INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts running backs coach Tom Rathman this week is a guest on the Colts Official Podcast, where he discusses the development of top running back Marlon Mack, how Nyheim Hines has been able to elevate his game, the emphasis he places on ball security and much more.
You can listen to that entire conversation above, but what were some of the top takeaways?
1. Marlon Mack had an "exceptional" season, getting to 1,000 rushing yards for the first time and battling his way back from injury: Mack was entrusted with the starting running back job heading into his second season in 2018, but would be halted the first few weeks of the season by a nagging hamstring injury. Once he got going, however, he proved he could get rushing yards at a top-five rate in the league.
Mack carried that momentum into 2019, and through the first 10 games of the season was fifth in the league with 862 rushing yards. But in Week 11 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mack suffered a fractured hand that Rathman wasn't sure he'd be able to return from the rest of the year. After missing just two games, however, Mack would return to the field, and by season's end he had posted 247 total rushing attempts for 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns and was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time in his career.
"I thought he had a decent year last year. But this year, I mean, it was exceptional, I thought, at the start, until he had the injured hand," Rathman said of Mack. "But, man, he was playing at a high, high level earlier in the season, and the guy — which surprises me; really shouldn't surprise me — the guy has excellent vision. Sees the second level to the third level. He delivers those defenders to the double teams up front, and that's gonna help your run game and help you get more yards. And I think he's really crafty as far as lateral movement, and then creating with separation."
2. Nyheim Hines has developed into an every-down-type of running back: While Hines entered the league in 2018 as more of a specialist back — with a role carved out for him on third down or in empty-back sets — Rathman said the speedy North Carolina State product has earned so much trust over the past two seasons that he could be utilized on any down, in any situation.
"He's just developed into a really, really good running back," Rathman said of Hines. "A lot of people wanna kind of pigeon hole him and saying, 'Nah, he can't play first and second down. You gotta be a specialty player. We gotta play you in an empty package.' I don't believe that with Nyheim. I think he's developed into a football player; that I trust him as an every-down player.
"And, really, that's the biggest compliment that you can give to a player, is to play him on every down, and not to say, 'Hey, you're a third down back,' or, 'You're a short-yardage, goal line runner.' This guy can do it all. So we need to improve, you know what I'm saying? But he's right on track, and I saw the improvement late in the season and I'm guaranteeing it's gonna carry over into the next year."
Rathman said he saw Hines' confidence hit a new level heading into the final two weeks of the 2019 season; Hines returned two punt returns for touchdowns Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers, and that carried over into his offensive role.
"He's becoming an electrifying-type player," Rathman said. "And really I saw it turn about the last two weeks of the regular season this year. We had a talk in our room — I had a talk with the group — and told them where they needed to go these last two weeks, being out of the playoffs and everything, and about getting better and putting it on tape so everybody could see it. And here, again, that was the week that he had the two punt returns for touchdowns. And I think that helped him build confidence."
3. Colts running backs touched the ball 485 times in 2019; they had just one fumble: Take in even a few minutes of a Colts practice and it won't be long until you hear Rathman screaming "Squeeze it!" at the ballcarriers. Over and over. And while every team talks about the importance of ball security, Rathman truly emphasizes it. It was a hallmark of his own playing career as a fullback with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, and he's made sure to pass it along to his running backs.
Between rushing attempts, receptions, returns, etc., Colts backs fumbled the ball on just 0.2 percent of their touches in 2019, a vast improvement from their 0.7 mark in 2018.
"(It's) one thing about talking about it, but another thing emphasizing it," Rathman said of ball security. "And really I emphasize it every play. I mean, you'll hear me out at practice hollering, 'Squeeze it,' obviously, so the runners just have it in their mind that they need to keep it high and tight."
Rathman said he typically works on ball security with a circuit during Thursday practices, and then he also uses one day a week in the film room to show his backs how each opponent specifically tries to take the ball on defense.
"I put them through a tape on how the opponent that week is gonna get the ball out — how they try to get it out," Rathman said. "So I show them video clips of it off the TV copy, which are really good clips, and we talk about it, how we need to do it, how we need a collapsed hand and work the four points of pressure, body-ball-boundary — all those little things that come into play when you're carrying the football, to hold on to it. And then we go out and try to execute it in practice."
Here's a full breakdown of this week's Colts Official Podcast:
0:00-09:30: Latest Colts news
09:30-30:39: Writer's Block with Andrew Walker, discussing Edgerrin James getting into the Hall of Fame, Anthony Castonzo's decision timeline
31:00-52:40: Colts running backs Coach Tom Rathman on the Colts' success on the ground this season
53:25-1:04: Kevin Rogers, Director of Pro Personnel, on what life is like for a scout this time of year heading into draft season
1:05-1:20: "After Further Review" — Jeffrey Gorman, Casey Vallier and Larra Overton review the season of the defensive line from 2019
1:20-1:40: Segment with Sorgi, discussing major league-wide takeaways and trends from the 2019 NFL season