Colts’ Jonathan Taylor: Efficiency key to running game, not number of carries

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BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – OCTOBER 11: Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts scores a touchdown during the first quarter in a game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 11, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – What’s enough for Jonathan Taylor?

Twenty carries per game? Twenty-five?

Ask every feature running back – college, NFL, it doesn’t matter – and he’ll likely tell you, “More is better.’’

Think of Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott breaking off another run, turning to the stands and motioning a Keep feeding me! with his hands.

Taylor is averaging 15.1 attempts per game, with a high of 18 in the Indianapolis Colts’ win at San Francisco. Over his 24-game career, including the postseason, he’s averaging 15.6 handoffs. He’s has had at least 20 carries in a game just five times, with a career-best 30 against Jacksonville in last season’s finale when he set a franchise-record with 253 yards.

Four different backs have had at least 300 carries in team history: Eric Dickerson (twice, including a franchise-record 388 in 1988), Edgerrin James (five times), Marshall Faulk (twice) and Lydell Mitchell (once).

It’s possible Taylor eventually joins the club – that’s just 17.6 carries per game in a 17-game season – but that’s not motivating him.

“A lot of people dream about 15 carries, wish they could get 15 carries, especially in a pass-happy league like this,’’ Taylor said Tuesday. “It’s all about what are you doing with your carries? Are you an efficient runner?

“Whatever you’re doing, just make sure you’re being efficient because that’s what’s going to win you football games. That’s our goal. That’s my goal. I want to be a winner. Whatever the amount of carries we need in order to win football games, that’s what we need to do.’’

Through the Indianapolis Colts’ 3-5 start, Taylor has been efficiency personified. His 649 rushing yards rank second to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry’s 937 (more on that a bit later), but among the top-five backs, his 15.1 per-game workload is the lightest by nearly two attempts (Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, 16.9). And his 5.4 per-carry average is a smidgen behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (5.5).

That’s efficiency.

The prevailing sentiment in the wake of the Colts’ 34-31 overtime loss to the Titans is Taylor wasn’t used often enough. He finished with 70 yards on 16 attempts.

Frank Reich doesn’t mince words when explaining the team’s approach with perhaps its best player, regardless of position.

“This is how we use him,’’ he said. “I hope when we get in four-minute offense, I hope we can build those carries up where he’s got . . . a handful of games where’s he got 30 carries.

“But over the course of the year, he’s probably averaging 20 to 25.’’

Reich considers the total picture, and takes into account Taylor’s increased involvement in the passing game. Toss in his 21 receptions – he’s averaging 12.6 yards per catch with a 76-yard touchdown – and Taylor is averaging 17.8 touches per game.

“Believe me, there’s games that I hope he gets 30, 35 touches,’’ Reich said.

That wasn’t the case against the Titans. Along with his 16 rushing attempts, Taylor contributed three receptions and 52 yards on four targets. He also had two rushes for 52 yards erased by holding penalties and six potential handoffs taken away by Carson Wentz on RPOs.

“That’s close to 25 touches right there,’’ Reich said, “which is a decent day’s work.

“Believe me, I want to get him the ball more.’’

Taylor isn’t about to be drawn into one of those heated How much is enough? discussions.

His overriding objective: be the best back possible, and do whatever it takes to help the team win.

During training camp, owner Jim Irsay described Taylor as “a special guy,’’ and added “if he dreams about a gold jacket at night, he’s having the right dream because there’s reality there.’’

That was about the time Edgerrin James was preparing for Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies as a member of the Class of 2020.

“My reaction was his reaction as well,’’ Taylor said. “I mean, you play the game to be one of the best – you play the game to be a winner – so I feel like everyone should dream to get a gold jacket.’’

And dream of being the Colts’ best running back since James?

Taylor shrugged.

“The same thing in college,’’ he said. “They said I could be one of the best in college. But that was just my mindset already was how can I be the best version of myself at each and every single level . . .  at the high school level, collegiate level and now the NFL level because it doesn’t matter how many yards you had last week or how many touchdowns you had last week.

“It’s how many yards or touchdowns did you have this week, in this game. It’s just how can you be the best each and every single week.’’

Rushing title in play

Henry was well on his way to becoming the first back since Emmitt Smith in 1991-93 to win three consecutive rushing titles.

Now, it’s a wide-open race.

Tuesday, Henry underwent surgery to repair a fractured foot suffered Sunday against the Colts. He’s expected to miss the remainder of the regular season.

With Henry out of the picture, the focus shifts to a group led by Taylor. He’s No. 2 with his 649, followed by Chubb (584), Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon (572) and Elliott (571).

The last Colt to lead the league in rushing: James in 1999-2000.

Taylor finished 3rd as a rookie with 1,169 yards.

Sam’s No. 2

Reich said rookie Sam Ehlinger has been elevated to Carson Wentz’s backup.

Veteran Brett Hundley had handled that role for the past six games. He was released from the active roster Monday, then re-signed to the practice squad.

Ehlinger spent the first six weeks of the season on the injured reserve list with a sprained knee before being added to the active roster.

“I felt like Sam is healthy, continued to learn the offense and there are other considerations as well,’’ Reich said. “But we feel like it’s the right move right now, but certainly feel great about both guys.

“Happy to get Brett back in the building as well.’’

Reich said Ehlinger has “a natural poise to him like Brett does. Sam has played a lot of football, not at this level, but he’s played a lot of winning football and he’s a young guy who we drafted who we want to continue to develop.

“It feels like the right move at the time, but it’s still always a week-to-week consideration.’’

Injury update

Wideout T.Y. Hilton has been ruled out of Thursday night’s meeting with the New York Jets due to a concussion, and it’s likely safety Khari Willis will miss the game with a calf injury.

“It’s looking like Willis is going to be out,’’ Reich said.

One situation to watch: left guard Quenton Nelson did not practice Tuesday because of a toe injury. It’s the first time he’s dealt with a toe issue this season.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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