Jonathan Taylor remains catalyst for Colts’ run game, and for good reason

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) runs the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Colts defeated the Dolphins 27-17. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

INDIANAPOLIS – For the sake of accuracy, the Indianapolis Colts’ run game still is a backs-by-committee approach.

It’s just that not all committee members are equal.

Jonathan Taylor remains the chairman.

As the season has unfolded, the 2020 second-round draft pick has begun to stretch his legs. Taylor followed up a 10-carry, 64-yard outing in the loss the Tennessee Titans with a season-high 103 yards on 16 carries in Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. The Colts finished with 139 yards on 33 attempts, both season highs.

Taylor’s four-game bottom line: 274 yards and one touchdown on 58 attempts. After a slow start, he ranks 9th in the league in rushing.

The other backs – Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack – have divvied up the remaining carries: 108 yards on 33 attempts.

Don’t look for that per-game distribution to change, barring injury of course.

“In my mind, the starting point is Jonathan with 20 carries, Nyheim with five and Marlon with five,’’ Frank Reich said Monday afternoon. “But there’s give-and-take depending on how the game goes.’’

It’s a matter of maximizing on obvious strength, which is the unique skillset Taylor brings to the offense.

“He’s got rare combination of speed and power and size,’’ Reich said. “The sooner we can get him going in a game, the better.’’

Situations conspired against Taylor and a run game that strives to be a top-5 unit during the first three weeks. The Colts seldom had the lead – a total of 6 minutes, 18 seconds – and injuries cut into the efficiency of the offensive line.

Also, despite being involved in a close game against the Titans in Nashville in week 3, the Colts had just 16 rushing attempts by their backs while a hobbled Carson Wentz dropped back for 39 times (two resulted in sacks). On occasion, either the play call was for a pass, or Wentz, leery of sending a back into a crowded defensive front, checked out of a run.

As much as Wentz must represent a steady threat in the passing game, and that includes pushing the football down the field, the Colts are committed to being one of the NFL’s top run teams. They ranked 7th in 2019 behind Mack’s career-best 1,096 yards and were 11th a year ago as Taylor burst on the scene with 1,169 yards, 3rd-best in the NFL. Taylor finished with a flourish: a club-record 253 yards in the regular-season finale against Jacksonville.

Taylor’s big-play potential “gives us a lot of energy (with) the big, explosive plays,’’ Reich said.

As a rookie, 14.6% of Taylor’s attempts (34 of 232) gained at least 10 yards. His seven rushes for at least 20 yards were tied for 6th-most.

Those chunk plays remain an integral part of Taylor’s game. In the last two games, he’s had a pair of 23-yard runs and a 38-yarder, the latter coming on the first play of the third quarter against the Dolphins. Give top-tier backs a steady dose of handoffs, and eventually they’ll break off chunk plays.

“We get the run game going, it opens up the play-action game even more so,’’ Reich said. “He’s just an electric guy with the ball in his hands.

“But we’ll continue to mix it up. As you saw, we still got the other backs some carries, Marlon some carries and Nyheim some carries. But it’s nice to get Jonathan going.’’

The presence of three viable options in the run game makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get each one sufficient carries.

“It’s hard,’’ Reich agreed.

That might change in the coming weeks after Mack approached management last week and asked for a trade.

Mack enjoyed his busiest afternoon of the season – 10 carries, 22 yards – in the South Florida heat, and it was by design. The temperature at kickoff was 85 degrees.

“The plan this week because we were down in the heat was to spread the carries out a little bit more,’’ Reich said. “That’s one of the reasons Marlon got a few more than normal.’’

Mack was designated the back for an end-of-the-game 4-minute situation, and six of his 10 carries came on the closing 11-play drive that exhausted the game’s final 4 minutes, 24 seconds.

“Once you commit to your guy, he’s your guy,’’ Reich said.

Mack’s stat line was lessened by the late attempts when Miami knew the Colts were going to run, but he also had 12-yard and 10-yard gains.

“We’ll continue to mix it up,’’ Reich said. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to put your finger on a steady, ‘Oh, this is the formula for mixing it up.’’

That undoubtedly referred to mixing it up after Taylor gets his allotment.

It’s still a very small sample size, but the Colts are 4-0 when Taylor eclipses the 100-yard mark.

He also made it clear against the Dolphins he was prepared to do whatever it took to make a difference. The offensive line would be without two starters – left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith – and Wentz still wouldn’t be 100% while dealing with his ankle injuries.

Taylor’s pre-game message?

“I got your back,’’ he said after the game. “These past few weeks we’ve been playing hard but we just haven’t been playing at our best. So just telling those guys, ‘Hey, no matter what happens today, I got your back. You guys are blocking hard for me, I’m going to run hard today.’’’

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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