MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Blame it on a lack of opportunities to play with the lead. Blame it on injuries. Blame it on some tough opposing defenses. Heck — blame it on a lack of execution.
Whatever the reason may be, the Indianapolis Colts just were not able to play to their major strength on offense — an effective run game — through their first three games, all losses, to open the 2021 season.
On Sunday afternoon, however, head coach Frank Reich and the Colts' offense were able to put all of that in the rear-view mirror.
Indianapolis set the tone on the ground with the run game early in Sunday's Week 4 road matchup against the Miami Dolphins, allowing Reich to open up the playbook and mix in an effective passing game with quarterback Carson Wentz. The result, matched with some solid play from the defensive and special teams units, was a 27-17 victory — the first win of the season for a relieved Colts squad.
"We know our offense is built to run the ball, and we haven't done that well up to this point of the season," said tight end Mo Alie-Cox, who had two touchdown receptions on the day. "We kind of got it going last week, so we kind of wanted to pick up on that, so this week we came out, we ran the ball well early, and that just opened up the passing game — some of the play-action stuff and our crossing routes and different things like that. So we've just got to continue to build off this momentum."
Not helping matters for the Colts' run game to this point of the season has been a rash of injuries on the offensive side of the ball, particularly up front along the offensive line. Starting left tackle Eric Fisher, signed this offseason as a free agent, suffered a torn Achilles playing for his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, in January, and he made his Colts debut in Week 2. All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson, who underwent foot surgery during training camp, suffered an ankle injury in last week's loss to the Tennessee Titans, and has since been placed on injured reserve. All-Pro center Ryan Kelly suffered an elbow injury during training camp that kept him out a few weeks. Starting right guard Mark Glowinski landed on the injury report this past week with a knee injury. And starting right tackle Braden Smith on Sunday missed his third straight game with a foot injury.
The Colts, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season and 4.5 yards per carry in 2019, averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in their Week 1 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The fact that the Seahawks went into halftime leading 21-10 undoubtedly didn't help matters for Indy's run game efforts.
The Colts got that rushing average up to 4.2 yards per carry the following week against the Los Angeles Rams, but an inability to cash in on a couple key goal-to-go scenarios was the primary difference in a tough 27-24 loss.
The Colts showed more life in the run game last week on the road against the Tennessee Titans — averaging 4.8 yards per carry — but Indy, again, played from behind for most of the contest, which ended in a 25-16 road loss.
Indianapolis trailed early again on Sunday against the Dolphins, as Miami knocked in a 38-yard field goal to go up 3-0 with 9:54 left in the first quarter. But this time, with the Indy defense starting to get in a groove early, the Colts' offense was able to get to its run game to build a lead it wouldn't relinquish the rest of the way.
Taking advantage of a free first down after Miami jumped offsides on an Indianapolis punt play with 4:45 left in the second quarter, Wentz and the Colts' offense eventually faced a 2nd and 10 from the Miami 23-yard line. Lined up in shotgun, Wentz took the snap and handed it off to running back Jonathan Taylor, who darted to his left, saw a nice opening from his line, stuck his foot in the ground and took off. From there, Taylor simply outran and outmuscled the remaining Miami defenders in his way, diving into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown run to put Indy up 7-0 with 2:54 left in the first half.
The Colts ran the ball just nine times in the first half of Sunday's game, but they averaged 5.7 yards per carry on those runs, helping set up a picture-perfect drive to open the second half.
After receiving the kickoff to start the second half, the Colts' very first play from scrimmage in the third quarter was a 38-yard run from Taylor, who would also have run plays of six and nine yards, respectively, later in the drive, which ended with a three-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Alie-Cox to put the Colts up 14-3.
Playing with the lead this time, Indy finished with 33 total rushing attempts for 139 yards, for an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Taylor led the way with 16 carries for 103 yards (6.4 avg.) and that aforementioned touchdown.
"It was big," Reich said of Taylor's performance. "I felt like he's been right on the precipice of breaking out a couple times. So the O-line did a good job. We started out a little bit shaky, (but we) just hung in there and were able to call runs. With the defense playing the way it was playing, we were able to keep calling runs. Jonathan just did a great job. … So we've got to build off of that. I was happy for Jonathan, happy for the O-line, but we've got to build off of it."
Taylor, who was battling a knee injury of his own throughout the week, said after the game he let his teammates knew how much confidence he had in them leading into Sunday's game — from Wentz at quarterback to the wide receivers and tight ends, but especially a resilient offensive line that included Fisher at left tackle, Chris Reed at left guard, Kelly at center, Glowinski at right guard and Julién Davenport at right tackle.
"I was out there going as hard as I possibly could," Taylor said. "And one thing I told Carson and the O-line was I had their back today. Like I said, these past few weeks, we've been playing hard; it's not like we haven't been playing hard. But we just haven't been playing at our best. So just telling those guys, 'Hey, no matter what happens today, I got your back.' Guys were blocking hard for me, and I was able to run hard."
After earning their first win of the season, the Colts were understandably in a celebratory mood as they started their journey home on Sunday. Their offense hopes to keep the run game going heading into next week's game, which will be no easy task against a Baltimore Ravens defense that headed into Week 4 ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing average allowed (3.6).
"It was a lot of celebration," Taylor said of the mood in the locker room after Sunday's win. "Anytime you get a win in the NFL — it's hard to win. So it calls for celebration. But it was also kind of a refocus on (how) it doesn't get any easier after this. I mean, we've got to use this feeling, this motivation, in order to fuel practice this week, because it's going to be a tough one heading into Baltimore Monday night."
See all the action on the field at Hard Rock Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts take on the Miami Dolphins in Week 4.