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Colts likely to use running backs extensively in the passing game

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts-Training Camp Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Two days into training camp there is not a whole lot that you can really know. So far the Colts’ players have been in helmets, shoulder pads, and shorts. Very little can be gleaned about players in terms of their effectiveness that will legitimately translate to the field in real football games. You can tell if guys are lost, but beyond that, everything has to be taken with a grain of salt.

However, one thing has jumped out early with this Colts team that you can count on as being something that will carry over into the coming season. Frank Reich’s Colts are going to use the running back position extensively in the passing game.

We don’t know what the running game itself will look like yet. Today will give us the first real look at the potential there. The team will have its first practice in full pads, and that will give us a look at how the running backs really do in live action. However, given that both starting tackles have missed the first two days of camp and may not be back today either, we still won’t really know what we’ve got.

What we have seen so far is the types of plays the Colts are running, the personnel they’ve put on the field together, and how they have distributed the ball in passing situations. One of the things that was exciting to see today in camp was the team lining up multiple times in 21 personnel. In other words, two running backs, one tight end.

North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

This wasn’t their default formation and it didn’t happen a ton but seeing Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines on the field at the same time was impressive, because both are electric getting to the edge and present unique challenges for a defense. On two occasions the offense ran a reverse, with Mack taking the handoff and making a toss to Hines. That play isn’t coming up often in game situations, but both players have the kind of speed to get to the edge that makes it easy to see how a defender could over-commit and allow it to be effective. Perks of having two backs with killer speed.

Without live tackling the running aspect doesn’t mean that much. However, in the passing game Nyheim Hines spent a lot of time working out of the slot and running smoke routes, running to the flat, or running drag routes across the middle. Mack did his fair share of this as well, and it is clear that Frank Reich intends to do what Chudzinski was not smart enough to; he is going to get Marlon Mack the ball in space and let him go to work. The same goes for Hines.

Mississippi v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Perhaps the most intriguing guy in the running back group, at least in my opinion, is Jordan Wilkins. He looked good when utilized in the passing game as well. His game comes in sharp contrast to the speedsters Mack and Hines. It is a struggle to put into words exactly what it is about the way he moves, but a couple of his short passes went for long gains because he was patient to delay for just a split second to allow blocks to develop, then he would make his cut he was off. The closest comparison I can think of stylistically is Arian Foster. Will that slithery, slippery, patient style of running pay off? Time will tell.

All these backs will have to prove themselves in the running game, but one thing is clear, they’ll be integral parts of this offense in both the passing game and the running game. Having competent and dangerous weapons at the running back position that can catch passes and make defenses pay helps to slow down the pass rush. So, in this way, Frank Reich can use offense as a defense. He can protect his star quarterback by letting short, high percentage passes go for big gains with some of these talented and fast guys.

What you can be sure of is that this isn’t the Rob Chudzinski offense anymore, and that is a very good thing.