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Can Marlon Mack Be the Colts’ Answer at Running Back?

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts need a running back. That is a generally accepted truth that has been agreed upon throughout the football world. With the loss of their primary back in Frank Gore, the Colts appear to have a pretty meager group of ball carriers waiting in the wings.

There is 28-year-old veteran Robert Turbin, whose season was ended by a truly disgusting arm injury in 2017. He had 7 touchdowns in 2016 and was a reliable short-yardage back, but is relatively limited outside of that role and is at the age where backs typically begin to decline.

Christine Michael is also there. He is a guy who seemed to have some potential but missed all of last season on Injured Reserve. At 25, Matt Jones is a player who general manager Chris Ballard has spoken highly of. Jones is by far the largest back of the group and offers the ability to be a power back for the team, but he has some issues with ball security that are disconcerting, and he isn’t lighting the league on fire. Josh Ferguson and George Winn round out the group but are certainly fighting an uphill battle to make the roster.

That leaves Marlon Mack. Just how urgent the Colts’ need for a running back is depends on him. If you look at Mack’s numbers, it is a pretty uninspiring picture. 358 yards rushing. 3.8 yards per carry. 3 rushing touchdowns and 1 receiving touchdown. It is easy to see how Mack got lost in all the fervor over the outstanding 2017 rookie running back class.

But was he really a worse back than Gore last season? The short answer is no. There was only one category where Gore was better, and that was in pass protection. Gore could hold a master class as a pass-blocking back. Mack outperformed or equaled Gore in every other meaningful category. In fact, if you swapped Mack and Gore’s touches, Mack would have been on pace for over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

That leads us back to a very insightful piece I shared on Twitter back in early February from Warren Sharp where he examined the Colts’ offense in 2017. He points out how the Colts used the run game in the fourth quarter, and it wasn’t pretty. Here are the cliff notes:

On 1st down in the 4th quarter, if a team is in a one-score game, they run the ball 53% of the time. The Colts ran the ball 64% of the time, 3rd most in the NFL. This despite the fact that on 1st down runs they recorded just a 35% success rate (2.5 YPC), while they were successful on 53% of their passes with 7.8 YPA.

In these 4th quarter runs, an older Frank Gore posted just a 30% success rate. A younger, fresher Marlon Mack recorded a 57% success rate, but received a third of the carries that Gore received. As the data shows, potentially due to overuse and wear & tear, Gore was clearly less fresh than Mack, but was still used 3 times more often.

Combining every down in the 4th quarter, if the Colts were leading, they went 100% run unless they lined up in 11 personnel with 3 WRs. They were the only team in the NFL to go 100% run when fewer than 3 WRs were on the field. With these predictable runs, they gained just 1.9 YPC and recorded a 38% success rate.

All of this is highly interesting if you want to get the picture of just how badly the offense was run. It is worth a read and I found it highly informative. So that begs the question, if the previous Colts offense was so predictable and unimaginative, how might that impact Mack given a Super Bowl-winning offensive mind in Frank Reich?

There are a couple of significant changes that we can expect will have a major impact on Mack’s productivity in 2018. First and most important among those is the return of Andrew Luck. We are going to operate on the assumption that he will return on schedule here.

Indianapolis Colts v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

With Luck under center, defenses will be forced to play the Colts differently. The Colts are likely to add a wide receiver in the draft, but even without one, the additions of Ryan Grant and Eric Ebron to the passing game should help add some firepower. T.Y. Hilton will likely be the biggest beneficiary of those new threats as they will demand attention that then cannot be focused on him. The end result, when combined with Reich’s proclivity for using RPO’s (run-pass-options) and the short passing game, is that there are likely to be more opportunities for the running game to be established effectively.

Additionally, Luck has the ability to do something that Jacoby Brissett proved he just cannot do. He can make a touch pass. If Brissett was a pitcher, he would have one pitch, and it’s a fastball. That isn’t ideal for hitting your running back who is five yards away. As a result, Mack never was able to become a reliable threat in the short passing game. Since the second level is where Mack is the most deadly, that put a major damper on his potential. It is an area I fully expect to see Luck and Reich exploit to great effect.

Apart from Luck and the improved play calling, there are some other changes that will likely impact Mack’s production. Primary among them is solidifying the offensive line. The Colts will certainly add one if not two interior offensive linemen in a draft that is cram-packed with good ones. If they don’t take Quenton Nelson at No. 6, there are a whole slew of guys who will be available to them over the next couple rounds that offer significant improvement over what the Colts currently have. With a solidified line in front of him that is able to open up major holes, we might see more of the slashing, second-level threat and less of the bouncing outside, race to the edge guy from last season.

For his part, Mack said he is ready to take on the challenge of proving he deserves to be getting the lion’s share of the carries:

Other guys in the room feel the exact same as me. Everybody wants to be the top dog, and so you’ve just got to [be motivated] and just be hungry and attack; attack, I’d say, just show your talents and do your best.

Mack also mentioned that he has been working with the team nutritionist to put a few more pounds on. That could add to his power and tackle breaking, and possibly make him a more effective runner between the tackles. The hiring of the legendary Rusty Jones as their strength and conditioning coach and Tom Rathman as running backs coach together make it pretty tough not to feel like Mack will be entering the 2018 season with a lot of things working in his favor.

Like Quincy Wilson on the defense, it is my opinion that Mack was the victim of poor utilization and bad coaching at the hands of the previous staff, and some of the numbers appear to back up that premise. The new coaching staff has a proven history of using backs well and exploiting their strengths. While it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Colts grab a running back later in this draft to fill out the room, I think Colts fans should expect big things from No. 25 in the 2018 season.