Getty Images

What's up with Colts rookie Jonathan Taylor? The running back averaged a robust 6.7 yards per carry on 927 totes at Wisconsin yet brings a pedestrian 3.9 yards-per-carry average into tonight's AFC South clash with the Titans.  Digging deeper into the stat sheet doesn't uncover anything encouraging. Frankly, Taylor's advanced figures are a giant bummer. Like many of you, I was quick to grab Taylor early in fantasy drafts just a few months ago. So I feel your pain.

Taylor's forced just eight missed tackles on 106 rushes, which equates to a 7.42% forced missed tackle rate, the sixth-lowest among 54 running backs who've carried the football at least 50 times this season. His average of 2.11 yards after contact per rush is the fourth-lowest in that sample of 54 backs. Woof. 

Those elusive and power metrics pale in comparison to what he did on a yearly basis for the Badgers, and he's running behind a gelled offensive line with a sterling reputation that includes human snowplow-on-the-front-of-truck Quenton Nelson. Taylor was easily my RB1 in the 2020 draft class, and I wrote the following in real-time after giving the Colts an "A-" grade for the second-round selection of the superstar back: 

"Best RB in the class. On par with Nick Chubb-Saquon Barkley athleticism, natural running skill spectrum. Complete package. Breakaway speed. Will thrive behind Colts offensive line. But is RB a big need for Colts?"

Of course, the need materialized almost instantly after Marlon Mack was lost for the season in Week 1. In that strange defeat at the hands of the Jaguars, Taylor caught six of six targets for 67 yards in his NFL debut. Those facts coupled together indicated the football universe was aligning for Taylor to erupt as a rookie.

But that just hasn't been the case. Has been terrible? No. But he's fallen short of lofty expectations. There's no questioning that.

In an attempt to solve the baffling mystery of why Taylor is struggling in his rookie season with the Colts, I carefully watched all of his 106 carries heading into Week 10 and came away with two general observations: 

  • Taylor's running with a lot of indecision 
  • Indianapolis' offensive line isn't blocking as well as it did the past two seasons

More specifically, he's having a hard time processing blocks in front of him to decide the most efficient path to follow.

Running with indecision

Now, I completely understand running backs have assigned gaps through which to run every play and slowing down film to half or one quarter speed before condemning a ball carrier for not noticing a lane at full speed is stupid and a waste of time. (Side note: screen grabs during film reviews should be banned in all 50 states.)

But what I noticed wasn't some percentage of what I would have deemed "missed running lanes." On a somewhat routine basis, Taylor is seemingly missing the cutback lane when it's there, or hitting hit a second late, or hesitating slightly before following his blockers on the frontside of the play design. It's all indecisive. Is Taylor just taking longer than we expected to get his bearings in the NFL because of the increased speed of the game? Very well could be. 

After watching Taylor's runs, I checked the 60 carries from his teammate Jordan Wilkins. Why? Because I wanted to get a feel for what Indianapolis' ground attack asks of its running backs and -- ready for this? -- Wilkins currently has the highest forced missed tackle rate in the NFL -- 28.3% -- for backs with more than 50 carries, and his 3.22 yards-after-contact-per-rush figure is 11th in the league (more than a full yard higher than Taylor). Insane, right? 

What I saw was a veteran back in a system with which his eyes were familiar. Wilkins found frontside and backside lanes much quicker, minimal throttling down, thereby allowing him to hit tackle attempts with more force so it was easier to run through them. Surprising revelation on the surface but not totally shocking once it sunk in given the edge Wilkins has over Taylor in pro experience.

Run blocking an issue as well

The gaping holes we all expected haven't been there as frequently either, so it's not all on Taylor's processing speed. Football Outsiders tracks offensive line run blocking with a metric called "Adjusted Line Yards" with the following formula:

"Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages"

  • Losses: 120% value
  • 0-4 Yards: 100% value
  • 5-10 Yards: 50% value
  • 11+ Yards: 0% value

Sensible. No reason to fault a back if he's hit two yards behind the line of scrimmage and dropped for a loss, and no reason to credit the offensive line on a breakaway 30-yard run. Here's how the Colts blocking unit has fared over the past three seasons -- starting with the arrival of Nelson at guard -- in Adjusted Line Yards:

Adjusted Line YardsNFL Rank
2018 4.83 4th
2020 3.96 25th

Amazingly, the Colts' current starting five up front is the same group as Week 1 last season, and four of the five were on the field together as far back as November 2018. Remarkable continuity.

I don't blame the Indianapolis coaching staff for scaling back things for Taylor because the team needs as much efficiency as possible from the run game right now with the team in the thick of the playoff race. But actually, what I believe Taylor needs is simply more touches to get into a rhythm behind his blockers.

They say things eventually slow down for quarterbacks in the NFL. The same is true for ball carriers. In fact, as a rookie behind a much more mashing offensive line, Wilkins' forced missed tackle rate was just 8.3%, very comparable to Taylor's current rate of 7.4%. 

The encouraging part in this mini-study is this: Taylor probably couldn't be reading his blocks much worse and likely hasn't run this indecisively in his entire life. He's still averaging close to 4.0 yards per carry behind a below-average offense line, and he's eclipsed the 4.0 yards-per-rush threshold in five of the last six outings. 

With more carries -- and, yes, some better blocking -- Taylor will start to look like the Wisconsin version of himself.

All advanced stats courtesy of TruMedia unless otherwise stated.