The 2019 Indianapolis Colts were a forgettable team overall. They were very frustrating to watch at times and will always be remembered for what they could have been if Andrew Luck didn’t retire just before the start of the season. That being said, there are still some positives. The running game was one of the best in the NFL and finished 7th in rushing yards despite having one of the worst passing attacks in the league.
The biggest reason the rushing offense was so good was the dominant offensive line. They are one of the best groups in the NFL. However, the running back group shouldn’t be overlooked, as they played an important role in the success as well. Marlon Mack hit 1,000 yards for the first time and grew into a fringe top ten back in the NFL. Nyheim Hines is also a very good role player and Jordan Wilkins and Jonathan Williams produced whenever they were called upon.
Today, we will look at one thing that made these running backs so effective last year; block manipulation. We will be looking at a few examples of how the Colts’ running backs helped their offensive line control blocks by manipulating holes to create yardage. We will also look at a few clips of Jonathan Taylor and see how his style fits to the Colts in this regard.
Colts Running Backs in 2019
Before we look at some tape of Taylor, let’s look at a few clips of last season to see how running backs can manipulate holes to help their blockers in front of the play. The two main contributors in this area were Jordan Wilkins, obviously as this has been a strength of his since his college days, and Marlon Mack, who has grown considerably in this area since his rookie season. Jonathan Williams also had a few moments where his vision and ability to manipulate blocks really showed.
To kick this off, let’s start with Wilkins. Wilkins is a player that I often call a teach tape for running backs when showing great vision and block manipulation. He may not be the most athletic or explosive runner but his strengths have allowed him to be a steady and consistent pro thus far in his career.
Looking back on his big run against the Titans in week two, he was a big reason why this play was successful. The offensive line executes their assignments perfectly but Wilkins goes the extra mile by staring down the B gap to his right on the counter. This forces Rashaan Evans to sell out to that hole which gives Wilkins the perfect cutback up the gut for the huge gain. The ability to move defenders with your footwork or eyes and help your offensive line gain optimal position is the key to running back play.
While Wilkins is a great example of patience and vision in this department, Marlon Mack excels in another area of this. His footwork is excellent as he sells gaps that he has no plan in attacking just to get defenders out of position before jump cutting to the opening for extra yards. Look at the sweet feet by Mack here as he sells like he is rushing up the middle while keeping his eyes on that outside linebacker. Once he gets the linebacker to crash down inside, he quickly redirects to that open space to the outside and gains extra yards.
Blocking the unblocked defender is a key trait as a running back. There will be unblocked defenders on every run play. If you can make that defender miss or help him take himself out of position, you will have more success. Mack is outstanding in this area and he really shows it on this play. Here he sells inside just long enough for the unblocked linebacker to crash too far downhill. Once Mack sees the linebacker meet him in the hole, he quickly jump cuts back outside and races to the boundary. The attacking linebacker over pursued inside which led to him falling over his teammate who was engaged with Jack Doyle. Mack essentially blocked this linebacker with his footwork and manipulation.
Let’s look at another example of Mack blocking the unblocked defender with his footwork and block manipulation. Here he has a nice hole up the middle as he reaches the second level. Zach Pascal has the safety locked up and the corner is coming downhill unblocked. Mack presses the outside just enough to get that corner to crash downhill too quickly. This leads to the corner crashing into a teammate as Mack is able to walk the play inside for the easy touchdown.
Let’s include Jonathan Williams to show how block manipulation can turn a good gain into a monster one. I actually talked about this play with Williams not too long ago and asked him about why manipulating that block by Ebron is key on this play. He said, “You gotta have that patience and understand when to press blocks and hit off your blockers. That is when the big plays happen.” Here is that big play where Williams sells inside just enough to where the safety commits to that hole. Williams then plants his leg and gets back to the outside, playing off of the block of Eric Ebron for the big gain. That ability to sell the play and help his blocker led to the huge run.
Let’s get back to another beautiful clip of Jordan Wilkins. Here in the second match-up against the Titans, he shows great patience and discipline to find this hole. On this backside power, he patiently allows for Jack Doyle to control his block on the edge of the play. While doing this, he presses the inside B gap and forces the inside linebacker to fill that lane. As Doyle secures the block, Wilkins is then able to rush back outside and gain a good amount of yards due to pressing that inside hole and getting the inside linebacker out of position.
Marlon Mack is just so good at taking the unblocked defender out of the play. He may never be at the top of the league in missed tackles forced but these types of runs are just about the same thing. Joe Haeg is engaged with Luke Kuechly in the middle of the field as the safety comes downhill to make a tackle on Mack. Mack utilizes Haeg’s block to perfection as he fakes one way and sits behind the block, forcing the safety out of position. Mack basically allowed Haeg to take out two players with his excellent vision and footwork. His growth in this area has been remarkable and is a big reason why he hit 1,000 yards last year.
Jonathan Taylor and how he utilizes this trait
I will say that this is an area where newest Colts running back Jonathan Taylor can stand to improve. He is not poor in this area but could learn from Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins to get better in this area. Still, he has a couple of really good clips where he manipulates defenders with his footwork in college.
Here Taylor is taking the draw play up the middle. The unblocked safety comes downhill and Taylor is able to take him out of the play with subtle footwork. He fakes to the right which brings the safety into that rush lane before cutting back to the left side lane. This subtle jab to the right sucks the safety into the wrong hole and allows for extra yards to be gained on the play.
On this other clip of Taylor, he again shows the ability to manipulate the hole and create yards. Here he presses to the outside on the stretch play which gets the overhang safety drifting that way. He then jump cuts back to the inside with the safety too far outside and out of the play. This leads to a huge gain up the left sideline as a result of a near perfect job of setting the block up by Taylor.
The Colts’ offensive line was a major reason why their run game was so successful on 2019 but don’t overlook the running backs. They understood how to maximize their yardage on each play even if they didn’t make defenders miss in space or run through would be tacklers. They understand the importance of setting up blocks by pressing false gaps and getting players out of position.
Really a lot of this comes down to the excellence of Colts Running Backs Coach Tom Rathman. These backs are all talented but Rathman has helped each of them, especially Marlon Mack, maximize their abilities. This is why I’m not too concerned with Taylor not being elite in this area. Rathman will preach how important it is and get him near the level of Wilkins and Mack in no time. Overall, this running back group is very good and adding a talented player like Taylor should lead to some football in 2020.