INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This much we know about Marlon Mack: more and deeper are better.
The more handoffs the Indianapolis Colts’ feature back takes in a game, the better he is.
And the deeper he gets in a game, the better he is.
Those are undeniable facts, and Frank Reich understands the rationale.
“If you’re getting a back enough touches (and) you’re making first downs running the football, you’re wearing (defenses) down,’’ he said Wednesday. “And I think the backs get a feel of the rhythm, of the way the game is going, of the patience it takes to find and see the hole.’’
Marlon Mack’s last 14 games, including the postseason and punctuated by Sunday’s season-opening outburst against the Los Angeles Chargers, serve as Exhibit A.
Over that stretch, the 2017 fourth-round draft pick has piled up 1,242 yards on 243 carries. That’s 88.7 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt.
But a closer look – more and deeper, remember? – offers a glimpse of what Mack brings to the offense. Consider:
- In eight of the 14 games, he’s had at least 15 attempts and averaged 123 yards per game. That includes each of his six 100-yard outs, topped by a career-high 174 yards in the opener against the Chargers.
Mack’s 174 yards, by the way, were the most on opening day since LeSean McCoy’s 184 yards in 2013 and the third-most by a Colt (Norm Bulaich, 198 in 1971; Alan Ameche, 194 in ’55).
He’s also the NFL’s week 1 rushing leader.
- Like most quality running backs, more attempts mean more opportunities to generate gashing plays. Of Mack’s 25 rushes against the Chargers, 15 resulted in gains of 4 yards or fewer. But in the third quarter, he flashed for a 25-yarder and a 63-yard touchdown.
“Not that I’m comparing him to this guy who I’m about to mention, but I played with Barry Sanders,’’ Reich said. “We all knew that Barry was a guy who was going to have more than his share of minus plays or 0-1-yard plays, but that he was just a threat to break it deep anytime.
“I think Marlon physically is in better shape this year than he was last year. I think he’s stronger. He showed breakaway speed (against the Chargers). So yeah, the more touches we can get him, the better.’’
- In his last 14 games, Mack’s 243 attempts have been split evenly – 121 in the first half, 122 in the second half. But the contrast in production is dramatic. He’s tacked up 455 yards and averaged 3.8 yards per attempt in the first half, then bounced it to 787 yards and 6.5 per attempt after halftime.
“I don’t feel like I’m a back who needs the ball 20 times,’’ Mack insisted. “Pretty much, it’s just the flow of the game. Once the guys get to moving guys out of the way for you, things get to going pretty much easy for you.
“You’ve just got to take care of the rest.’’
Mack’s modesty aside, it’s clear he’s a back – powerfully built at 6-0 and 210 pounds – who gets stronger as the game unfolds.
Against the Chargers, he managed 21 yards on eight carries in the first half. After halftime: 153 yards on 17 attempts, including 124 yards on eight third-quarter rushes.
Mack offered a glimpse of what was to come on the first play of the third quarter when he accelerated through the left side of his offensive line for a 25-yard gain. Midway through the quarter, he exploited that side of the Chargers’ defense – and followed his linemen – yet again.
“My job is to just read those guys,’’ Mack said. “They make it easy for me. On that touchdown, you see my hole is pretty much spread wide.’’
Mack’s 63-yard touchdown was a byproduct of textbook blocking.
Anthony Castonzo drove end Melvin Ingram out of the play to the left, as did Quenton Nelson (Thomas Davis), Ryan Kelly (Joey Bosa) and Jack Doyle (Adrian Phillips). Mark Glowinski sealed linebacker Kyzir White to the right, providing Mack with a yawning seam. Downfield, wideout T.Y. Hilton was fending off cornerback Casey Hayward. Mack stepped out of a diving tackle attempt by Rayshawn Jenkins at around the 40.
“The offensive line started it,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “Really, he wasn’t touched to 10 (yards), and then you see T.Y. get a block on Casey Hayward on the edge to really make it go.
“It was just a full-team play and was really exciting to watch.’’
Mack’s withering second half was only possible because of the patience shown by Reich and Sirianni. Remember, the Colts trailed 17-6 at the half.
“I don’t know what the score was at halftime, but we were down quite a bit,’’ Nelson said. “A lot of coaches might have just abandoned the run and wanted to throw the ball, but they trusted us.’’
At one point in Sunday’s game, Reich approached Nelson.
“I said, ‘How’s it going out there?’’’ Reich said, “and he just said, ‘Just keep calling them.’’’
So Reich did, which wasn’t always the case. There were times in his past as a play-caller – most notably during his time with the San Diego Chargers – Reich admitted he got away from the running game too quickly when the score started to get out of hand.
“It was harder for me at the beginning,’’ he said. “I think I’ve made that mistake enough times. I’m not saying I’ll ever make that mistake again, but I learned some hard lessons as a play-caller early on (by) not trusting the run game and not staying with the run game.
“That’s something you learn with experience.’’
Reich has remained patient with his run game over the last 14 games and has been rewarded. The Colts have rushed for 1,836 yards during that stretch – 771 yards on 177 carries (4.4) in the first half, 1,065 yards on 212 attempts (5.0) after the break.
“You have to make yourself (stick with it),’’ Reich said. “Nick and I have that conversation all the time. I’ll always tell Nick, ‘Hey, don’t ever let me get away from it. We have to run the football.’
“I really believe in that. I believe in it deep, deep in my heart and soul that it’s really, really important.’’
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