The last time the Colts had a running game that was at least league average was in 2005, they averaged 106.4 yards per game. Running back Edgerrin James was the lead back, as he had 1,506 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. That was 13 years ago; a lot has changed since then. The Colts starting running back, Marlon Mack was only nine years old at the time, while Andrew Luck was a sophomore at Stratford High School in Houston. Most importantly, there have been four head coaching changes in that span. In 2018, the Colts finally got it right by adding former Eagle’s offensive coordinator Frank Reich to be the head coach and to revitalize their running game. So far, that’s worked as the Colts are twelfth in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 117.6 yards per game. However, that’s not all because of Reich’s playbook. Young running backs Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins have all been huge reasons as to why the Colts can run the ball in 2018. The Colts have rebuilt the offensive line, which has done an admirable job in making Reich’s zone scheme-blocking scheme work.
Before talking about the running backs and scheme, the offensive line needs credit where it’s due. Since Andrew Luck was drafted in 2012, the Colts have spent draft capital nearly every year on offensive linemen. Not only to create a sufficient offensive line to keep Luck upright and to boost their running game. But, it took a long time, and a lot of assets to generate the line they have in 2018.
The Colts starting lineup of Anthony Costanzo-Quenton Nelson-Ryan Kelly-Matt Glowinski-Braden Smith has been mostly drafted by the Colts (upset for Glowinski). That line has solidified themselves as one of the better run blocking units in the NFL through the first half of the 2018 season. Left guard Quenton Nelson might be the biggest reason as to why the Colts are running the ball so well, as this was expected with him being the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Frank Reich’s scheme has done an excellent job of creating a scary rushing attack with three scat-back type players. That scheme is predicated on athletic linemen that cannot only pull around the offensive line but can also work up to the second level to create artificial lanes for the back to run through. They got just that in former Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and Auburn alumn Braden Smith (plays both right tackle and right guard). Both bench pressed an impressive 35 reps (225 pounds) at the combine. Nelson had a 105″ broad jump, Smith had a 113″ broad jump, which showed they have the lower body power to jump out in front of bigger defensive linemen. Each also performed well in their 20-yard-shuttle (which tests their agility) Smith had a 4.77, while Nelson had a 4.62.
So what do all of these numbers do for the Colts? They mean that both are as athletically gifted as any guards in the league, meaning that they can adequately be utilized in Indianapolis.
Now that the Colts have ideal linemen for Reich to work with, the right running backs had to be put on the roster to take advantage of that scheme. The trio of Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins are a fantastic match for that scheme.
Marlon Mack is the primary running back for the Colts. Despite Mack’s hamstring injuries, he leads the Colts with 381 yards, and three touchdowns in only four games during the 2018 season.
In 2017, Marlon Mack established himself as the Colts starting back of the future. But, he needed a lot of work. He wasn’t patient when attacking defenses, as he often jumped around behind the line of scrimmage rather than finding a lane to attack. He was an elusive back while at the University of South Florida, but those issues haunted him then. Despite a solid combine that saw him be a top performer in the broad jump category and boasting a 4.50 40-yard-dash, Mack fell to the fourth round in the 2017 NFL draft.
2018 presents an entirely different running back in Marlon Mack. He has taken advantage of all the artificial lanes that Quenton Nelson and company have opened up, enabling him to use his speed and agility to attack defenses. In 2018, he’s ranked as the third-best running back in the NFL according to football outsiders DYAR, proving that he is an efficient back that makes the most of his opportunities.
Notice the play above. An eight-yard run by Marlon Mack. The play was beautifully set up by tight end Jack Doyle (No. 84) and the offensive line. The play is a wham-block counter. What that means is that guard Quenton Nelson (No. 56) and center Ryan Kelly (No. 78) essentially switch places, each attacking their own separate zones of the field, Jack Doyle then finishes the blocking duties by quickly blocking out the edge rusher (a wham block), while the rest of the line moves to the second level. Marlon Mack moves right to sell to the run in that area, then quickly shifts back to the left to take advantage of the open space to the left. Mack does an excellent job of reading his blocks then bursting through to reach the second level.
