Jonathan Taylor’s MVP candidacy is a win for the Indianapolis Colts, with or without an award | NFL News


Jonathan Taylor has been running riot in his sophomore year with the Colts

Jonathan Taylor has been running riot in his sophomore year with the Colts

Since 1990 just eight running backs have collected the NFL’s award for MVP, five of which came between 1990 and 2000 before a pass-first paradigm colonised play sheets. Could Jonathan Taylor be number nine?

A pass-happy league has equated to a quarterback-driven mantelpiece ornament, likely heading to a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers household on this occasion. And while the answer to whether Taylor can buck the trend may be a blunt and inevitable no, he has been as much an MVP to the Indianapolis Colts as any player has to any team in the league.

On a typical day at the office this season you might find Taylor lurking in his ‘i’ formation, darting behind the mid-zone concept to the weak side, using the time and momentum granted by his deep starting position to wait for a defense to overcommit on the slide before shifting back inside. You might find a sprinkle of outside zone here, a dash of funky split zone there, some motioning window-dressing, vision-impairing tight splits, RPO poker faces, a barrage of broken tackles, incisive cuts and clinical lane identification and navigation.

The 2020 second-round pick leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,348), rushing touchdowns (16), total scrimmage yards (1,684), total touchdowns (18), yards per carry (5.6), yards after contact (916), yards before contact (512) and first downs (86); he is also on course to become the first running back to have 2,000-plus scrimmage yards and over 20 touchdowns since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.

Watch Jonathan Taylor's five touchdowns as the Indianapolis Colts secured an impressive 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills

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Watch Jonathan Taylor’s five touchdowns as the Indianapolis Colts secured an impressive 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills

Watch Jonathan Taylor’s five touchdowns as the Indianapolis Colts secured an impressive 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills

Taylor has pre-meditated and executed efficiently and emphatically as chief beneficiary of a Colts scheme reliant on selfless assignments and individual battles being won. He has been make-no-bones-about-it rampant, but MVP consideration for one is recognition of all.

In a season when defensive coordinators have been cracking down on aerial chunk plays with two-deep soft coverages in order to challenge teams to be patient with pound-the-rock 10 to 15-play drives, the Colts and Taylor flaunt what to them is a polished identity and what is to some an envied answer in their sophisticated ground game.

As is the case with Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans, the response from defensive coordinators has been a stack-the-box insistence with a view to putting the offense entirely at Carson Wentz’s feet.

Coming off his five-touchdown game against the Buffalo Bills in Week 11, Taylor had run into loaded boxes a fourth-most 63 times on the year, according to Pro Football Focus, and scored a touchdown or picked up a first down a league-high 38 per cent of the time. He had also recorded a third-most 350 yards on such runs, while averaging a second-most 4.1 yards after contact and 5.6 yards per carry, third most for players with 40-plus attempts.

Success in the face of suffocation is a culmination of multiple things: a proclivity to make correct lane reads, precise cuts, slalom between bodies, plough tackles and readjust to the occasionally-collapsed pocket, but also pre-snap motion to fill a ‘C’ gap with a tight end for duo concept purposes or to drag a linebacker horizontally with a jet sweep receiver, and every man on the offensive line winning their duel in a one-back system to leave Taylor with just a sole defensive back to beat.

Few teams play eight-man front, stuff-the-run baiting defense better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lured/forced the Colts into temporarily stepping away from their ground attack during their 38-31 victory in Week 12.

Indianapolis led 24-14 at the half having thrown three touchdown passes while averaging a measly 3.1 yards per carry against Tampa’s stacked box, prompting 26 consecutive passing plays after the break before Taylor re-entered the fold with eight carries for 58 yards and a score on a late fourth-quarter drive. As you would imagine, there were takeaways aplenty.

Some critics bemoaned head coach Frank Reich for taking the ball out the hands of his star player, on the belief the Bucs had hooked the bite they wanted. Others could appreciate the futility in pounding their head against a brick wall that continued to outnumber the Colts on the ground.

On the topic of those loaded boxes, Bill Belichick might fancy one or two of his own when the New England Patriots visit the Colts this Sunday.

