The Indianapolis Colts backfield has become an interesting topic ever since the draft passed. Would Marlon Mack become a more well-rounded runner and hold down the starting role while Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines add polar opposite skillsets to complement him?
That seemed to be about the sum of Colts fans more often than not as the season inched closer. Now, we’re here in Week 3 and Mack will have only played in one of three games when it’s all said and done. It’s just Wilkins, Hines and Christine Michael with Mack’s Week 4 availability still uncertain.
Robert Turbin will presumably return after Week 4 to give the backfield a boost, but are we talking about him taking over starter reps when he does? It is possible, the coaching staff was giving him first-team snaps through training camp and the preseason at times, so, that’s not off the table.
But, if Turbin does return to primarily a third-down back, the Colts will need to make a decision on who is getting those ‘starter reps’ whenever Mack is back in the lineup.
Mack and Wilkins couldn’t be more different runners. Wilkins’ game is synonymous with unwavering patience and very good vision, just without the top-end speed to run away from the faster defenders. Mack has that fifth gear, he’s elusive in one-on-one situations in space, but fails in a couple of the more pertinent aspects of the position.
And yes, everyone knows this is a platoon approach in the backfield, but Wilkins needs to hang on to these starter reps after Mack returns and beyond. There’s a few cuts that I felt summed up this argument for what I’m attempting to get across to you. A couple clips that show that Mack is still very much a work in progress, and that Wilkins appears to be a much better fit for what the Colts offense hopes to accomplish this season.
Let’s take a look.
Mack taking the long way home
On Mack’s first clip we see Quenton Nelson pulling to the right side of the line, which the Colts do a great deal. The Colts overload the right side of the line with Ryan Hewitt, Jack Doyle and Zach Pascal. With Doyle, Joe Haeg and Matt Slauson all blocking down, Hewitt’s job is kick the defensive end (94) out.
This opens up the hole for Nelson to put a hat on the linebacker. This should leave Mack for an easy path to the second level of the defense for a solid run with the opportunity to shake a safety and break a big play. Instead, we see Mack impatiently going from zero to 100 with his feet, and even faster with his eyes.
When Mack doesn’t see the hole right away, he tries to go against the grain of the defensive line, ultimately making their job significantly easier. Had he stayed the course, and given Nelson that extra half-second to complete the block, Mack would have at least had a chance to find some positive yardage.
Remember, it’s not about hitting a 30-yard run every attempt. And if that’s what Mack is trying to accomplish when he goes off script like this, all he’s actually doing is creating bad habits and ruining his viability on a roster looking for constant improvement.
Wilkins takes what’s given to him
Maybe you’re saying that I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill on one Marlon Mack run. I think we both know it isn’t just one run, but here’s a perfect example of two different backs, with the same blocking up front and two completely different outcomes all on the back of patience and discipline.
Wilkins simply follows where he knows his blocking is going to be, and knows it’s a big no-no to cutback against the offensive line’s push. Wilkins’ rep is instantly more successful as he follows Nelson through the hole and makes his cut upfield once the lane opens up.
Instead of being dropped for no gain, or at best a yard, Wilkins nets more than 10 yards and does it with ease. He gets up to speed quickly, protects the ball and doesn’t take a square hit through the hole. Simple, patient, disciplined running. This is, however, what we see almost exclusively from Wilkins. Consistency is not a part of Mack’s game to this point in his career.
Mack tries to push the pile... from 8 yards out
This might be the most disappointing run I’ve ever seen from Mack. Don’t get me wrong, not every run from Mack is as bad as these two examples, nor am I trying to push you to believe that. However, there are way too many of these and there’s no explanation for them.
If you can tell me what Mack is thinking in this clip above, then please enlighten us all. Mack has the designed hole to his right open up almost immediately — again with Nelson pulling — and the blocking ahead to get the ball inside the 5-yard line at worst. I mean, he could have even cut back to his left this time and had a solid chance of breaking into the end zone.
This time the alternative, for Mack, is to run straight up the back of Slauson and into the scrum in the trenches. Why? Does he not know the playbook? Is he so impatient that he thinks powering through five bodies — around 300 pounds apiece — is the best way into the end zone.. from 8 yards out? This has to be discouraging for an offensive line that, to this point, has been doing a solid job in the run game.
Commitment to the play
Here you’re going to see a very similar play as the first two in this article. The obvious differences are that Luck is in the shotgun, the play is called to the weakside and there’s no pulling guard. Nelson still destroys a linebacker, though, so that’s fun.
Nevertheless, from Wilkins we still see much of the same approach, thus producing a similar result ever time he steps on the field. Wilkins actually accomplishes a couple things on this run aside from picking up about 5 yards. Again, he understands that the linebacker will need dealt with, so he’ll need to create a slight pause in his approach to the line.
He decides on a quick jab step, which nearly makes him too slow to the hole. This move still proves effective due to Wilkins’ ability to explode through the hole when it presents itself, and to not take a direct hit when getting to the second level of the defense. Also, he freezes the strong-side cornerback who’s coming up to offer run support.
More than anything we simply see that with a little bit of patience, and the necessary discipline to follow the blocking scheme, the Colts run game has some actual potential. When Turbin comes back, there’ll be two backs who have that approach and Mack better need to get on board or he’ll get left behind when he returns to action.
This week, this specific declaration is somewhat moot. However, another week of smart running from Wilkins will make the coaching staff’s understanding that this conversation needs to be had, and is more of a necessity than previously expected.