With Marlon Mack out, Jonathan Taylor’s ‘gotta be the lead dog’

Colts

Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts makes a 35-yard reception for a first down in the second quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on September 13, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Jonathan Taylor never was going to be eased into the Indianapolis Colts’ offense.

His NFL debut Sunday at Jacksonville consisted of 26 snaps (35%), 15 touches – tied with veteran Nyheim Hines for a team high – and a team-best 89 yards from scrimmage.

But that was as Marlon Mack’s tag-team partner.

Everything changed and Taylor’s transition to the NFL accelerated when Mack ruptured his right Achilles tendon in the second quarter against the Jaguars. Mack, a 24-year-old back coming off his first 1,000-yard season and in a contract season, is done for the year.

“That’s really unfortunate,’’ Frank Reich said Monday on a Zoom conference call. “Such a big loss.’’

And such a big opportunity for Taylor.

“Jonathan will step into the starting role,’’ Reich said. “He looked good yesterday.’’

The prized second-round pick out of Wisconsin never got into a flow in the run game – 22 yards on nine carries – but made his presence felt with six catches for 67 yards on six targets. The latter included a 35-yard catch-and-run that showcased his vision and 4.3 speed.

“Jonathan’s ready,’’ Reich insisted. “He’ll step up and do a great job.’’

The run game will remain a backs-by-committee approach with Hines and Jordan Wilkins helping fill the void created by Mack’s absence.

But there’s no question the Colts are looking for Taylor to be their feature back. That will be a familiar role, albeit at the highest level. He started 40 of 41 games in three years with the Badgers.

“I just think it’s a mindset that Jonathan’s gotta come in and just take ownership of the position,’’ Reich said. “We’re going to rotate guys through, but Jonathan’s gotta be the lead dog and have that mindset and have that confidence, and I know he’ll do that.’’

The level of effectiveness by Taylor and the running game in general is entirely at the discretion of Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni.

The Colts took a run game to Jacksonville that ranked 7th in the NFL last season – averages of 133.1 yards and 29.4 attempts per game – but clearly didn’t maximize it. While Philip Rivers was attempting 46 passes, Indy ran it just 22 times.

Things can change on a week-to-week basis, and the Colts might have Rivers hand off 35 times Sunday when they open the home portion of their season against the Minnesota Vikings in Lucas Oil Stadium. But in hindsight, Reich regrets not dialing up a few more runs against the Jaguars.

Part of the reason for the pass-heavy theme was Rivers’ efficiency, especially early. In the first half, he was 20-of-24 for 227 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Still.

“We do just want to have more runs,’’ he said. “Getting the backs touches, whether it’s handing it off to them or throwing it to them is a way to get them involved in the offense.’’

By anyone’s standards, Reich leaned heavily on his running backs. Mack, Taylor and Hines accounted for 37 of the 58 offensive touches: 20 rushes, 17 targets in the passing game. When targeting his backs, Rivers was 17-of-17 for 142 yards, an 8-yard TD to Hines and a 121.1 passer rating.

But again, 22 rushing attempts simply aren’t enough.

“I was reminded that just because you can be dynamic in the pass game, there’s a reason to be good in the run game,’’ Reich said. “It just does something to the feel and the flow of the game.

“When you really need to run it sometimes later in the game and you’ve been patient with it and you’ve been calling them, when it gets later in the game and you really need to do it, you’ve got more confidence going into it that way.’’

The Colts are going to miss Mack’s skillset. Before suffering the Achilles injury, he gave every indication there would be a suitable encore to the 1,091 yards he amassed in 2019. He rushed four times for 26 yards and looked fluid in the passing game with three catches for 30 yards.

However, Taylor could bring a different dimension. Along with his speed, he brings power in his 5-10, 226-pound frame. That should be a nice blend to what needs to be an assertive offensive line.

“You can feel not only his speed on the field, but you can feel his size,’’ Reich said. “That combination of speed and size equals power or force. I think we’re going to see that. I think we’ll feel that. I think it’ll add to what is already a very physical offensive line.

“But the great thing with Jonathan, unlike a lot of backs who bring that physicality, Jonathan also brings breakaway speed.’’

At Wisconsin, Taylor produced 22 rushes of at least 30 yards, including 14 long-distance TDs. Like so many productive backs, give him the football enough and he’ll eventually make something happen.

“What I’m hoping we see – and this is why I’ve got to continue to call more runs – is that you get a guy who can be a workhorse back like that, and Marlon was like this as well, the more times you give it to them the better they’re going to get, the more confidence they’re going to get,’’ Reich said.

“That’s going to be another reason why we have to continue to feed the run game.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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