To many fans and analysts, Jonathan Taylor is the best running back in the NFL. At the very least, he’s top 3. He is the best player on the Colts offense. So the fact that he only got 13 touches in last week’s game against the Jaguars was embarrassing. He got a good chunk of touches in Week 1 against the Texans and averaged 5 yards per touch. Last week against the Jaguars, the lack of balance from the Colts offense allowed the Jaguars to play more in the secondary and by exploiting some mismatches on the offensive line, such as Josh Allen vs Matt Pryor, they were able to get to Matt Ryan with only 4 or 5 rushers. Why were the Jaguars able to drop so many players into coverage in the first place? Because the Colts didn’t threaten the Jags with their running game.
The Lack of Balance
Fans have been criticizing Matt Ryan and while he has made some bad mistakes, I would not put him at the top of the list in terms of issues with the offense; to me, that list starts with Frank Reich followed by the offensive line excluding Nelson and Smith and then the receivers after that. During the loss to the Jaguars, the Colts threw the ball 70% of the time. They controlled the ball for 21 minutes of the game and while the Jaguars slowly added points each quarter, the Colts started getting pass happy in the 1st half, which is inexcusable so early in the game. So what happens when you get too pass happy in the Colts’ situation?
First off, the Colts have one of, if not, the weakest receiving group in the NFL. That is not a group of players you want to rely on and the one player you can rely on (Pittman) was injured against the Jaguars. So if you’re passing the ball, your receivers will not get open, make proper routes or run the crispest routes, which reduces the chances of a successful passing attack.
Secondly, Matt Pryor, Ryan Kelly and Danny Pinter have been very weak in pass protection this season. Ryan has felt a lot of pressure over the first two weeks and that has led to a lot of turnovers. When you have Matt Ryan throwing 40 times a game, it opens himself and the offense up to the chance of pressure created turnovers, which is what has happened in the first two weeks. Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 7.4 (you read that right) on throws under pressure this season. It’s safe to say that if the Colts are looking to pass the ball, they better ask Ryan to get rid of it quickly or have 6-7 players blocking.
What will happen if the Colts run the ball more? The passing game will get much better.
When there is a threat to run the ball, the defense needs to respect that, so they’ll put more guys on the defensive line or in the box as a linebacker or safety. That will eliminate players from the secondary and that will give Ryan more favourable matchups. The Colts receivers are not good enough to read zone coverages and sit in empty areas so they need to create as many one-on-one matchups and get lucky with a few of them.
From there, the play action game opens up. With a serious play action game (something the Colts were good at last season with a subpar quarterback), the receivers will get even more favourable matchups as they’ll have coverage support players like safeties biting or hesitating on runs. By just passing the ball with no threat of running, the safeties will drop deep, the cornerbacks will play with a 3-4 yard cushion, keep everything in front of them and force a desperate Colts team to keep everything short. When you’re losing, that’s not an ideal strategy.
If the Colts reintroduce the threat of Jonathan Taylor, the passing game will thrive. They need to get back to running the ball (mostly with Taylor) 50% of the time.
Jonathan Taylor isn’t seeing heavy boxes
Jonathan Taylor has seen 8+ players in the box 8% of the time this season. In fact, in his first game against the Texans, he didn’t see a stacked box once. While it’s important to note that in blowout games, defenses are going to be playing nickel and dime defenses that take defenders out of the box so the 8% figure isn’t fully accurate, but even if we were to triple that number, that would not put him in the top 10 and he’s probably the best running back in football.
Why is having 7 players or less in the box important? Because, in theory, if blocked well, Taylor would only have to make less players miss in order to generate a big run. The more players are in the box, even with more Colts players blocking, things get messier and the chances of creating a big play diminishes. It’s why having a smart quarterback like Matt Ryan is important because he can audible out of plays in order to create a favourable run situation. This is called “counting the numbers” and it requires cutting the offensive line in half and counting the amount of players you have blocking on one side versus how many defenders are lined up on that side pre-snap. You ideally want to have it be even at the very least or you have a player advantage. The second you are at a disadvantage, you need to audible into something else; this is what Peyton Manning was so good at and partially why his teams ALWAYS had strong running games.
So, with Taylor not seeing a lot of players in the box, it opens up plenty of advantageous possibilities for them in the run game.
Winning the Time of Possession Battle against Patrick Mahomes
Let’s be real: against the Colts this week, anytime Mahomes touches the ball, the offense is more likely to score than not score. He picked apart Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 defense last year when Bradley was with the Raiders. In fact, in both games against the Raiders, Mahomes went 55/74 for 664 yards with 7 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (132.9 passer rating). His team put up a total of 89 points in both games. He kills Gus Bradley’s defense and Bradley’s defense was called very vanilla in the first few weeks, relying on Cover 3 match coverage a majority of the time with Gilmore and Moore playing outside and Blackmon as the deep single high player. What happens in those coverages is it leaves the flats open early on in plays and that opens up the defense to quick passes to those areas. Over the first two weeks, the Colts are only able to even pressure the quarterback about 28% of the time. They rank 7th lowest in adjusted sack rate (which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent). This means that around 3 out of every 4 throws, the quarterback releases the ball from a clean pocket. In a clean pocket, Mahomes has a passer rating of 118.0 this season and 110.6 last season, so on 3 out of every 4 throws, Mahomes is going to average somewhere in the 110s in terms of passer rating; that will kill the Colts.
What does this have to do with Jonathan Taylor? Taylor is the crucial piece of the time of possession puzzle. We know that Mahomes is most likely going to kill the Colts each time he touches the ball so the best defense is to not have him touch the ball and that can’t happen if the Colts are throwing the ball 30-35+ times against the Chiefs. The clock won’t run and it will lead to quicker drives. Matt Ryan’s passer rating is 63.9 this season and despite the fact that the poor offensive line, the brutal receiving group and the poor play-calling have not helped him, that 63.9 figure demonstrates that the passing game is in disarray and it’s not something you can rely on (unlike Buffalo, who pass early and often and see great rewards). The Colts’ only real hope is to not pass the ball, rely on Jonathan Taylor and just eat the clock.
Jonathan Taylor has been excellent so far, so use him!
Jonathan Taylor getting a ton of touches and carries is not something we should be talking about this early in the season, but it’s key and the run game is the offense’s only hope of generating consistent production. The passing game has been non-existent for a number of reasons, and I don’t expect those to change in a week or two. Taylor, on the other hand, is ranked high in DYAR, a great measure that looks at the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. He is also ranked in the top 10 for yards per attempt, a number that can be easily manipulated by outliers this early in the season. Taylor’s longest run has been 21 yards this season so that proves he has been consistently picking up yards on each carry. It’s not rocket science, your best player is playing well so don’t give him 13 touches against a division rival. Against the Chiefs, he needs to get at least 30-35 touches.