INDIANAPOLIS – Perhaps the most compelling reason for the optimism around the Indianapolis Colts’ offense entering this season was the presence of running back Jonathan Taylor, a big-play extraordinaire coming off one of the more impressive rushing campaigns in recent years.
Now, as Indianapolis’ season continues to unravel, it can be argued that Taylor’s 2022 performance is an indicator of another sort: One that speaks to the depths of the Colts’ ongoing offensive struggles.
Contrasting Taylor’s remarkable 2021 performance versus his frustrating 2022 season is jarring. He has experienced precipitous declines in numerous statistical categories after leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,811) and rushing touchdowns (18) last season.
Taylor hasn’t lost the optimism he consistently exudes, but even he can’t help but recognize the disparity.
“You understand last season was very special and everybody wants that,” Taylor said. “Yes, you want to get better, but certain seasons are special for a reason. Now, it's all about what are you gonna do with this season, this opportunity that you have right now?”
Taylor has done what he can, but that’s been limited by his own health and a litany of external factors. Taylor battled ankle and foot problems and missed three games with injuries, the first time in his college or pro career he’d been sidelined because he was hurt (he missed one game in 2020 while on the reserve/COVID-19 list). Throw in the considerable downgrade in offensive-line performance and a passing game that has failed to pose a consistent downfield threat, and you get a messy situation.
Here's a sampling of Taylor’s decline in 2022:
Taylor scored one touchdown for every 18 carries in 2021. This season – he’s scored just four rushing touchdowns – Taylor has scored once in every 48 rushing attempts. It’s a statistic that, as much as anything, reflects the Colts’ status as a team that ranks 31st in scoring.
Taylor averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but has seen that number drop to a career-low 4.5 this season.
Explosive runs (10 yards or longer) were a calling card for Taylor in 2021. He recorded explosive runs on 15.1% or carries last season, but that number has fallen to 10.9% this season.
Taylor enjoyed the ninth-best yards-before-contact figure among running backs last season at 2.86 yards. In 2022, he ranks 26th at 2.23 yards.
Taylor has also fumbled more frequently, coughing up the ball once every 64 carries this season. Last season, he fumbled once every 111 carries. His protection has been questionable, too, with several key “communication” errors, as he put it, that have led to crucial mistakes or turnovers.
To be clear, Taylor is still on pace for a very productive season. He’s averaging 86 rushing yards per game, putting him on pace for 1,205 by season’s end. Most running backs would happily take that. But Taylor isn’t most running backs.
He set the bar at a ridiculous level with his 2021 performance. To provide a sense of the historic nature of that season, consider that Taylor’s 50 explosive runs last season was the most by a running back in a single season since Adrian Peterson produced 61 such runs in 2012 with the Minnesota Vikings.
As for the factors behind Taylor’s struggles this season, interim coach Jeff Saturday pointed specifically to the challenges in the passing game.
“Obviously, from the success he has had, defenses play you a little bit different,” Saturday said. “We haven’t been proficient pushing the ball down the field, taking shots, which means safeties and corners play closer to the line of scrimmage. They can insert better. So, without having that outside kind of pressure that you’re putting on guys, it makes it more difficult for those explosive runs. So, it all kind of fits together.”
The Colts (4-8-1) aren’t facing an inordinate number of eight-man tackle boxes, but Saturday’s point remains true in terms of the depths that defenders play and their ability to respond when the Colts run the ball. The dropoff in offensive-line play means Taylor is also having to shed more tacklers as blockers aren’t getting to the second level of the defense as often.
It's arguable that a more recent factor could be play selection. The midseason coaching change from Frank Reich to Saturday means there was a change in playcallers, too.
Under Parks Frazier, the Colts’ new playcaller, the team has been a bit more predictable in certain situations. Indianapolis has gone from 29th in the rate of designed runs on first down under Reich (41.6%) to fifth in the past four games (60.2%). Taylor was averaging 4.12 yards on first-down carries before the coaching change. He’s averaged 3.56 since.
There’s a backdrop behind all this that will become more of a storyline in the coming months: Taylor has one more season remaining on his rookie deal and will likely seek a contract extension in the coming offseason. Conventional wisdom says he’s earned one, but could his dropoff this season complicate potential negotiations?
Time will tell on that. More immediately, Taylor is just looking for finish the season with some momentum. That momentum appears to be building; Taylor has averaged 99.8 rushing yards over the past four games as his health and the performance of the offensive line have shown gradual improvement.
“He’s been close,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “You have to have multiple opportunities to get to the second level, and that's where he's dynamic. In these next four games, we’ve gotta find ways to try and get him into that second level.
“Because when he does, his hit rate's pretty good.”