WESTFIELD, Ind. — Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is quite comfortable being a target. He’s been a dominant ball carrier at every level of his playing career — and he was the NFL’s best runner last season, winning the rushing title by a whopping 552 yards. What’s different about Taylor this summer? How excited he is about the new possibilities awaiting him this coming fall. Indianapolis’ offense is about to become more balanced, which means Taylor’s poised to unlock even more dimensions of his game.
The Colts made Matt Ryan the latest veteran quarterback to join the franchise, raising hopes that Indianapolis will go on a deep playoff run this season. His arrival — via a trade with the Atlanta Falcons — gives the Colts an established signal-caller who can take full advantage of the threat that Taylor presents in the running game. Colts brass had hoped to get this from Ryan’s predecessor, current Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz, last season. The reality is that Indy went as far as Taylor could carry the team on offense, as he ran for 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns while his 9-8 team fell one win short of reaching the postseason, with Wentz laying an egg in a shocking Week 18 loss at Jacksonville.
Ryan’s chief task is to energize an aerial attack that ranked 26th in the league in passing yards in 2021. Taylor’s job is to continue gashing opponents in a system that will utilize more weapons than it did a year ago.
“It’s going to be on me to make sure I’m playing a part of that chess game,” Taylor said. “A lot of things will be really methodical now. We’ll be setting up plays in the first quarter that we’ll want to [exploit] in later quarters. I need to make sure I’m getting those dirty yards, especially after last season. A lot of the defenses are going to be locked in on me. I have to find a way to impact the game by turning what could be 2- or 3-yard runs into 5- or 6-yard runs.”
There’s little doubt the Colts will continue to run the football effectively. They’ve become one of the best in the league in that department since head coach Frank Reich took over in 2018. Where they often struggled last year was with the dynamic, chunk plays. The more success Taylor enjoyed — while Wentz battled inconsistency — the more Indianapolis leaned on its sturdy offensive line and star back. Taylor had at least 27 carries in four of his team’s final seven games of 2021. All four of those contests ended in victory. The other three games? All losses.
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The Colts want to get back to where they were under quarterback Philip Rivers in 2020, when general manager Chris Ballard remembers the team routinely producing explosive plays after the catch.
“What you hope, or what I think will happen, much like it did with Philip, is the play-action game comes to life,” Ballard said.
That means making the most of Taylor’s explosive presence.
“We want to give him the ball,” Colts offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “But it’s also going to be a game-to-game thing, how we can attack a defense. We want to have balance, but we also want to give him the ball. With our line, we feel like we can still do the job on the ground and move the fronts.”
The key for Taylor is patience. As much as he’d like to touch the ball every play, the Colts want to do more with fellow running back Nyheim Hines. They’re hoping more dependable pass catchers develop to assist Michael Pittman Jr., as an assortment of receivers — including Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin and rookie Alec Pierce — are competing for playing time. The worst thing Taylor can do is worry about playing like a superstar instead of merely doing his job. The major reason Taylor exploded last season, according to the 23-year-old back, was that he mastered the mental aspect of the game.
“When I came in as a rookie, I was like everyone else here: We were basically learning a whole new offense on an iPad,” Taylor said of the COVID-impacted 2020 offseason. “When we started getting live reps in practice, we were doing it against All-Pro linebackers (Shaquille Leonard) and defensive tackles (DeForest Buckner) on our own team. So after that first year, I started understanding the nuances of how the playbook changes each week through the game plan. You may have learned it one way, but then you know you’ll run certain plays a different way depending on the defense. Instead of worrying about what to do, where I need to be and how I need to do it, I learned to play the game at a high level.”
Taylor will have to be even sharper this coming season. He spent the offseason doing hot yoga as part of his conditioning, just to add more flexibility and prepare his body for the relentless punishment he’ll face in his third NFL campaign. Taylor also is eager to make sure the Colts don’t start as woefully as they did in 2021, when the team stumbled out to a 1-4 record. As painful as it was for Indianapolis to blow a playoff spot with the staggering loss to the Jaguars, the Colts certainly didn’t help themselves by opening the year in a deep hole.
There should be a sense of urgency in Indy. The Tennessee Titans have won the last two AFC South titles, but they’re dealing with offensive losses that could hurt their potency. The AFC will be filled with powerful offensive teams, so any struggle could cripple postseason hopes in a hurry. The Colts also are starting their fifth quarterback since Andrew Luck retired just prior to the 2019 season. There will be added pressure, but Taylor also understands what comes with that.
“I know a lot of backs can get frustrated when things aren’t going their way,” Taylor said. “A lot of times in this game, you get one opportunity, one big opportunity. You’ll make plays throughout the game, but you get that one shot at a big play. When that time comes, you have to be prepared and ready to execute. That’s been my mindset going back to college. Whenever that defense makes a mistake, I’m going to be there to capitalize on that.”
The addition of Ryan will make that goal much easier, as the development of a more explosive passing game will be a major factor. Taylor proved last year that he could thrive when so much hung on his shoulders. This year, he could be even better because of the help the Colts have put around him.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.
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