Marlon Mack is the best of the Colts running backs due to his vision behind the line of scrimmage. But his quick feet and burst are underrated as they help him in racking up big-time yardage. This all too apparent on this 49-yard run versus the Raiders. Watch how the entire line and Doyle shift to the left side of the line — another zone run. Mack does an excellent job of staying outside to let his blocks development then cutting inside to the hole for a big run. After he gets through that hole, there is nothing else for Mack to do as he sprints near the sideline for a huge rush.
One of Mack’s biggest weaknesses is running in between the tackles. His 5’11”, 209-pound frame just isn’t built to power run through a gap for easy yards. But, Reich has done an excellent job in masking this.
Watch this four-yard touchdown run up the middle against the Raiders below. The offensive line once again is in a zone-blocking scheme to the left side. The right tackle Braden Smith (No. 72) and Mark Glowinski (No. 64) each shift to the left, while Quenton Nelson (No. 56) and Ryan Kelly (No. 72) double team on the left side. This creates a wide open lane for Mack to run through, and he smartly takes that lane.
This next play is once again a zone-blocking run, but this time it’s to the right side of the line. Notice how the line upset for Nelson (No. 56) shifts to the left side, while Nelson and tight end Erik Swoope (No. 86) pull around to the right to create a gap for Mack to through. Mack doesn’t immediately run through what I call a fake gap (a hole that looks open but isn’t), he waits for his blocks to develop then runs through the lane for a five-yard run. Suddenly he shifts through the line, showing off his quickness and vision. This is what I like most about Mack, his patience behind the line of scrimmage, and his vision once he reaches the gap.
Mack is the best running back on the Colts. He’s not the most physically nor athletically gifted player on the roster, but that doesn’t matter. His excellent vision and patience behind the line make up for his physical deficiencies. Those tools are in my opinion the most important for a running back, and a big reason why he has run for 125+ yards in two consecutive games. He’s the workhorse running back for the Colts, while Nyheim Hines earns the nod as the third-down pass catcher.
I was a big fan of Hines after his junior year at North Carolina State. He was a two-sport athlete, as he was an outstanding sprinter for the Wolfpack track and field team. His 4.38 40-yard-dash showed why he was able to do both sports. That made him my favorite pick from the Colts after Quenton Nelson. He reminds me of a Darren Sproles, Chris Thompson type scat-back, as he has the same type of ‘sparkplug’ frame of those two. At 5’8″ and nearly 200 pounds, Hines is built to be a receiving back. But, he also provides value as a change of pace back that can take advantage of Reich’s heavy zone-blocking scheme. Through the first half of the NFL season, Hines has 34 receptions for 187 yards on an 81 percent catch completion rate with two receiving touchdowns. On the ground, Hines has 52 attempts for 238 yards with one touchdown. Averaging a solid 4.6 yards per run attempt.
Hines is best used as a back receiving passes, either at half back or in the slot. He has fantastic hands, while he has shown that he can be a solid route runner running back in the NFL.
The play above proves that as Hines runs a beautiful nod stick route, and despite his 5’8″ frame leaps to the ball for a contested catch over Tyranne Mathieu (No. 32). This was a fantastic play that shows off just how good his receiving ability is.
Another area where Hines is effective is as a screen catcher. This is all too true on this next play, which is a tunnel screen to Hines. Notice how quick Hines is after the catch, despite being about six yards away from the line of scrimmage, Hines is able to get a nine-yard reception. That reception and yards gained can be credited to how fast Hines is able to accelerate, reaching full speed in a matter of steps. After he catches the ball, Hines does an excellent job of following his blocks for a solid play.
Watch this next play, where Hines runs a curl route from the running back position. He runs a fixed route and gets a good cushion from it. From there, Hines is able to show off just how quick he is, changing direction to avoid a tackle. You’ll notice that Hines is able to be brought down quickly, an area of his game that he needs to improve on.
Hines’ speed is all too real on sweep plays. Notice how Luck falls while giving the snap, which slows down the play. Hines can recover from that fall as he runs around the edge for a ten-yard run. Despite not having blocks in front of him, Hines is able to make a good play out of what seemed like was nothing.
The very next play was once again a testament to how fast Hines is. Marlon Mack takes the ball out of the pistol formation to hand it off to the sweeping Hines. In open space, Hines is most useful as his pure speed is dangerous. He takes the run for 18 yards while juking out safety Micah Hyde (No. 23).
