INDIANAPOLIS – Nyheim Hines has had an up-close view of an Indianapolis Colts’ run game that’s back-pedaling at an alarming rate.
He recognizes the various contributing factors.
One is not Jonathan Taylor.
“He is doing what he can,’’ Hines said after Taylor endured a third consecutive un-Taylor-like outing in the Colts’ 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans Sunday. “Honestly, it is not about JT.
“JT has done well. JT’s been grinding, but his supporting cast around him has to be better. Myself, receivers, anyone on this offense not named JT.
“We have to be better.’’
The NFL’s highest-paid offensive line has to be better and not only reset the line of scrimmage a few yards upfield but provide the league’s reigning rushing champion with more receptive creases. Frequent penetration – often through the interior – is disrupting every phase of the offense.
The tight ends need to offer complementary blocking in the run game. Everyone expected the Colts to feel the loss of Jack Doyle, but to this extent?
“Probably the best blocking tight end in the NFL,’’ Reich said of Doyle, who retired in March.
The erratic blocking – and that’s being generous – has kept Reich from having that one comforting aspect of the playbook at his disposal, which has been the Taylor-led running game. The Colts ranked 2nd in the league last season behind Taylor’s league-best and club-record 1,811 yards. They were 11th in 2020 and 7th in ’19.
But the four-week numbers actually require a second and third glance to make certain they’re correct.
The run game has plummeted to 27th in yards per game (87.8) and yards per attempt (3.5).
Since getting loose for 161 yards on 31 carries in the opening tie at Houston, Taylor has 167 yards on 50 attempts (3.3). Despite facing a Tennessee run defense that ranked 29th in yards per game (145) and 32nd in yards per attempt (5.8), the Colts were limited to 38 yards – their meekest total since 2015 – and averaged 1.7 per attempt.
The Titans kept Taylor on a short leash: 42 yards on 20 attempts. Over the last two games, he’s averaged 2.8 yards.
“We’ve been good in the past. We’re just struggling right now,’’ veteran tight end Mo Alie-Cox said. “Just have to find a way to get out of that funk.
“Teams know we are going to run the ball, so we just have to get a little more creative in getting Jonathan free. Jonathan is a great back, but we have to be able to open holes for him to give him space to do what he needs to do.’’
On the Colts’ first offensive snap against Tennessee, defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons pushed center Ryan Kelly in the backfield, allowing Simmons and linebacker Bud Dupree to smother Taylor for a 1-yard gain. Three plays later, Simmons shrugged off the blocking attempt of tight end Kylen Granson and collaborated with linebacker David Long Jr. to tackle Taylor for a 2-yard loss.
Later in the first quarter, linebacker Dylan Cole zipped through the left side of the line and pulled Taylor down for a 1-yard loss. Granson didn’t help matters by failing to wall off tackle Mario Edwards Jr.
Any hopes of the Colts completing a fourth-quarter comeback for the second time in as many weeks ended when Taylor lost a fumble on 3rd-and-1 at the Titans 24-yard line with less than 9 minutes remaining. He should have protected the football – he needed less than 1 yard and appeared to have it – but there also wasn’t much push for the offensive line.
Taylor suffered an ankle injury on the play and his status for Thursday night’s game at Denver is uncertain.
Reich was asked if the issues – a free rusher or penetration, particularly through the A and B gaps – were schematic in nature.
“A lot of times in the run game they have sometimes one more guy than you have,’’ he said. “A lot of times your players are out-leveraged and when you run combination blocks it’s a question of we’ve got to get movement on one block and then get off onto the other guy.
“The bottom line is . . . it’s all of us, right? We’ve got to coach it better, we’ve got to scheme it better, we’ve got to play better, have better leverage, we have to be more physical. That’s what we’re working on doing.’’
It’s hard to imagine things improving until Reich and his staff fix whatever’s broken in the run game. And that’s especially true on first down.
Of Taylor’s 81 attempts, 46 have come on first down. He’s managed 194 yards and averaged 4.2 yards. But he’s been held to 3 yards or fewer 29 times (63%), and 1 yard or less 16 times (34.8%).
Taylor’s path to the rushing title last season began on first down: 1,039 yards and 11 TDs on 176 attempts (5.9). That included nine rushes of at least 20 yards, and four of 40-plus.
Four games remain a small sample size, but the offense is going to rely too heavily on the Matt Ryan-led passing game until Reich and his staff can figure out ways to kick-start their run game.
“Yeah, if you go back and look at when we run it on first down, a lot of second-and-longs and then some third-and-longs,’’ Reich said. “I feel very confident we’re going to get the run game going.’’
Along with missing Doyle’s impact, the Colts also are having to adjust to losing guards Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed and left tackle Eric Fisher to free agency. Fisher too often was a liability in pass protection, but was solid in the run game.
The Colts replaced Fisher with Matt Pryor and inserted Danny Pinter at right guard to fill Glowinski’s void. Pinter lasted three games before being replaced by Will Fries against Tennessee.
“We have to find ways to put them in the best position, and I believe we will,’’ Reich said. “We’re four games into and it’s not been good.
“We, I, have to take ownership of that and I believe in the players that we have. So, we’ll figure it out.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.