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Colts' Jonathan Taylor gaining ground in trial-by-fire rookie season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

It only takes one play to change the course of a season.

One moment, Jonathan Taylor is a wide-eyed rookie running back as the third option for the Indianapolis Colts. A few moments later, he finds himself in the backfield behind Philip Rivers, with the starter, Marlon Mack, likely shelved for the season after suffering an Achilles injury.

This is in the Colts’ opening game of the season.

Jonathan Taylor

Taylor’s first impression on the stat sheet was a screen play that went for 35 yards. The next play: no gain.

Welcome to the NFL, rook.

In the five games since, Taylor, the second-round pick who starred at Wisconsin, has become the focal point of the Colts’ running game. It’s a lot sooner than Taylor or head coach Frank Reich had hoped, but that’s the flow of attrition in the NFL — one moment to the next, or even one play to the next.

The Colts had planned on something similar to what the Lions have in their backfield, with rookie D’Andre Swift, who was picked 35th overall — six spots ahead of Taylor — in the draft. They wanted Mack, who rushed for 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns last season, to be the main back while Taylor took his time and learned on the job.

Mack’s injury has hastened the timeline.

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“It sucks because going into the season, you're excited to work with Marlon. I was ready to learn so much from him and then once he went down, you didn't know really how the season was going to turn out as far as the running back room and how we were going to do it,” Taylor said this week. “We've been doing a great job. We've been all in there trying to make plays and we've all made some plays and we've all missed some plays.”

As expected, losing Mack has taken a toll on the Colts’ run game, which enters Sunday’s matchup against the Lions at Ford Field as one of the league’s worst statistically. In six games, they’ve managed just 588 yardsand 3.6 yards per carry (both last in the league).

More:Lions have a tall order facing Colts' 'super strong defense'

For his part, Taylor has helped expand the offense with his versatility: 367 rushing yards and three touchdowns and 16 catches for 162 yards — more than Mack had all of last season. Obviously, they still miss the big piece of the tandem.  

“That was what we envisioned ... having Marlon there, and they were going to complement each other well, but Marlon gets hurt, so Jonathan has to step up It's harder, but I'll say this: Jonathan is, physically and mentally built to handle that load,” Reich said. “Firstly, physically, he's a big, strong man, with very good speed. Secondly, just mentally and emotionally, he's very strong as well. He's a very mature guy, mature beyond his years.”

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It’s a continuation of Taylor’s success at Wisconsin, where he rushed for more than 2,000 in his final two seasons and as a junior, added more catches out of the backfield to his repertoire, along with his 4.3 speed and ideal size at 5-foot-10, 225 pounds.

The same things that worked in college are translating well to the NFL.

“You see all the stuff that you saw coming out (of college). Certainly, his power, his explosiveness — you see his speed — I think all of that is still there,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “When you see him get out in space, I think you can really see that for a big guy, he has some of that shiftiness and that smooth running style that he can really have those explosive plays, and then certainly I think he’s done a good job with just his vision.”

Learning curve

Among the draft pool, Clyde Edwards-Helaire looked to be the top running back, but there was some discussion about how the next few would be differentiated. Swift was in that top grouping because of his versatility and with the Lions picking third in the second round, they opted for Swift over Taylor and others, including J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers.

The transition for Taylor in Indianapolis is indicative of the difficulty if a team doesn’t have the balance of a veteran to both help train the rookie and to carry a significant portion of that load can be.

“I do think obviously you’re going to learn on the fly very quickly. I think the running back position, in general, takes a lot of pounding, especially when you run the ball as much as (the Colts) like to run the ball,” Patricia said. “The biggest concern you’ll always have with a young running back is that when you get to probably about Week 14 or 15, when the grind of the NFL season really takes its toll, you’re probably six or four games past what a college season would be, that’s where you start to see a little bit of the wear and tear.

“But (Taylor) hasn’t slowed down at all. He’s not showing that at all now, and they’re just going to keep featuring him from that standpoint. He’s big and he’s strong. I think that’s part of it. He has good size, so he’s going to be able to endure a lot of that as the season goes.”

Retooling the run game would be difficult by itself, but the Colts also saw the offense change at the most important position, which makes the changes that much more dramatic.

New QB

Rivers, a longtime quarterback with the Chargers, also is trying to fit in with the Colts. After the opening loss to the Jaguars, Indianapolis reeled off four wins in the next five games. It’s not an overly impressive list of victories: the Vikings, Jets, Bears and Bengals, but in the AFC South, a 4-2 record is within a game of the division lead and contention in the stacked conference standings.

Finding a rhythm with Rivers is on Reich, a former quarterback, and with one of the top defenses in the league, getting the offense clicking could be the boost the Colts need to get back to the playoffs, sooner than later.

“There’s always an ongoing process to jelling as an offense to finding your rhythm. I think the fact that we have a new quarterback, in normal circumstances would be hard. I think what's making this easier — and not that we're hitting on all cylinders; I'm not suggesting that at all — is Phillip’s got a lot of experience and has been around 17 years,” Reich said. “That's quite a lot of football. Obviously, he knows the offense that we're running here is similar to what we did in San Diego together, so that made it easier.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard