Reich and Rivers insisted their confidence in Taylor hasn’t wavered one iota.
“I have a lot of confidence in a lot of our backs,’’ Reich said, adding, “you have to prove it all the time.’’
Added Rivers: “Jonathan is going to be great. He’s doing fine. We’ve all fumbled. We’ve all thrown interceptions, obviously. We’ve all made plays we want back.
“He’ll be just fine. He can push though this little bump in the road for him individually, but by no means is there any lost confidence of him by anybody in this locker room. We’re going to need him to continue to be a heck of a player moving forward.’’
If the past few weeks are weighing on him, Taylor is doing a good job of hiding it. He noted his career at Wisconsin and Badgers’ coach John Settle prepared him for whatever would come in the NFL.
“Coach Settle would always say, ‘Don’t count the reps, make the reps count,’’’ Taylor said. “Especially in a league like this, when you get opportunities in order to make a play . . . you have to capitalize on them.’’
Also, if Taylor is unable to capitalize, there’s a good chance Wilkins or Hines will.
“The beauty about this thing is everyone here at highest level of football are really good football players,’’ he said. “No matter if it’s your number being called or someone else’s number being called, they are more than capable of being able to make the play, to make a big play.’’
The Colts envisioned Taylor and veteran Marlon Mack forming a potent “one-one’’ punch. That lasted less than one quarter. Mack suffered a season-ending Achilles injury 8 minutes into the opener at Jacksonville.
Even though Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni haven’t leaned as heavily on Taylor as they would have Mack, Taylor still has made strides.
He leads the team with 106 attempts, 416 yards and four TDs. Among NFL rookies, Taylor is 3rd in rushing and 5th in total yards from scrimmage (594). The only rookies with more rushing yards: Kansas City’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire (586) and Jacksonville’s James Robinson (580).
Taylor pointed to the progress he’s made in his first season, especially considering how the loss of Mack forced a dramatic shift in approach.
“Of course coming in I wasn’t expecting to have the kind of role or being put in position I’m put in right now,’’ he said. “We dearly, dearly miss Marlon. But having to adjust into a role I’m in right now, it’s been kind of skewed, especially the circumstances of coming in without any offseason reps besides virtual.
“It’s really learning on the fly.’’
Taylor has leaned heavily on advice from his older teammates “every single day giving me bits and pieces and nuggets of knowledge and information so that I don’t have to learn that on the fly.
“Coming in, you knew it was going to be a challenge. It’s the highest level of football. Definitely didn’t come in thinking it was going to be easy at all, and it’s definitely lived up to the hype.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.
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