Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor burst onto the NFL scene in his second game in the league, running for over 100 yards in Week 2 of the 2020 season and immediately establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. The Steelers run defense saw Taylor in that 2020 season.
That year, the Steelers beat the Colts in Week 15 while holding the rookie back to 4.11 yards per carry and just 74 total yards — the best anyone did against Harris in the torrid final six games of that season that saw him drop 150 yards on the Raiders and 253 on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In 2021, Taylor led the entire NFL in carries, rushing yards, yards per game, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and yards from scrimmage. He was selected to the Pro Bowl, named a first-team NFL All-Pro and finished second in NFL Offensive Player of the Year voting.
Taylor did all of that despite being basically the only working part of the Indianapolis offense that transitioned from Phillip Rivers to Carson Wentz at quarterback. In 2022, it’s another new passer, as Matt Ryan has taken the helm for the Colts, to such mediocre results that head coach Frank Reich was fired midway through the season.
The word has long been out that the key to stopping the Colts is shutting down Taylor, and despite a new head coach in Jeff Saturday — or maybe because of that fact — that remains the Steelers game plan for Monday Night Football.
“I would imagine that he has an affinity for establishing the run,” head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday. “It starts with Taylor for us. …
“We believe quality play, for them, centers around his exploits and what he’s able to do. They had a nice significant win a couple of weeks ago in Vegas, and I think he ran for 147. There was a commitment last weekend to the run game, I think he had 22-plus carries. For us, we’ve got to minimize his impact on the game. We can’t allow them to be on schedule and minimize possession-down football via an effective running game.”
The Steelers haven’t had the kind of season they hoped for with the most-expensive-in-the-NFL defense, but they have corrected one major area of concern from the 2021 season. After finishing last year dead last in the NFL in rushing yards and yards per attempt (5.0), they have made a dramatic turnaround.
The Pittsburgh run defense unit enters Week 12 sixth in the NFL with 1,034 yards rushing allowed and third in the league at 3.9 yards per carry against. As the NFL rushing average is up from 4.3 yards per carry to 4.5 yards per carry from 2021 to this season, the Steelers have cut their per-attempt average by over a fifth.
It appears to be strength on strength, and even though Taylor has not had the same kind of season he had in 2021, that doesn’t mean he and the Colts aren’t capable of taking the game over with the ground game.
“I think when you got you know, guy up front like [All-Pro guard Quinton] Nelson, you got a guy like Taylor in the backfield, you got a guy like Matt Ryan who can can just more so manage the game, I think that allows a guy like Jeff Saturday to just keep running the ball,” said Steelers defensive tackle Chris Wormley. “If we can’t stop them early in the game, they’re gonna continue to run the ball.”
The Steelers defense that has dug in against the ground isn’t all that different personnels-wise than it was last season. Inside linebacker Myles Jack and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi are the only prominent additions to the front seven, and backups Wormley and Robert Spillane have still played major roles at those positions. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt has missed almost the entire season so far. And yet, they’ve shown dramatic improvement in the run game, even after a slow start.
“I think we’re just putting more emphasis more emphasis on it,” Wormley said. “Just taking that next step and realizing that we can’t allow teams to have 150 yards plus a game on us.”
Taylor is certainly capable of doing that to the Steelers, but if they can stop him, the rest of the Colts don’t seem likely to be able to do much on Monday night.