INDIANAPOLIS – There will be occasions when Carson Wentz carries the day.
He passed for a career-high 402 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime loss at Baltimore, and everyone remembers those 26 consecutive drop-backs in the loss to Tampa Bay. He’s tied a career-best with a 100-plus passer rating in seven games, has 22 touchdowns against just five interceptions, and had a six-game stretch where he delivered at least two TD passes in each.
And in case you’ve forgotten, the NFL remains a quarterback-driven venture.
The Indianapolis Colts aren’t exactly an outlier, but neither are they conformists.
Listen to Frank Reich.
“What matters to me is that our DNA – our identity from day 1 when I got here from the last place I was at – (is) we’re going to run the football,’’ he said. “That’s what I believe offensively as a team you have to be able to do to win consistently in this league.
“I’m not saying there is not ever roster dynamics that could make it otherwise, but the idea coming in was we want to be able to run the football.’’
That’s been Reich’s MO.
“I know what it feels like to be on a team that can run the football,’’ he said. “I’ve experienced that my whole life as a quarterback and as a coach.’’
As offensive coordinator of the 2017 Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, Reich relied on the NFL’s No. 3-ranked run game.
During his formative years as the Buffalo Bills’ backup quarterback, he was part of an up-tempo offense that was viewed as pass-happy, but in fact was routinely one of the league’s most prolific on the ground. It ranked in the top 10 from 1988-95, and was No. 1 in 1991-92.
“It’s a powerful thing to be able to run the ball,’’ Reich said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean 50 times or 200 yards. It just means you can run the ball when you want to run the ball, and you can run it effectively.
“I really think if you want to be a truly dynamic offense, which we want to be, you have to be able to execute in both areas. We’re always striving (for) that, but for us, we always say the foundation for that is the run game.’’
The man has put his game plan where his mouth is. Consider:
- The Colts have rushed for at least 200 yards in a regular-season game 31 times since their relocation in 1984. Ten have come in the last four seasons on Reich’s watch. That includes four of the top seven and five of the top 11. It’s no coincidence they’re 29-2 in those games.
- Three of the top 11 rushing games since ’84 have come this season: 264 yards at Buffalo, 260 against the New York Jets and 238 at Houston.
- Jonathan Taylor leads the league in rushing (1,348), yards from scrimmage (1,684), rushing touchdowns (16) and total touchdowns (18).
- Taylor set the franchise’s single-game record with 253 yards against Jacksonville in the 2020 regular-season finale.
- Marlon Mack set the team’s single-game playoff record with 148 yards at Houston in a 2018 first-round game at Houston, which was part of a team postseason-record 200 yards.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly traces the Colts’ run-centric approach to a week 7 meeting with Buffalo in 2018. They had staggered to a 1-5 start in Reich’s first season, but finally seemed to embrace that DNA Reich mentioned.
“Very distinctive game,’’ Kelly said. “On record, we weren’t very good. I think we put (37) on them.
“That was really what changed the mindset for this team.’’
The Colts pounded the Bills into submission: 220 yards on 37 rushing attempts in a 37-5 blowout. The next week, they rushed 40 times for 222 yards in a 42-28 win at Oakland.
Since then, Kelly insisted, “we’ve always been a run-first team.’’
First with Mack, who led the team in rushing in 2018-19, and now with Taylor.
The team’s 2020 second-round draft pick has emerged as the undeniable catalyst for an offense that ranks 11th in yards per game (368.1), 2nd in rushing (151.7) and 4th in scoring (28.5). That rushing average, by the way, would be the Colts’ highest since 1985 (152.4).
Taylor has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of his last 10 games and is on pace for 1,762, which would eclipse Edgerrin James’ club record (1,709 in 2000).
But with each passing week, the target on Taylor’s back has grown. Teams have crowded the line of scrimmage, making it more difficult for him and requiring Wentz to do more in the passing game.
“I mean, obviously you’re going to see more attention, more stacked boxes and then it falls on us,’’ Taylor said. “It leans on us as an offense in order to make sure that we’re all on our alignments and assignments.
“Especially when you have a loaded box, you have to make sure that technique is on and make sure we’re fitting guys up. I have to do a great job of bringing guys to blocks and not just leaving it to the o-line and the receivers to get guys covered up as well.’’
All of that makes Saturday night’s showdown with the New England Patriots in Lucas Oil Stadium so intriguing.
The Colts want to Run the Damn Ball.
The Patriots are among the best at not allowing that to happen, and don’t let their lackluster ranking fool you.
New England’s run defense ranks 19th in yards per game (114.5) and yards per attempt (4.4). But those numbers are somewhat skewed by a week 12 win over Tennessee. While the Patriots were rolling 36-13, the Titans were piling up 270 yards – most in the NFL this season – on 39 attempts.
In its other 12 games, the Patriots have allowed averages of 101.5 yards per game and 4.1 per attempt; the 12-game yield on the ground would rank 8th. During their seven-game winning streak, they’re allowing a league-low 10 points per game.
And let’s not forget coach Bill Belichick is a master at taking away whatever an opponent does best.
“I mean, he’s the best ever,’’ Reich said. “This is the No. 1 defense. It’s a great challenge. We know they’re very well-coached. They’re physical, they’re disciplined.
“They’ve got playmakers on defense. They turn the ball over.’’
Added Wentz: “They’re very specific I would say within each game on how they want to stop an opponent. For us, it will be, ‘Hey, come out early, let’s get a feel for what’s the flavor of the day. How are they trying to stop us?’’’
Whatever approach Belichick takes, the design will be to limit Taylor’s effectiveness.
“For sure, for sure,’’ Wentz said. “I would say a lot of teams have done that as of late. For us, JT’s still as good as it gets at that position in the league and we trust our big boys up front, no matter what the looks, to get it done.
“For us, it’s going to still be the same thing. We’re going to try to run the ball and I’m confident we’re going to be able to. We’re going to still do our thing. Then, like we always say within a game, make adjustments as needed.’’
Along with the normal adjustments, it will be incumbent upon Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady to remain committed to their run game, unless the Patriots are able to take it away with loaded fronts and creativity.
Explosive plays have been a major part of Taylor’s breakout season. He leads the NFL with 10 rushes of at least 20 yards and three that have gained at least 40. Taylor has generated the league’s two longest runs this season: 83 yards against Houston in 6 and a 78-yard TD against the Jets in week 9.
“If you get it to him enough, he’s going to create big plays,’’ Reich said. “But at the same time, we don’t want him to pound his head up against a wall play-in and play-out.
“That goes back to that mix of how much is too much or how much isn’t enough, and that’s a game-by-game, really series-by-series feel.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.