Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor Is Becoming an RB No NFL Team Wants to Face

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 7, 2021

Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor (28) runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

A few truly great running backs could take the field this weekend during the opening round of the NFL playoffs. The Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry, Cleveland Browns' Nick Chubb and New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara bring different qualities to each of their respective squads with the ability to take over a game at a moment's notice. 

A fourthIndianapolis Colts rookie Jonathan Taylorhas the potential to enter the conversation based on his performance through the second half of the 2020 campaign. 

Taylor emerged as the NFL's third-leading rusher this season with 1,169 yards, and most of his damage came over the last six games. Between Weeks 11-17, last year's 41st overall draft pick ran for 741 yardsincluding a franchise single-game record 253 yards in the season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguarsat a clip of 6.2 yards per carry with eight total touchdowns. 

"I can't explain it," Colts head coach Frank Reich told reporters prior to Taylor's record-setting performance. "The guy is in beast mode. 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."

None of this should come as a surprise after Taylor's remarkable collegiate career. He left Wisconsin as college football's sixth all-time leading rusher with 6,174 yards in only three seasons and became a two-time Doak Walker Award winner and All-American by carrying the Badgers offense.

But the transition from amateur to professional status isn't guaranteed even with impressive production, excellent natural athleticism and what appear to be translatable traits. Sometimes, something doesn't click for an individual once he reaches the highest level. In Taylor's case, he needed a little time for everything to come together and once again become the focal point of an offense. 

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Oftentimes, a coach or player will mention the transition from the collegiate ranks taking time without actually explaining the issues that plague the individual in question. Taylor's maturation throughout the season went through multiple steps. 

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

The rookie first had to take on the mindset of not being the lead back entering the season and then completely reset his priorities after Marlon Mack suffered a torn Achilles tendon in Week 1 against the Jaguars. 

"The first game of the season, just watching Marlon go down, knowing the work he put in, knowing the help he gave me throughout camp and the offseason," Taylor said. "Then kind of realizing how my mindset had to change."

The next step was adjusting to the speed of the game. Teams can run the same plays for backs at every level, yet the requirements for those same calls differ based on aiming points, the necessary patience to know how to read blocks and how quickly running lanes open and close. The difference between college and the pros can be eye-opening even for the most talented ball-carriers. Not all of them adjust. Taylor did. 

His progression began with understanding not to pick and choose his way through a hole. Instead, he used his power to start building confidence. 

NFL's Top Rookie Rushers (2020)
PlayersAttemptsRushing YardsYPCTouchdowns
Jonathan Taylor2321,1695.011
James Robinson2401,0704.57
J.K. Dobbins1348056.09
Clyde Edwards-Helaire1818034.44
Antonio Gibson1707954.711
NFL.com

"That definitely improved a lot, especially in goal-line situations," Taylor said, per Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star. "You have to go get it. That's big-boy football right there when you're in short-yardage and goal-line situations. In your mind, you already anticipate how the down is going to go, unless you have some kind of scheme where you're running to the pylon or something like that."

From that point, a bit of assurance allowed him to start adding little things here and there to his running style. At last year's NFL combine, the 226-pound rusher ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash and tested among the 90th percentile of NFL ball-carriers in SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness), per Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman

"That's something that's been a changeup, being a physical, downhill runner," Taylor said. "Defenses, of course, watch film, and they anticipate that, so being in some games to change it up and kind of make them miss, have them step in the opposite direction and be able to go through a soft shoulder or something, that is something you definitely work on when you're a downhill runner." 

The difference can be seen in how many missed tackles Taylor forced. According to Pro Football Focus, he managed nine through the first 10 weeks of play. That number more than tripled once Week 11 began. 

As Taylor spent more time in the system, his comfort level grew, as did his usage. Through the first nine games, the rookie carried the ball more than 15 times in a game just twice. He eclipsed that number in five of the last six contests. His rushing grade came second only to Henry during that stretch, per PFF

"Confidence is such an amazing thing. You make a play that haven't made in the NFL and you're like, 'I can make this cut,'" Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni told reporters. "Confidence is built because of the reps you have in practice and games and the success you have off it. He's a great student of the game, great player that is going to continue to rise and get better."

On top of it all, Taylor provided in areas where he wasn't expected to fare as well. In three seasons at Wisconsin, the former Heisman Trophy candidate caught 42 total passes. He's managed 36 catches in his first professional season. 

Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

Amazingly, Taylor's rapid improvement occurred while the Colts' fantastic offensive front deteriorated. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is currently on injured reserve. Right tackle Braden Smith spent time on the COVID-19 list. Center Ryan Kelly has dealt with multiple injuries this season as well. 

Yet Indianapolis emerged as one of the league's better rushing attacks with Taylor leading the way. More importantly, the Colts have an identity with which others have to contend. 

The Buffalo Bills are up first with the 17th overall run defense. The Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans both rank in the bottom half of the league. The Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers are all statistically better against opposing ground games yet finished outside the top 10 in yards per carry allowed. 

A physical Colts team with Taylor leading the way during his ascent toward potential superstardom will create problems for whomever Indianapolis faces in the postseason. 

Taylor went from being a typical rookie trying to find his footing in a league that can chew up and spit out talented backs to the complete package in less than a season. During the current postseason and beyond, the NFL's top first-year rusher will lead the Colts offense and be the bane of any opponent. 

        

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.