INDIANAPOLIS – Jonathan Taylor’s eyes sharpened as he considered his response. That might have been his self-confidence oozing to the surface.
The topic had drifted to the Indianapolis Colts’ running game and how it has yet to measure up to it’s own lofty standards through the first three games of the season.
Taylor was asked: What’s missing?
The NFL’s reigning rushing champion ranks 4th with 286 yards after three games, but the Colts sit 18th (104.3 yards per game). This after ranking 2nd (149.4), 11th (124.8) and 7th (133.1) the previous three seasons. It’s been more grind-it-out with 4-, 6- and 9-yard runs than the occasional Taylor-generated lightning bolt.
No panic. Taylor compared the issues with the run to those in pass protection. It’s been something here, something else there.
“Just making sure that we’re all on the same page,’’ he said Thursday. “The offensive line likes to talk about 5-as-1, but really it’s all of us (in the run game).
“It’s the receivers, the backs, the tight ends all being on the same page to be able to get this thing rolling.’’
In other words, it’s close.
Taylor’s standard-setting 2021 – a league-leading and franchise-record 1,811 rushing yards, a club-record 18 rushing TDs – featured defense-gashing plays. He led the league in 20-plus- (14) and 40-plus-yard (five) runs.
But heading into Sunday’s monumental AFC South clash with the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium, Taylor has just two 20-yarders – a pair of 21-yarders at Jacksonville after the Jaguars had settled into a 24-0 lead – and only eight that have gained at least 10.
More alarming: 15 of his 61 attempts (25%) have been for 0 yards or a loss. That’s up from 19.3% (64 of 332) last season.
Taylor was asked if he’s been close to breaking one of those signature runs.
That’s when he flashed that ultra-confident smile.
“You’re always close,’’ he said.
As Taylor mentioned, the relatively slow start by the run game has been a group effort. Leakage by the offensive line or free blitzers have resulted in many of the negative attempts. And there’s no denying the impact of offseason losses of tight end Jack Doyle and wide receiver Zach Pascal. Doyle often provided a block that initially gave Taylor room while Pascal was instrumental in turning an 8-yard gain into an 80-yarder.
There’s no immediate reason to panic. Taylor and the run game have actually been more productive this season than over the first three games of ’21. In last season’s 0-3 start, he was limited to 171 yards on 42 attempts (4.1 per carry). Taylor then eclipsed the 100-yard barrier in 10 of the next 13 games.
Also, the 161 yards he piled up in the opening overtime tie at Houston are the 2nd-most in the NFL so far; the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley had 164 against the Titans in week 1.
At some level, Taylor’s reputation is working against him.
“We’re not hiding from anybody,’’ Reich said. “Every defense comes in, and they get to play JT. So, every defense that lines up against our offense, all eyes are on Jonathan Taylor.
“It’s just going to bring a different level of focus. It’s going to make it a little bit harder. . . . Teams get geared up. Every defense is super-hyped to play our offense to stop the run. That’s the challenge that we have to meet.’’
It’s a collective responsibility, and a more consistent passing game will help immeasurably. But it starts up front.
“Yeah, we need to block better,’’ All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson said. “And Jonathan’s a great back. It’s tough when you have a free hitter come in, and that falls on us, and the tight ends when they’re involved in the run blocking, but mostly the o-line.
“We need to step it up. We know that.’’
Perhaps the Titans are the cure to what’s ailing the run game. Their defense uncharacteristically ranks near the bottom of the league: 26th in total yards allowed (401.3 per game) and tied-29th in points allowed (84). More alarming, they’re 29th in rushing yards allowed (145 per game) and 32nd in yards per attempt (5.8).
Tennessee’s run defense already has yielded 12 plays of at least 10 yards, including 68- and 33-yard runs by Barkley and a 33-yarder by Buffalo’s James Cook.
In 2021, the Titans’ run defense ranked 2nd in fewest yards allowed (84.6) and 4th in yards per attempt (3.9).
Taylor was limited to 134 yards on 26 carries in two meeting with the Titans last season, but perhaps a chunk play or two might kick-start the Colts.
“Oh, those are always fun,’’ Taylor said. “But this is the NFL. Those are far and few between. When you do get them, you’ve got to make them count.’’
Helping spring Taylor for game-changing plays are “awesome,’’ said Nelson. “I mean, it’s huge for the offense, and then you get their defense focusing on stopping the run more, and it opens up the passing game, and also excites our whole team when JT is doing well.’’
About Derrick Henry
Sunday marks a rare occasion when NFL rushing champions share the field. Taylor led the league last season (1,811 yards), while Tennessee’s Derrick Henry won the rushing titles in ’20 (2,027) and ’19 (1,540).
Henry, though, is in the midst of an un-Henry-like streak. He’s failed to reach 100 yards in six consecutive games, including the playoff loss to Cincinnati. During that stretch, he’s averaged 68 yards per game and – brace yourself – 3.1 yards per attempt.
Heading into Tennessee’s week 8 meeting with the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium last season, Henry led the league with 869 yards; 124.1 yards per game, 5.8 per attempt. The Colts limited him to 68 yards on 28 carries, but at some point in the game Henry broke a bone in his right foot that would sideline him for the remainder of the regular season.
In 12 appearances against Indy, Henry has rushed 201 times for 1,045 yards (5.2) with six TDs. He’s had at least 100 yards five times, including in four of the last five meetings.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.