Film study: Why Colts’ Jonathan Taylor is dominating the NFL run game

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Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor is emerging as a legitimate superstar this season.

With the recent injury to Tennessee Titans workhorse Derrick Henry, Taylor has emerged from the shadow of his AFC South counterpart. Taylor leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,122), yards from scrimmage (1,444), rushing touchdowns (13) and longest run from scrimmage (83 yards). He’s also the first running back to reach 1,000-yard mark on the season.

Taylor currently averages 5.8 yards per carry and has over 100 total yards in eight consecutive games. Here are his numbers since Week 4:

Week

Opponent

Total yds.

TDs

4

at Miami

114

1

5

at Baltimore

169

2

6

Houston

158

2

7

at San Francisco

110

1

8

Tennessee

122

1

9

N.Y. Jets

200

2

10

Jacksonville

126

1

11

at Buffalo

204

5

Taylor, a second-year pro who rushed for 6,174 yards during his collegiate career with the Wisconsin Badgers, also just set a Colts franchise record with five touchdowns in a blowout win over the Buffalo Bills.

Taylor is only 48 yards away from surpassing his rushing yardage total from his entire rookie season and two rushing first downs away from eclipsing his total from 2020.

When the Colts started the season 0-3, Taylor averaged only 57 rushing yards per game. Now 6-5 and in the midst of the AFC playoff chase, the Colts are on a three-game winning streak. In those past three games, Taylor has averaged 158 rushing yards.

What changed? His snaps. He is now the workhorse of the Colts offense.

Taylor had 32 carries and three receptions against Buffalo on Sunday, and he’s been on the field for more than 80% of the team’s offensive snaps each of the past two weeks.

Let’s examine some game film to learn why Taylor has been so effective.

Ball skills

Let’s not forget that Taylor clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time among running backs at last year’s scouting combine at 4.39, and that speed certainly has translated to the NFL game.

According to Next Gen Stats, he reached a top speed of 22.05 mph on his 78-yard touchdown run against the New York Jets in Week 8.

Taylor uses vision and patience behind the line of scrimmage. Then once he reaches the second level, he has very quick acceleration as he reaches the safety.

He’s able to accelerate so efficiently because of his patience in waiting for holes to open. Once he sees his linemen turn to block their defenders, he immediately gets north and south, which is optimal when trying to reach top speed as quickly as possible.

Fortunately for Taylor, he runs behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. He’s often able to locate and follow the blocker farthest upfield before making one cut with only one defender left to beat.

Run scheme

Taylor is at his best is when the Colts call stretch runs — also known as zone-blocking plays.

The offensive linemen will stretch to one side of the field and block the defenders in front of them, before plowing ahead and putting a helmet on another defender at the second level. This leaves a large area between the defensive line and linebackers, allowing a cutback or speed burst if needed.

Here is an example:

Since Taylor is averaging nearly six yards per carry, it stands to reason that the offense frequently will see third-and-short.

The Colts offense is difficult to stop because it’s running a diverse run game with Taylor. Switching up different looks makes it tough to predict where the ball-carrier will go. Wentz has handed the ball off from under center, from the shotgun, in two-back sets, and from delayed handoffs, pitches and counters.

All of these options make it harder for the defense to predict where the play is going, and Taylor’s vision from inside zone stretch plays are where he gets his most explosive runs.

Misdirection

The Colts also are running a lot of misdirection at the line of scrimmage — both pre-snap and at the snap. Sometimes they actually will run both.

Why? The Colts are no longer seeing two high safeties because defenses are trying to stack the box to limit Taylor and the run game. But simple misdirection can eliminate a second-level defender, leaving only one defender deep over the top. Then all it takes is one bad angle from the safety to spring a big gain.

Colts coach Frank Reich loves to use his tight ends in the passing and run game, and Jack Doyle just happens to be ranked as the best run-blocking tight end in the league by Pro Football Focus.

In the touchdown below, Doyle makes a critical block to allow Taylor to get into the end zone. Doyle comes across the line of scrimmage to pick up the penetrating defender, leaving a huge gap for Taylor.

In the clip below, on one of Taylor’s longest runs of the season, running back Nyheim Hines motions across the line of scrimmage, leaving a huge gap in the second level of the defense.

According to ESPN, the Colts rank 10th in the league in their use of motion at the snap.

Motion at the snap is a little bit different than pre-snap motion in that pre-snap motion can make a defense uneven — but they still have time to adjust before the snap of the ball. Motioning at the snap can open a hole for the running back on the spot, and it’s up to the running back to use his vision to find and exploit the lane.

Although the NFL MVP usually is awarded to a quarterback, Taylor is a legitimate contender for the award. He’s on pace for 1,734 rushing yards and 2,232 yards from scrimmage. If he maintains that pace and helps lift the Colts to a playoff berth, he could become the first tailback to win the MVP since Adrian Peterson back in 2012.

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