Will Colts still run at effective level with Marlon Mack out?

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 17: Jonathan Williams #33 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Frank Reich has watched the play, but not to determine the split-second his feature running back fractured his hand.

In the looking-ahead NFL, especially on a short week, there’s no time – not even the time it takes to give in to normal curiosity – to pause and wonder how Marlon Mack fractured his right hand on what appeared to be an explosive yet uneventful 20-yard run.

“I obviously looked at the play, but I didn’t look at it for the injury,’’ Reich said Monday. “That goes back into my mindset of, ‘OK, I’m just looking at the plays for the scheme and how we blocked it.’’’

As the week unfolds and things slow down a tick prior to Thursday night’s consequential AFC South meeting with the Texans in Houston, Reich might fast-forward the video to the 9:45 mark of the third quarter in Sunday’s game with Jacksonville. That’s when Mack took a handoff from Jacoby Brissett, sliced left, followed the lead blocks of tight end Jack Doyle and tackle Anthony Castonzo and scooted for 20 yards.

No matter how many times you rewind and review the play, it’s difficult to determine at what point Mack fractured his hand. There was no serious contact.

Reich admitted he’ll probably go back “and watch for things like that.’’’

However, there are more pressing concerns Monday and Tuesday, primarily preparing for a rematch with the Texans with only two walk-thru sessions serving as on-field work. Each team sits atop the AFC South at 6-4, although the Colts hold the current tiebreaker based on their 30-23 win in week 7.

A seasonal sweep of the Texans in Houston – the Colts have won three straight at NRG Stadium, including in December and a first-round playoff game in January – would go a long way towards boosting their bid for the division title.

But back to Reich and his offense and how it must adjust while Mack’s fractured hand mends. Mack had a procedure Monday to address the injury, but Reich was unable to offer a timeline for his return. Rookie wideout Parris Campbell fractured his right hand at Pittsburgh and is hopeful of returning Dec. 1 when Tennessee visits. If so, Campbell would miss three games.

“Jonathan (Williams) and Jordan (Wilkins) will kind of split that role,’’ Reich said. “But love Nyheim (Hines) running the ball as well.’’

Hines has excelled as the third-down and two-minute option because of his elite receiving and open-field skills. There’s no question Mack’s absence impacts everyone’s role.

“Everyone knows Marlon has been having this incredible year,’’ Reich said, “but if you are going to lose him for however long we are going to lose him for, it is nice we are coming off a game where Jonathan plays the way he played.

“Everybody knows how much confidence we have in Jordan and of course Nyheim. So it is crazy to think that you can lose a player of Marlon’s caliber and still feel like, ‘OK, we are going to miss him, but we’re good. We are good.’ These guys behind him are really good players.’’

Mack had 109 yards on 14 carries before exiting the game. Williams more than picked up the slack. After managing just 95 yards on 32 carries in 16 career games in four seasons, he erupted for 116 yards on 13 attempts.

The Colts finished with 264 rushing yards, the 12th-highest output in franchise history and the fourth-fattest total in their Indy era. Mack’s 862 yards rank fifth in the NFL, and Indy has moved into the No. 4 slot (141.1 yards per game) after bludgeoning the Jaguars.

The overriding question until Mack returns: Will the Colts be able to run without him? Although it’s a relatively small sample size, the evidence isn’t encouraging.

Injuries have forced Mack to miss six games since being selected in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. The Colts have averaged 120.3 yards per game and 4.1 yards per attempt with Mack in the backfield. In the six games without him, the averages plummet to 76.3 yards per game and 3.78 per attempt.

The Colts are 1-5 without him – they’ve dropped five straight – and have yet to eclipse the 100-yard mark as a team when he’s been out.

Taking a more positive slant, all six of those games occurred before the Colts got their act together along the offensive line. Since things stabilized up front in week 7 of 2018 against Buffalo – Castonzo at left tackle, Quenton Nelson at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, Mark Glowinski at right guard, Braden Smith at right tackle – the running game, led by Mack, has been one of the NFL’s most productive.

 Even though Mack’s absence will be felt, it’s likely Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni will roll out a game plan against Houston that’s rooted in establishing their ground game.

“I like to think that’s right,’’ Hines said. “One thing about that is he has faith in all of us, and he’s going to take what the defense gives us. If the defense is showing we’re going to throw the ball 30 times, coach Reich’s going to do that.

“We’re always going to try to establish the line of scrimmage.’’

Reich might opt to reward Williams with his first career start at Houston on the heels of his career-best outing against the Jaguars.

“You can tell he’s got great vision, quickness, speed and acceleration,’’ Reich said after the game. “We’ve been wanting to get him an opportunity for a while. He’s waited patiently. He’s really worked hard and did a great job.’’

Wilkins missed the Jacksonville game after suffering an ankle injury the previous week against Miami. He’s served as Mack’s primary backup the last two seasons and responded by averaging 5.8 yards on 87 career attempts. He’s started four of 25 career games, including the earlier meeting this season against Houston, although Mack did the heavy lifting that day.

“It’s next man up, really,’’ Wilkins said. “That’s how we’ve been going all year. We have some great running backs with Nyheim, Jonathan, myself and Marlon. We’ve just gotta fill in.

“Obviously, Marlon’s down, but hopefully he’ll recover fast. We’ve got to take over in the meantime.’’

That always has been Reich’s approach. It’s one he gleaned while working on Tony Dungy’s staff from 2006-08. Injuries are a part of the NFL’s violent world. You feel for the player but aren’t able to dwell on which players aren’t available.

“I learned a lot from Tony Dungy, but I learned that as much as anything,’’ Reich said. “I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt that he believed in every one of his players.

“He never flinched when guys got hurt. I mean, it just never mattered. I always made a mental note of that and just wanted that to be a part of who I was as a coach.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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