INDIANAPOLIS — It’s officially in the books as a 1-yard run, but Jonathan Taylor showed so much of what has made him one of the hottest running backs in the NFL during the acquisition of those 3 feet.
The second-round rookie from Wisconsin started by making Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Avery Williamson — who had 14 tackles Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts — miss in the backfield. But that only bought him a momentary respite.
Crashing in from his cornerback spot, three-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden delivered a blow Taylor absorbed at the 2-yard line. Almost instantaneously, linebacker Vince Williams moved in for what he hoped would be the kill shot to end the run.
But Taylor shook out of Haden’s grasp and ran through Williams in a single move.
That left only all-pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick between Taylor and the end zone. Fitzpatrick started to wrap the running back up at the 1-yard line, but Taylor rotated his hips through the tackle and fell backward into the end zone — bringing Fitzpatrick along for the ride.
Elusiveness. Power. Vision.
It was all on display as Taylor scored his second — and final — touchdown during the first half of a 28-24 loss at Pittsburgh. And it all gives the Colts plenty of reason to be excited about the 21-year-old’s future.
“I can’t explain it,” Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich said. “All I know is he is in beast mode right now. The guy is in beast mode, and he is creating on his own. He’s seeing things. He’s powerful. He’s elusive. He’s getting the tough yards. The way he’s been playing the last couple of weeks, I’d put him up against anybody.”
In his last five games, Taylor has rushed for 488 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He’s also caught 13 passes for 95 yards and another score, while missing a week as a high-risk COVID-19 close contact.
It’s been more than enough to erase doubts after a slow start, and it has him on the verge of entering some pretty impressive territory. He needs 84 yards Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars to become the first Colts rookie since Joseph Addai in 2006 — and just the fifth in franchise history — to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
“That would be huge, especially in your rookie year, especially in a year like this,” Taylor said of reaching the milestone. “That would be something really special.”
The biggest obstacle might simply be the number of times he touches the ball. With the Colts focused on offensive balance, and Nyheim Hines remaining a regular option in the backfield, Taylor has only met or exceeded 20 carries in a game three times.
He had 18 carries — for 74 yards — last week at Pittsburgh, and much of the postgame conversation centered on his lack of touches as the Steelers rallied in the second half.
With left tackle Anthony Castonzo done for the season and the Jaguars’ defense ranked 30th in the NFL against the run, it makes a lot of sense for Indianapolis to turn to the ground game early and often.
If that results in Taylor reaching that 1,000-yard milestone, all the better. Most importantly, it’s likely the best path to victory.
The Colts need a win and some help to reach the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Reich was mum Friday when asked who will start at left tackle in place of Castonzo.
The Colts have a number of options including moving Braden Smith over from the right side or installing veteran Jared Veldheer in the position after just two practices with the team. Backups Chaz Green and J’Marcus Webb also remain possibilities.
But the most intriguing option is moving all-pro Quenton Nelson outside from his left guard spot. Nelson did well in a single series at tackle during the Dec. 13 win in Las Vegas, and Reich confirmed he took snaps at tackle during practice this week. Also of note, Joey Hunt — who played left guard while Nelson was at tackle against the Raiders — was elevated from the practice squad Friday.
“Quenton Nelson is, as we know, just a unique player,” Reich said. “To do something like that — first of all, it not only takes a skillset but it takes a mindset, and Quenton has the kind of mindset that can do something like that.”
Two starting defensive backs — safety Khari Willis and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin — will miss Sunday’s game with concussions. Reserve offensive tackle Will Holden (ankle) also was ruled out.
Rookie wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (concussion) is questionable after practicing in full the past two days.
Wide receiver D.J. Chark (shin), wide receiver Collin Johnson (hamstring) and running back James Robinson (ankle) were ruled out for Jacksonville. Running back Nathan Cottrell (hip) is questionable and was a limited participant in Friday’s practice.