How Will Colts Split Rushing Carries?
Phillip B. Wilson
INDIANAPOLIS — It’s too early to definitely say which Indianapolis Colts running back will get the most carries in 2020.
But based on the initial comments from head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, they foresee an effective 1-2 punch with 2019 leading rusher Marlon Mack and rookie Jonathan Taylor.
That doesn't sound like many carries for third-down back Nyheim Hines, whose specialty is catching passes out of the backfield, or previous No. 2 reserve rusher Jordan Wilkins, but again, situations can change and the offseason isn’t the time to speak in absolutes.
Although Mack is coming off his best season in his three years with 1,091 yards, he also missed two games due to injuries. The speedy runner with a nasty stiff-arm also missed four games in 2018 and two in 2017, so it’s understandable for the Colts wanting to see a lot of Taylor, who combines power with speed.
As the old NFL adage goes, it’s not who starts but who finishes. That said, coaches are known to stick with hot hands prevent a workload from becoming too burdensome for one player.
After the Colts drafted Taylor in the second round with the 44th overall pick, Reich spoke of the need for his seventh-ranked rushing offense to be more explosive with longer gains.
“Jonathan Taylor is an explosive player,” Reich said in a Zoom video conference call after the final day of April’s NFL draft. “That size and 4.3 (second) speed – we want to turn those 10-yard gains into 50 and 60-yard gains. Now both he and Marlon can add that element to our offense.”
Taylor, who rushed for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns on 926 carries in three years at Wisconsin, had long runs of 75, 88, and 72 yards in the three seasons.
Mack’s career-long run was a 63-yard TD rush in the 2019 season opener at the L.A. Chargers. His previous season longs were 49 in 2018 and 35 as a rookie. He has a nose for the end zone with 20 rushing touchdowns.
“I really envision that it’ll be Jonathan and Marlon really being that one-two punch,” Reich said. “When you look at good teams over the years – it’s a long season. It’s a grind and when you run the ball as much as we run it, it’s really good to be able to change that up. I think their styles will really complement each other very well. Marlon has that great vision, he can run that outside zone well, he can surge, surge, surge and then he can accelerate in the whole.”
The Colts’ 471 rushing attempts ranked fifth, the 2,130 rushing yards seventh, but the 4.5 yard-per-carry average was 12th. That’s why Reich brought up the importance of breaking bigger runs.
Mack is entering a contract year, so putting up bigger rushing numbers translates to larger dollar signs on his next deal. If he’s not getting enough touches, it’s fair to wonder his mindset in this 1-2 punch scenario.
Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was asked his confidence level in being able to allocate an ample amount of work to each back.
“I think very confident,” he said in a recent Zoom video conference call. “We know we want to run the football. We know a lot of the good running teams in this league and in the past have had good one-two punches. It feels like it’s just a one-one punch though because we have two such exceptional backs.
“We’ve seen it work in the NFL so much where you have different styles of guys, right? Both these guys can do multiple things. Jonathan is a little bigger than Marlon, but they both have exceptional speed, and they both have the ability to make you miss, and they both have the ability to break arm-tackles and run with power. They have some different running styles, but again they’re both complete backs. I think that’s a fantastic problem to have, to have two guys like that you can feed the football to. It’s only going to help our running game.”
Oakland running back Josh Jacobs had the biggest workload of NFL rookie running backs in 2019 with 1,150 yards on 242 carries in 13 games. His rushing yards ranked eighth in the league.
In 2018, N.Y. Giants running back Saquon Barkley made good on being selected No. 2 overall with 1,307 yards rushing on 261 carries. He ranked second in the league in rushing.
But both of those backs handled a majority of their teams’ carries. The Colts don’t have to do that, unless somebody gets hurt. It that happens, Hines or Wilkins become the backups. Reich still envisions the quick, elusive Hines having an active role as a third-down back.
In two seasons, Hines had 513 yards rushing and four TDs on 137 carries, but his ability as a pass-catcher translated to 107 receptions for 745 yards and two TDs. Wilkins is a better rusher with 643 yards and three TDs on 111 carries in his two years. But he’s caught just 23 passes for 128 yards.
“There’s only one ball to go around, but one of the things that makes it easier is our players are very unselfish,” Reich said. “We know how it goes – that Nyheim could go a couple of games with a relatively small amount of touches and then all of a sudden, he has 10 catches in one game. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a game this year that Nyheim Hines has 10 catches.
“Nyheim will be very much integrated into the game plan on all three downs. Yeah, he’s not going to play as many snaps. I wouldn’t anticipate he is going to play as many snaps as Marlon and Jonathan, but there are still enough snaps for him to be very, very productive this year – very productive.”
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)