Indianapolis Colts training camp preview: Running backs

Indianapolis Colts
Colts running backs

Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor (28) celebrates with Nyheim Hines (21) after running for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS – In the quarterback-driven NFL, the Indianapolis Colts offer powerful diversity.

They were a top-11 passing team last season behind the efficiency of Philip Rivers, but also kept defenses honest as Jonathan Taylor spearheaded a run game that also ranked 11th and got stronger as the season unfolded and the rookie got his bearings.

The Colts were more run-centric in 2019 when they were forced to make a sudden transition to Jacoby Brissett following Andrew Luck’s late-August retirement, and Marlon Mack embraced the moment. He posted his first career 1,000-yard season and Indy finished 7th in rushing, its loftiest ranking in nearly two decades.

The last time the Colts boasted a top-11 run game in consecutive seasons: 1994-95. The last time they stretched it to three straight seasons: 1975-77.

That offensive approach isn’t likely to change as the franchise once again transitions at the most influential position, this time from the retired Rivers to Carson Wentz.

Coach Frank Reich undoubtedly will make full use of the mobility Wentz brings to the offense, which was nonexistent with Rivers under center.

“We’re going to take advantage of that, and he’ll create some plays like that,’’ Reich said.

But.

“We’re concentrating on running the football,’’ he quickly added. “We’re concentrating on a good play-action game to keep the defense off balance. We’re going to concentrate on a rhythm passing game to get it out quick.’’

As a former NFL quarterback, Reich isn’t the least bit reluctant to air it out early and often. His first season as head coach – 2018 – coincided with Andrew Luck’s final season. Reich maximized the offensive talent – Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron – and the Colts ranked 6th in the NFL with 644 drop-back attempts. They ran just 38.1% of the time.

Post-Luck, the Colts have gravitated toward a more balanced approach, in part because they’ve lacked a quarterback capable of carrying a team with his right arm.

A stat that might surprise you: over the past two seasons, the Colts have 940 rushing attempts, the fourth-highest total in the league. They have only 36 fewer than the Derrick Henry-led Tennessee Titans.

As much as the Colts are banking on Wentz regaining his pre-2020 form, they’re expecting a robust run game that includes Taylor, Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. We’ll get an early indication of how Reich and first-time offensive coordinator Marcus Brady plan on using one of the NFL’s best backfields when the team opens training camp July 27 at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

Here’s a look:

Starter: Jonathan Taylor.

Depth: Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Deon Jackson, Darius Anderson.

Taylor’s Encore

Not surprisingly, Taylor isn’t preoccupied with whether he’s able to boost his rookie rushing numbers – 1,191 yards, 3rd-most by a Colts rookie – and improve on last season’s No. 3 finish among backs in year 2. Only Derrick Henry (2,027) and Dalvin Cook (1,557) piled up more yards on the ground.

He’s team driven. He yearns to win a championship that eluded him at the high school level and at the University of Wisconsin.

“Definitely become a champion,’’ he said. “That’s why you play the game. And I’m pretty sure that’s why everybody’s individual/team goal (is) to become a champion.

“Since high school I’ve been trying to be a champion, and that’s just something I’m just going to try to be . . . the best version of myself to help this team so we can all become champions.’’

Taylor did his part after being selected in the second round – 41st overall – of the 2020 draft. He endured an inconsistent start, but finished with a flourish. After averaging just 47.5 yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt over his first nine games, Taylor’s numbers skyrocketed to 123.5 and 6.2, respectively, over his final six. His 741 yards over the final seven weeks – Taylor missed one game due to COVID-19 – trailed only Henry’s 1,081.

Taylor punctuated his rookie season with a franchise-record 253-yard outing in the regular-season finale against Jacksonville, then added 78 yards on 21 attempts in the playoff loss at Buffalo.

He spent the offseason searching for areas to improve.

“I always focus on things that I didn’t do as well just because you want to make sure those are things you are going to add to your repertoire,’’ he said. “You don’t want to have a weakness, so you want to make sure you bring those up to your strength, but you always transition to what you did well.’’

The overriding individual objective in year 2? Remember, Taylor and the other rookies – all players for that matter – headed into 2020 without benefit of an offseason program and four preseason games.

“Really just staying consistent,’’ he said. “(Now) I know the basics. I know what needs to be done. Now it’s ‘How can I make the job a little easier? How can I see the pre-snap and anticipate what’s going on?’ Seeing what the defense is giving me and knowing our playbook and how we can make adjustments.

“It’s fun seeing the growth that you have from one year.’’

Mack is Back

There’s no better feel-good story heading into training camp than Marlon Mack returning for a fifth season. That was very much in doubt after the 2017 fourth-round draft pick ruptured his right Achilles tendon in the second quarter of last year’s season opener at Jacksonville. Mack was in the final year of his rookie contract and looking for a big payday after leading the Colts with 1,091 yards in 2019.

The team re-signed Mack to a one-year, $2 million deal in March that’s fully guaranteed.

Mack wasn’t able to provide a timeframe for a return to practice, but in May insisted “just got to get back to the training room, and they’ll let me know. But I’ve been killin’ it, man, these last few months.’’

There should be some type of easing-in period when Mack is cleared to practice and play. When he regains his form, he offers proven support to Taylor.

“I knew what was going to happen last year. He was going to go off,’’ Taylor said. “So I’m just excited to see him back out there smiling, looking like a smooth operator he is. It’s really exciting and really fun.’’

Mack and Taylor form a unique one-two punch, or “one-one punch’’ as the Colts envisioned prior to Mack’s injury.

As was mentioned, Taylor set the franchise’s single-game record with 253 yards against Jacksonville. Mack established the team’s single-game playoff record with a 148-yard outing at Houston in the first-round of the ’19 postseason.

They’ve combined for 11 100-yard games: eight by Mack, three by Taylor.

And Then There’s Hines

The Colts’ status of possessing one of the NFL’s top running back groups includes Nyheim Hines. He may never find himself in a feature-back role, but don’t underestimate his value to the offense.

“He’s definitely a weapon,’’ Brady said. “He’s a guy you can trust in the backfield, even just handing the ball off. You always talk about getting him out of the backfield, getting him out in space, but he does a great job in between the tackles where he’s able to get through there and then use his speed to create explosive plays for us.’’

Hines’ development and increased value in Reich’s offense are undeniable.

In his first two seasons, Hines had 11 rushes that gained at least 10 yards. Last year, he clicked off 17 in the regular season and added 33- and 29-yard gains in the playoff loss to the Bills.

There’s no question he’s coming off his finest season. His 89 rushes, 380 yards and 4.3 average gain were career bests while he matched a career high with 63 receptions that produced a career-high 482 yards. The 862 yards from scrimmage also were a career high. His 170 receptions are the most by a Colts’ back in his first three seasons, and the fourth-most by any player.

Hines has yet to miss a game – 51 and counting, including the playoffs – and contributed 15 total touchdowns.

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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