INDIANAPOLIS – There are reasons things aren’t what everyone anticipated with the Indianapolis Colts’ running game as the season hits the quarter pole.
A phase of the offense that was a steady force last season – 7th in the NFL with 2,130 yards (133.1 per game), the 9th-fattest total in franchise history – has yet to stretch its legs. The Colts’ run game is averaging 3.5 yards per attempt, worst in the league and a full yard off last year’s average.
“Running the ball in the NFL is hard. It is hard,’’ tight end Jack Doyle said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call. “Sometimes the run game is just tough sledding.
“But yeah, it definitely hasn’t been up to our standard yet. We’ll get there.’’
Let’s start with feature back Marlon Mack rupturing his right Achilles tendon midway through the season opener at Jacksonville.
“You miss Marlon,’’ Frank Reich said Monday. “Marlon is a great player.’’
That’s led to rookie Jonathan Taylor transitioning from complementary back into more of a feature role. Anyone who expected a seamless shift either was naïve or totally undervalued Mack’s presence.
There’s every reason to believe Taylor will settle in and excel, but his NFL experience consists of four games and 65 carries. He’s still working on the type of invaluable chemistry Mack had developed with his line over the past two seasons.
“Chemistry is constantly developing, especially in zone schemes,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “You get a feel for when your linemen come off blocks on their defenders. Everybody has their own unique way of doing it.’’
Situations also have conspired to limit the run game’s efficiency and productivity.
In the last three games, the Colts have found themselves in the enviable position of taking 15-, 24- and 13-point leads into the fourth quarter. That’s resulted in Frank Reich and Sirianni leaning on their 4-minute offense to bleed the clock, and often forced that run game to work against a stacked box.
The fourth-quarter output the last three games: 27 rushes, 107 yards, 3.9 yards per attempt. That’s excluding Philip Rivers and backup Jacoby Brissett dropping to a knee eight times for a minus-4 yards to punctuate the wins.
A rash of negative plays also seeped into the run game at Chicago. After having only four attempts that lost 7 yards in the first three games, the offense was slapped with seven for a minus-16 yards by the Bears, not counting Rivers’ three kneel downs to end the game.
“A variety of things,’’ Reich said. “One or two of them are footing issues. One or two of them are poor execution up front. One or two of them are poor coaching.
“One of them in particular, I didn’t like the play call. I’d like to have it back. It was too many (negative plays).’’
So yes, there are reasons for a less-than-vibrant run game.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t what anyone expected, even with Mack out and Taylor, the much-hyped second-round pick, sharing the load with Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
That’s especially true with the offensive line returning intact after establishing itself as one of the NFL’s top groups last season. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith have started 22 consecutive games, including the playoffs.
Sirianni insisted he’s been pleased with the run blocking.
“Yeah, I am,’’ he said. “I’m not concerned about it. I know some of these runs will start to break out of there and get some explosive runs more so than what we’ve been getting.’’
Explosive runs would be nice. Thus far, there’s been one that’s gained at least 20 yards: Wilkins’ 22-yarder against the Jets. Taylor been this close to breaking off a few chunk plays, but his longest run has covered 16 yards.
For contrast, Cleveland’s top-ranked run game has 11 plays of at least 20 yards from four different players, including wideout Odell Beckham Jr.
While no one inside the Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center is admitting to concern with the run-blocking phase of the offensive line, short-yardage has been an issue.
That started at Jacksonville when the Colts faced a fourth-and-1 at the Jaguars 3 in the first quarter. They led 7-0 and were in position to create serious early separation. Hines veered to the left behind Nelson, the All-Pro guard, and Kelly, the Pro Bowl center, but was stuffed for no gain.
On the Colts’ first third-quarter possession, Taylor burst for 9 yards on first down but was smothered for no gain on second- and third-and-1 at the Indy 38. Those failures were negated on fourth-and-1 when Rivers hit tight end Jack Doyle for a 28-yard completion.
It’s been that type of hit-and-miss experience in short-yardage, which should be a strength considering the veracity of the line.
Taylor converted a fourth-and-1 and Wilkins a third-and-1 against the Vikings, but Hines was stopped short on a third-and-1. Against the Jets, the run game failed to convert a pair of third-and-3s, but Taylor showed his elusiveness at the line of scrimmage with a 1-yard TD on fourth-and-goal.
And at Chicago, the Colts led 13-3 at the half and were in position to drop the Bears into a deep hole with possession to open the third quarter. Instead, they experienced their second three-and-out of the season when Wilkins was hit behind the line for a 3-yard loss on third-and-1 by blitzing safety Eddie Jackson. If Jackson hadn’t gotten there, tackle Akiem Hicks likely would have blown the play up.
As irritating as that was, there was atonement in the fourth quarter.
On top 16-3 and given possession at their own 22 with 10:59 remaining by safety Julian Blackmon’s first career interception, the offense went on a 13-play, 66-yard drive that consumed 7 minutes, 12 seconds.
“I thought that was a phenomenal 4-minute drive,’’ Sirianni said.
The drive featured 11 rushes that netted 43 yards, and none was bigger than Taylor’s 3-yarder on fourth-and-1 at the Chicago 30. He lowered his shoulder and found enough room between the blocks of Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox and Castonzo. It allowed the Colts to take another 4 minutes off the clock before Rodrigo Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal pushed the lead to 19-3.
“Those are definitely moments that you live for because you know – both sides know – ‘Hey’ fourth-and-1, we’re going for it, we need it . . . we got to stop it,’’’ Taylor said. “So it’s really who wants it more. You talk to your offensive line, you’re like, ‘Hey, let’s go get it.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.