Colts’ plan for Marlon Mack? ‘Let’s ride the horse’

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 06: Running back Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts rushes up field against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium on October 6, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s one of those topics everyone dabbles in at some point, and one that rarely comes to fruition.

(Blank) is on pace for . . .

Fill in the blank with the name of some player off to a hot start. Whoever it is, he’s undoubtedly in the midst of a five- or six-game streak at the beginning of a season that would threaten some record or milestone or whatever.

Remember Adam Thielen in 2018? The Minnesota Vikings wideout snared 58 receptions in his first six games. He was on pace for 154, which would have obliterated Marvin Harrison’s single-season record (143 in 2002). He cooled and finished with 113.

Remember Andrew Luck last season? In the Indianapolis Colts’ first five games, he limbered up his surgically-repaired right shoulder and delivered 245 passes. He was on pace for 784, which would have eclipsed Matthew Stafford’s mark of 727 set in 2012. Things settled down, some semblance of balance returned to Frank Reich’s offense and Luck pulled up with 639 – a career high but nothing more.

That brings us to Marlon Mack, who might be the Colts’ MVP through five games. You might prefer Jacoby Brissett, Quenton Nelson, Anthony Castonzo or T.Y. Hilton. We’ll stick with Mack considering the run-heavy nature thus far of Reich’s offensive approach.

The third-year running back is averaging 94 yards per game, fifth in the NFL. The impressive – or concerning – stat involves Mack’s workload. He’s averaging 20.2 carries per game, second to Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (21.2). He set a career best with 29 carries in the upset of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

Mack is taking it all in stride.

“I mean, I just try to go week-by-week,’’ he said. “I try not to think too far ahead because when you do that, things go wrong. I just try to take it week-by-week and just thank the Lord every time something goes good for me.’’

And things are good, very good for Mack and the Colts. A running game that traditionally has languished in the bottom third of the league sits at No. 4 (142 yards per game) heading into Sunday’s AFC South showdown with the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“He’s playing incredible, man,’’ Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton said. “It starts up front. The offensive line is opening holes for him. Even when they’re not, he’s finding lanes. He’s got a burst, man.

“He’s playing unbelievable and let’s ride him. Let’s ride the horse.’’

That’s a nifty sound bite from Hilton and brings us to the topic of the day. And that would be: How much is too much for Marlon Mack?

He’s on pace for 323 carries, which would place him in exclusive company in team history. Only four Colts have logged at least 300 in a season: Eric Dickerson (twice, including a franchise-record 388 in 1988), Edgerrin James (five times), Marshall Faulk (twice) and Lydell Mitchell (once). James was the last to carry such a heavy load (360 in ’05).

Nyheim Hines handles the role of third-down and 2-minute specialist but is a running back by trade. Every back, he insisted, welcomes as many attempts as possible.

“I would embrace as many carries as it takes to win,’’ he said. “If it’s 150 or 300, I’m going to embrace whatever gives us the best chance to win.’’

Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni aren’t concerned with Mack’s five-game workload. On pace for trends have a way of surrendering to the withering effect of a 16-game season.

As we mentioned, Marvin Harrison’s record 143 receptions has withstood on pace for assaults for 16 seasons.

“Like last year when Andrew was on pace to throw it 700 times or whatever, it usually has a way of working itself out,’’ Reich said. “But right now (with) the way Marlon is taking care of himself and how strong . . . I mean, it feels to me like he is getting stronger as the year is going on.

“I don’t sense any wear and tear on his body. So we will just keep rolling.’’

When it comes to running backs, projecting season totals based on a quick start is risky business. Mack hasn’t missed any games, but already has popped up on the injury report with ankle and calf injuries. The ankle issue apparently limited his second-half availability in the loss to the Oakland Raiders.

Rather than dwell on Mack’s on pace for possibilities, it’s more relevant to focus on the smaller picture. And that would be his 29 carries in the 19-13 win over the Chiefs.

James took the “one-back’’ concept to the extreme during his decorated seven-year Colts career. He cradled at least 29 handoffs 14 times, a team record. Mack’s busy evening against the Chiefs marked just the second time since 2006 a Colts’ back had at least 29 attempts. Frank Gore had 36 in the overtime loss at Buffalo in week 14 of 2017.

For those wondering, the Colts are 32-9 when a running back has had at least 29 attempts.

“Twenty-nine,’’ Hines thought aloud. “That’s a big number.’’

Has Hines ever had 29 carries in a game?

“No,’’ he said with a smile. “Maybe in high school. In college it was like 20, 25.’’

Mack started 36 games in three seasons at South Florida and finished with 570 carries. He had more than 20 in a game 10 times with a career-high of 31 against UConn in 2014.

There were no telltale signs of a worn down running back following Mack’s productive outing against Kansas City. In fact, he finished strong with nine of his 29 carries on a pair of fourth-quarter drives that drained the clock and resulted in Adam Vinatieri field goals.

“He looked fine to me,’’ Hines said. “He looked fine Monday. Twenty-nine carries, I’d be sore. He looked fine.

“He responded to it well. It probably helped we had the bye. But after the game, Marlon probably could have practiced Monday or Tuesday if he had to.’’

So, could Mack hold up at his early-season pace, if that’s what it takes?

“I think he can,’’ Hines said. “Why not? It all depends on how he gets hit and taking care of his body. It think almost anybody can take 300 carries if you take care of your body and the wrong hit doesn’t happen.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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