Reich could not have been more transparent with his explanation post-game, noting how eight of 15 first and second-down calls in the third quarter were meant for Taylor, three of which were passes and the rest being RPO runs. He added that six RPOs in the second half were called runs to Taylor that ended up as passes due to loaded boxes, on which they averaged seven yards a play, a return he admitted he would be happy with were it the result of a carry.

Of course, after 26 consecutive passing plays an RPO loses some of its RPO deception, while zero points and back-to-back turnover drives in the third quarter make it that little bit more difficult to justify. And yet the Colts still managed to become just the third team this year to put up 30 points against the reigning champions.

Jonathan Taylor weaves through the Baltimore Ravens defense and races clear for a 76-yard touchdown

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Jonathan Taylor weaves through the Baltimore Ravens defense and races clear for a 76-yard touchdown

Jonathan Taylor weaves through the Baltimore Ravens defense and races clear for a 76-yard touchdown

It spoke to a wider picture of how creatively Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady have had to be with Taylor as his production and value has risen since entering the league. Bigger threat = loaded boxes on a more consistent basis. Most teams have tried to stop Taylor, none have had as much success as the Bucs did in that first half.

Reich’s use of tight ends has remained a staple of his offense and a contributing remedy to anti-Taylor defenses; picture Jack Doyle motioning over to bunch with Mo Alie-Cox and form a double team with Braden Smith alongside the center/guard tandem while running a duo concept (a gap scheme run with an emphasis on offensive linemen moving vertically and designed to give the back a read on the play-side linebacker), picture Alie-Cox lining up as a half-back to run Wham (a trap block on the edge defender), picture both being ushered in to create a tight split formation that obscures the vision of second-level defenders behind a bear front.

For that to be effective, there is also zero margin for error when it comes to offensive linemen dictating the blocking angle against their assigned defender, something that puts Quenton Nelson in the elite echelon of players in his position.

At the same time, sacrificing a gap by shading in a tight end can put the onus on Taylor to create avenues for himself, while calling on a Nyheim Hines or Zach Pascal to play decoy on the jet action in a bid to stretch the second level defenders.

Where the Colts challenge teams to be creative with run blitzes, creative run blitzes challenge the Colts to be shrewd with the looks they give.

Rather than living by down-and-distance tradition, the RPO has become engrained as a prominent wrinkle to the way Reich and the Colts operate.

According to PFF, Wentz averaged 4.6 yards on 10 pass attempts on RPOs against the Bucs, which isn’t all that bad when a five-yard run would often be considered a success.

The RPO is designed to leave a defense and the read defender in limbo, hesitant between shutting down the runner or playing the pass, the latter of which often means occupying the hitch of flat receiver when it comes to the Colts. RPOs are Wentz’s bread and butter, underlined by the near-identical look to both his keeps and handoffs.

A lot of the time Wentz is tasked with the critical job of making a split-second pre-snap read of whether the next play is a run or pass based on what the defense is giving him numerically.

We are all talking far more complimentary about the Colts if Pascal’s first-quarter fumble on a perfectly-designed RPO hitch isn’t converted into a touchdown by the Bucs on the ensuing drive. Or if Wentz puts more on his deep-shot to Michael Pittman Jr. on a well-crafted play fake that ends in Antoine Winfield snagging an interception. Still, ifs and buts.

Jonathan Taylor slaloms his way to a 10-yard touchdown for his fourth against the Bills

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Jonathan Taylor slaloms his way to a 10-yard touchdown for his fourth against the Bills

Jonathan Taylor slaloms his way to a 10-yard touchdown for his fourth against the Bills

The limited availability of a reliable deep threat like T.Y. Hilton due to injury hasn’t helped the left, right, uppercut pattern an RPO-heavy offense works towards, though it has become a resource mightily important to Indianapolis’ rushing attack.

Now, league-leading numbers don’t come without individual excellence on Taylor’s part, be it burrowing and jinking for the extra yards or having the runaway speed on the perimeter for a 83-yard score against the Houston Texans or the elusiveness to swerve two tackles for a 10-yard touchdown as one of his five against the Bills. But they also come as the result of a wily rushing scheme and willing supporting cast.

Jonathan Taylor earning MVP consideration, along with even Offensive Player of the Year consideration, is enough to satisfy him and the Colts in knowing the plan is working. Consideration alone is a win.

Watch the New England Patriots @ the Indianapolis Colts live in Sunday Night Football from 1.15am live on Sky Sports NFL.





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