INDIANAPOLIS – There’s an unexpected pep in Jonathan Taylor’s step as he hits the stretch drive to his rookie season.
Part of that is feeling better physically – knock on wood – than he anticipated when the Indianapolis Colts first went to work in late July. The much-hyped second-round draft pick arrived in town prepared to step into his dream, but had heard stories how the NFL can be a war of attrition and wear down a player as November gives way to December and, if things go as planned, January and the postseason.
“Your mind wonders like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna feel,’’’ Taylor said Friday on a Zoom conference call.
Wonder no longer.
“I actually feel better than what I thought and of course part of that is the approach that we have to the season,’’ he said.
When necessary, coach Frank Reich dials back practice to make certain players are fresh when it matters most. Further contributing to Taylor’s freshness – that’s a relative description since he’s been in 12 games and handled a team-high 168 rushing attempts as well as caught 31 passes – has been Reich’s approach to his running backs’ room.
Remember, it’s run-by-committee.
Taylor was a workhorse at Wisconsin – 926 total carries, an average of 22.6 per game – but has shared things with Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins after Marlon Mack suffered his season-ending Achilles injury in the opener. He’s had more than 20 carries only three times with a season-high of 26 week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings.
“At Wisconsin you’re used to 20 carries a bunch of games in a row and here, you’re surrounded by elite talent so there are multiple guys that can make plays and you’re not getting the ball almost every down,’’ Taylor said. “You’re able to kind of preserve your body.
“Then of course, the access to multiple things of recovery outside of the facility as well also plays a huge part, too.’’
It’s clear the Colts’ handling of Taylor has produced the desired results, although it must be noted some of that lessened workload was a result of a rough patch when his offensive snaps and touches fell off. During a three-game stretch against Detroit, Baltimore and Tennessee, he snaps fell to roughly 29% and his production consisted of 61 yards on 24 carries.
But whatever obstacles were encountered – that includes spending one game on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a close-contact individual – have been dealt with and Taylor has emerged as the no-doubt feature back. In his last three games, he’s clicked off 331 yards and two touchdowns on 55 attempts (6.0 per carry). He’s had at least 90 yards in each game, topped by the breakout 150-yarder last Sunday at Las Vegas that included a career-long 62-yard touchdown.
In a likely preview of what’s to come, Taylor was given 22 carries against the Green Bay Packers and 20 last Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“Confidence and reps,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said when asked about Taylor’s recent burst. “Really, that is as simple as it can be – confidence and reps. He just keeps getting reps, keeps getting better. He just keeps seeing it over and over and over again, and he is building confidence from that.
“You can really see that. Confidence is a crazy thing, and momentum and confidence (are) a great thing to have. He’s got that and he’s playing really good football right now.’’
Again, the timing is ideal.
The Colts are in position to make a strong playoff push – 9-4 and the No. 6 seed in the AFC heading into Sunday’s meeting with Houston in Lucas Oil Stadium – and a robust running attack would complement what’s been an efficient Philip Rivers-led passing game.
Also, the Texans bring to Indy a damaged defense. It ranks 31st overall and 31st in rushing allowed per game (152.3) and per attempt (5.0). Opponents have piled up at last 162 rushing yards seven times this season, including 169 by the Chicago Bears last Sunday in their 36-7 win.
But as much as Taylor feels fit and ready to shoulder a heavy workload as the season intensifies, he’s also buoyed by some of the dirty work he’s handled.
On consecutive plays against the Raiders, Rivers completed a 23-yard pass to rookie Michael Pittman Jr. and a 41-yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton. The completion to Pittman was made possible because of Taylor’s ability to react and pick up Lamarcus Joyner, the Raiders’ blitzing nickel corner.
“I didn’t see a ton of that on his college tape, but I’m sure it was there once or twice,’’ Reich said. “He’s done a phenomenal job in protection. I mean he takes the protection side just as important as the running the ball side because coach (Tom) Rathman demands that. I mean we all demand it. Then the backs demand it of themselves.
“That was a play where you don’t have time to flinch. Jonathan sees it, recognizes it. You can’t wonder for a split second, ‘Do I need to go or not go? Can I go around Philip this way or do I need to abort my fake right now?’ He knew in an instance: ‘I have to abort my fake. I have to get there.’’’
As Taylor was riding Joyner out of the pocket to the right, Rivers slid to his left and delivered a strike to Pittman.
“That could of very easily been disastrous,’’ Reich said. “But here you have a rookie running back who has really taken a lot of pride not just in the identification process, but actually in the technique and fundamentals it takes to get that thing picked up so clean.’’
Rathman holds his running backs to high standards in pass protection, and the results have been impressive. The Colts have allowed just 15 sacks, 3rd-fewest in the NFL.
“Your mindset should be, ‘Hey, I need to make sure that I keep QB1 up and protected at all times.’ That’s your job,’’ Taylor said. “We always talk about in the running back room, ‘There’s a lot of guys who have talent with the football – there’s a lot of guys who are effective with the football – but what can you do without the football?’
“That’s one of the biggest things, especially this season, is . . . how can I be a playmaker, how can I make plays without the football?’’
Rivers’ reaction to the blitz pickup during video review?
“He said, ‘Great pickup,’’ Taylor said. “And that’s just one of those times when I’m just doing my job.
“If I don’t get that block, who knows (if) you still get it off? Maybe you don’t. I just know one thing. It wasn’t going to be on my watch that he doesn’t.’’