INDIANAPOLIS – Are we getting to the point where it’s futile to wonder whether Jonathan Taylor will resume his no-doubt-about-it role as the centerpiece of the Indianapolis Colts’ run game this season?
You know, that relentless, game-breaking feature back who not that long ago was the best at what he does in the NFL universe. Surely you remember 2021 when Taylor led the league in rushing with a – move aside Edgerrin James – franchise-record 1,811 yards?
That’s not to insinuate Taylor won’t be or isn’t that guy again. After the January surgery on his right ankle and prolonged rehab that contributed to him missing the first four games this season, he has 207 yards on 44 attempts (4.7).
He got loose for a 24-yard run against Cleveland and a 42-yarder Sunday against New Orleans.
But perhaps things have changed, at least for the final nine games of a season that isn’t likely to result in a playoff berth. Perhaps Zack Moss has had a hand in forcing that change.
During his normal Wednesday meeting with the media, Taylor was asked how he was feeling. Is he ready to take on a full workload after being eased into the offense over the past month?
“Definitely,’’ he said. “You’re definitely ready to take on a full load. You have to be in this league.’’
Taylor quickly dismissed the notion he might have suffered some type of injury late in the second quarter against the Saints. After a 2-yard run, he was helped up by Blake Freeland and Drew Ogletree and bounced on his feet.
“I came up gimpy?’’ he asked. “I don’t know.’’
“He’s good,’’ Shane Steichen said.
But Taylor mentioned the importance of taking care of his body, especially after being away from practice and full contact for roughly 10 months. He said the ramp-up period since returning “was a good decision.’’
“Of course being a competitor, you want to go back out there,’’ he said. “But you really have to think big picture because everyone wants to just go right back out there after being away for so long.’’
According to owner Jim Irsay, the team believed it would take “three or four weeks before he really, really hits his full stride. He makes us a different team.’’
We’ve hit that four-week milepost.
“He’s getting there,’’ Steichen said. “He’s almost there, for sure. I mean, four weeks in and . . . he hadn’t played a lot of football.
“Obviously now four weeks in, but you can see he’s progressing every week.’’
Taylor resembled the ’21 version, at least early, against the Saints. He had seven rushes for 82 yards in the first quarter before only getting five more attempts and 13 yards over the final three quarters. He had one carry for 1 yard after halftime.
The Colts’ decision not to lean heavier on their most dynamic offensive player in a game they trailed by double digits for only 2½ minutes certainly was odd, but isn’t the topic of the day. That was rehashed earlier this week.
The point: barring injury, it’s possible the Colts have every intention of utilizing a Jonathan Taylor/Zack Moss tandem for the rest of the season.
“It’s a good one-two punch back there,’’ Steichen said, “but JT is doing a really good job right now.’’
When Irsay laid out the three-to-four-week ramp-up plan for Taylor after signing his 24-year-old running back to a three-year, $42 million extension last month, he added something else.
“I think Jonathan will have a few less carries, which is good for his long-term career,’’ he said.
Taylor was thrust into the No. 1 role in his first game as a rookie – returning 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack suffered a season-ending Achilles injury at Jacksonville – and thrived before injuring his right ankle last season in week 4 at Tennessee.
During a 33-game stretch spanning his first three seasons, Taylor averaged 19.5 attempts and 103.4 yards, and 5.3 yards per carry.
Perhaps Irsay and the Colts are intent on extending Taylor’s shelf life by lessening his weekly workload.
If so, they have an ideal sidekick in Moss.
Taylor’s early-season absence provided an opportunity for the fourth-year back out of Utah, and he seized the moment.
Despite missing the opening loss to Jacksonville while rehabbing a broken right forearm from training camp, Moss enters Sunday’s road game at Carolina as the NFL’s No. 2 rusher. His career-best 589 yards trail only San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey (652).
Moss matches Taylor’s per-carry average (4.7), and his six rushes of at least 20 yards share the league lead with Miami’s De’Von Achane. He has two 40-plus carries, including a career-long 56-yard TD against the Titans in Taylor’s first game back.
“I’ve been productive every time I’ve been a 1,’’ Moss said.
You can look it up.
He was a three-year starter at Utah who set school records with 712 attempts, 4,067 yards, 38 TDs and 18 100-yard games.
If the Colts plan on maintaining some type of balance with their one-two punch – it would seem the scales should tip in Taylor’s direction to some degree considering Irsay’s hefty investment – might Taylor and Moss have to adjust their approach?
Ask most feature backs and they’ll take as many attempts as possible. A steady workload can lead to a back getting into a rhythm.
“It’s not that difficult,’’ Taylor said of fewer attempts. “I think the main thing is if you prepare the right way and go into the game and you know the looks you’re supposed to get – of course, they may be different looks – but if you come into the game prepared . . . everyone is ready when their number is called.’’
Moss admitted splitting carries could be an issue, but noted the Colts have a solid running backs room and an offensive scheme that’s conducive to any player thriving.
Taylor insisted splitting time isn’t difficult and pointed to his three seasons at Wisconsin.
“No, I actually shared some time in Wisconsin and it’s actually fun because you get to see some of your brothers go out there and live their dreams and make plays and it’s even better when you are winning games,’’ he said.
That’s massaging history to make a point.
In three years at Wisconsin, Taylor was the prolific workhorse. He handled 926 carries for 6,174 yards and 50 TDs. He averaged 22.6 rushes per game and 308.7 per season.
His per-season workload: 320 carries in 2019, 307 in ’18 and 299 in ’17. During that stretch, no other Badger had more than 98 attempts.
Center Ryan Kelly isn’t concerned about whichever back is lined up in the backfield.
“Not really,’’ he said. “That room is coached pretty consistently. They all have their little twists and what they like and what they do.
“But no. If we make the hole wide enough, it doesn’t matter who’s back there.’’
The Colts’ run game ranks No. 9 in yards per game (129) and No. 6 in yards per attempt (4.5).
Sunday offers an opportunity to enhance those rankings regardless of how Steichen divvies up the carries. Carolina’s run defense ranks No. 29 in yards per game (139.4) and No. 28 in yards per attempt (4.7).
You can follow Mike Chappell on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @mchappell51.