Despite Jonathan Taylor’s sustained greatness, Colts need more from Carson Wentz, passing game

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – In one regard, Jonathan Taylor has elevated himself into that rarified Peyton Manning air.

During his prolific career as the face and catalyst of the Indianapolis Colts, Manning routinely cranked out 300-yard, three-TD games. He normalized the abnormal.

Yawn. Is that it?

It’s with a much smaller sample size, but that’s what we’re getting with Taylor.

He leads the NFL in rushing with a franchise-record 1,734 yards and in total yards from scrimmage with 2,076 yards, but his last two games have been very un-Taylor-like.

In Glendale, Ariz. against the Cardinals: 108 yards on 27 carries.

Last Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders: 108 yards on 20 attempts. In his previous six games, Taylor averaged 144.8 and rattled off games of 172, 185 and 170.

Just 108 in each of his last two games?

Yawn.

“I’m sure people feel like, ‘Is that all? Is that all you got for us?’’’ Frank Reich said with a smile.

Continued greatness has a way of numbing everyone to what they’re watching.

And let’s not kid ourselves, we’re watching a season of sustained greatness.

It hasn’t been that long ago Edgerrin James, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who’s watching Taylor eclipse his records, texted Taylor. It was concise: 2K Vision.

The one-time Colts’ combustible back urged the current version to pursue 2,000 yards. But more to the point, James advised Taylor to ride this wave to its fullest.

“Seize the moment,’’ he said.

Nyheim Hines offered similar counsel.

He’s shared the meeting room and practice fields with Taylor. He’s been on the sidelines and often in the same huddle with him on game day. He’s seen the commitment put in and effort extended. He’s watched the yards pile up.

Earlier this week, Hines’ advice mirrored James’

“I think I told him ‘You never know if you’re going to have another year like this,’’’ he said. “It’s remarkable: 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Anytime you do 2,000 yards for anything, it’s remarkable.

“It’s been a great team effort, but it’s been a great individual effort and I’m glad that it’s been highlighted. Even been here watching it, I’ve never seen anything like it with my own two eyes.’’

Taylor is the first Colt since James in 2000 to lead the league in rushing. He’s just the fourth player in team history to breach the 2,000-yard level in yards from scrimmage, joining three Hall of Famers: James, Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson.

Reich marvels at the ability of Taylor and the Colts’ run game to operate at such a high level over the course of the season. He’s averaging 5.5 yards on his league-high 317 attempts, which will be 3rd-best in team history.

“I promise you, (defenses) are stacking the box against him,’’ Reich said. “You play against JT and everybody in the whole defense is getting up, is getting emotionally up to play one of the potential MVPs of the league.”

“We’re getting not only their best effort as far as scheme and loading the box, but we’re getting their best effort physically and emotionally: ‘Are we going to be the team that can shut this guy down?’ So for him to still be going over 100 yards, for him to still be getting 5 yards a carry, that’s a pretty big deal in my mind.’’

But.

The Colts need more than Taylor’s greatness if they’re going to make any type of impact in the playoffs. Providing, that is, they work themselves into the playoffs. Unable to secure an AFC wild-card spot last Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, they can maximize their mulligan with a season-ending victory Sunday at Jacksonville.

The more the Colts need involves the Carson Wentz-led passing game.

“For us to go where we want to go,’’ Reich said, “there’s going to need to be better balance.’’

Anyone who has paid attention to Reich, general manager Chris Ballard and All-Pro guard Quenton “Run the Damn Ball” Nelson understands the Colts’ identity involves an aggressive, physical offensive line that allows Taylor and Hines – and Marlon Mack in 2018-19 before his torn Achilles – to pound and pierce defenses.

Since Reich’s arrival in 2018, the Colts’ run game ranks 5th in the NFL (129.5 yards per game). It’s No. 2 as they head to Jacksonville (152.9), which would be their highest ranking since 1983 (2nd, 168.4 per-game average).

The passing game? It’s been hot and cold all season, and lately has mirrored the weather.

“It is a week-by-week thing,’’ said Wentz. “Obviously we want it to be dynamic and elite every single week. Some weeks it is, some weeks it’s not.”

“We need to get back to this dynamic offense. Obviously our run game is our identity and what we do, but we’ve got to be dynamic off of that. I feel like we’ve missed some things there. I’ve missed some things, got to be better there.’’

Exhibit A: Early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Raiders. With a 17-13 lead and facing a third-and-10 at his own 23, Wentz badly overthrew a wide-open T.Y. Hilton down the left sideline. It’s debatable whether Hilton would have avoided a closing defender and galloped for a 77-yard TD. At worst, he would have broken off the type of explosive play that’s been missing for the better part of two months.

Exhibit B: After leading that dynamic passing game over the first nine games of the season – 244.2 yards per game, 7.3 yards per attempt, 11.6 yards per completion – Wentz has experienced a decided decline. His averages over the last seven: 168.9 yards per game, 6.3 per attempt, 10.3 per completion.

Exhibit C: In the first nine games, Wentz generated 28 pass plays that gained at least 20 yards. In the last seven, there have only been 12. And that includes the fluky 45-yard TD to Hilton against the Raiders that ricocheted off two Las Vegas DBs and wideout Ashton Dulin.

In a league obsessed with analytics, one involving the QB is among the most telling: yards per attempt.

“I haven’t liked where it’s been trending,’’ Reich admitted. “You guys know, there used to be a time where that was the stat for me. The win correlation with yards per attempt is pretty high when you start looking at individual stats.”

“We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to scheme it better. We’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities that we have to get that yards per attempt up to where it needs to be.’’

Those opportunities should be fewer as long as the Colts remain as run-centric as they’ve been. After averaging 26.5 attempts and 122 yards over the first eight games, the offense has averaged 33.6 and a robust 183.8 over the last eight.

Wentz has had his moments. Against Arizona and in the second quarter against Tampa Bay he was 31-of-46 for 401 yards (8.7 yards per attempt), five TDs, no interceptions and a 130.8 rating.

But in the other 15 quarters since the week 13 loss to the Bucs, he’s 51-of-87 for 493 yards (5.6 yards per attempt) with three TDs, three interceptions and a 71.7 rating.

Wentz has done it before, and undoubtedly will have to do it again at some point.

“I have a lot of confidence and faith in him,’’ Reich said. “He has a knack for plays, he can extend plays, he can make all the throws, he can push the ball down the field, he’s incredibly mark so he understands and recognizes coverages.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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