I’d like to see improvement when Hines runs the ball between the tackles. Notice this solid 14-yard run between the tackles versus Buffalo. Watch the blocking assessments during this run. Quenton Nelson (No. 56) and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (No. 74) double-team the defensive tackle against a four-man defensive rush, while tight end Ebron (No. 85), Glowinski (No. 64), and Smith (No. 72) guard their pre-set gap assignments. This allows center Ryan Kelly to go uncontested, which enables him to reach the second level. Those zone assignments open up a wide-open lane for Hines to run through, and he takes advantage of it. But, he makes an improper read on the second level, running vertically rather than horizontally. If Hines had made a second cut to the right, he had blockers to set up a potential touchdown run. A testament to Hines’ poor vision running between the tackles.
The Colts are masking Hines poor vision by running set plays where he doesn’t have to analyze where he is going. Watch this play below to see what I mean by that.
Notice that this play has Hines facing the sideline. All he has to do is run through the hole to take advantage of his speed, while Kelly (No. 78), and Glowinski (No. 72). He executes the play well, while Reich does an excellent job of masking his poor vision when handing the ball off to him.
Overall, Hines is still the same player I thought he was coming into the draft. He is a gadget player that is best utilized on zone runs, and creative play calling, which Reich brings to the Colts. His vision and inconsistencies do need work, but these are things that can come to Hines as he is still a rookie and not wholly acclimated to the speed of the NFL game. He is best used as a change of pace back, or a slot wide receiver, which we have seen. I like what he brings to the Colts, as he is a solid complementary back to Marlon Mack.
Wilkins is still a relative unknown to most casual NFL fans. He missed a lot of time at Ole Miss, which didn’t help his draft stock. Ultimately the talented back fell to the fifth round where the Colts selected him in the 2018 draft. Despite being 6’1″, Wilkins only has 216 pounds on his frame, which means he won’t be running over any NFL linebackers any time soon. He’s a finesse type of running back with quick feet and an array of moves in open space. Like Mack and Hines, he is best used as a zone-running player with artificial holes to help him run. Although he lacks physicality, Wilkins has been productive for the Colts, as he has 52 rushing attempts for 235 yards good for 4.5 average yards per run through the year. Those numbers won’t rise much, as Wilkins will be the secondary back behind Mack, while Hines gets touches on the third down.
The NFL game isn’t too fast for Wilkins, he has excellent vision when attacking defenses. But, he doesn’t offer enough compared to Hines and Mack. He is quickly brought down, which is shown here as cornerback Josh Norman (No. 24) was able to make a quick tackle on Wilkins.
Notice how Wilkins follows Quenton Nelson’s (No. 56), and Jack Doyle’s (No. 84) pulling blocks here. Those blocks open up a lane for Wilkins to run through, and he does. He does an excellent job of reaching the second level, but his speed is not enough to get passed Norman, as Norman is able to quickly stop this 11-yard run. This was more of a great job by the line for creating the lane than Wilkins to finish it.
Watch how Wilkins does a solid job of assessing where his blocks are going here. He follows Doyle’s (No. 84) lead block here, showing just how good his vision is when the lane is open for him. But, he makes a fatal flaw. In tight space, juking left and right don’t work if you don’t have the frame to bounce off defenders, and that shows with Wilkins. He jukes right, but he’s not strong nor aware enough to deflect the tackle from cornerback Quinton Dunbar. If Wilkins put his head down and covers the ball to contest the tackle, this play wouldn’t have resulted in a four-yard run, it would have been closer to six or seven yards.
Wilkins certainly offers the Colts with good vision and speed in their running scheme. But, his role will be diminished with Marlon Mack’s return. For Wilkins to get more touches, he will need to be more physical in his running style to offer the Colts with a back that can get tough yardage. He’s the tallest running back on the roster, but according to height-and-weight ratio, he’s also the smallest.
I like where the Colts are going with the way they are running the ball. They know exactly what their strengths are, while also identifying where they stand in their weaknesses. The implementation of Reich’s heavy zone-blocking scheme helps Mack, Hines, and Wilkins to see a hole and run through it, which is a perfect match for the two. Despite all of the Colts strong suits while running the ball, there are plenty of weak points. None of the running backs looks like the part of a brawler that all teams need. Nonetheless, the Colts are using what works, rather than trying to fit a square through a circle, the Colts are staying put with what they have and doing an excellent job of making it work.