WESTFIELD – Matt Ryan watched the video, probably more than once.
He saw the young Indianapolis Colts’ running back absolutely abuse Buffalo’s No. 1-ranked defense: 32 carries, 185 yards and four touchdowns; three receptions for 19 yards and another TD; a club-record five total TDs.
Jonathan Taylor jumped off the screen and grabbed Ryan’s attention as the then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback was doing prep work for his upcoming meeting against the Bills.
Since being acquired in a March trade, Ryan has had time to alter his opinion of the NFL’s reigning rushing champion.
Video didn’t do Taylor justice.
“It’s different in person,’’ Ryan said with a smile following Wednesday’s practice at Grand Park Sports Campus. “It’s different.’’
That point again was driven home during the Colts’ first practice last Wednesday, which was moved indoors. Ryan flicked a short screen pass to Taylor.
“I just kind of threw it – it was a simple little play – and he made a cut that you just don’t see and his explosion out of the cut to me was an eye-opener,’’ he said. “You can watch as much tape as you want; it’s different to see it in person.’’
Ryan’s brother was on hand for last Saturday night’s practice and paid particular attention as position coach Scottie Montgomery put the backs through the ropes agility drill.
Again, Taylor was impossible to miss.
“He was like, ‘Man, it was amazing to watch that guy go through the little ropes they run through at the beginning,’’’ Ryan shared. “He was like, ‘It’s just different. You watch him and the movement is different. Those other guys are doing great behind him, but he’s another level.’
That’s a long-winded way of pointing out Ryan has found something special during the second phase of his decorated NFL career.
Not only does Taylor represent that reliable feature back he’s missed since Devonta Freeman in 2016, but the Colts offer the type of withering running game Ryan hasn’t had at his disposal since that same season.
And ’16 remains the highpoint of Ryan’s 14-year career. He was named MVP and led the Falcons to Super Bowl LI where they fell to New England 34-28 in overtime after leading 28-3 in the third quarter.
Ryan generated career highs with 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, a 69.9 completion percentage and a 117.1 passer rating, and was complemented by the league’s No. 5-ranked run game. Freeman piled up 1,079 yards and 11 TDs and averaged 4.8 yards per carry – all career highs – while the Falcons averaged 120.5 rushing yards per game.
That pass-run combination was missing as Ryan’s time in Atlanta wound down. He endured losing records in each of his last four seasons with the Falcons, and it’s no coincidence he was forced to play with one hand tied behind his back.
Since 2018, Atlanta’s running game ranks 31st in the NFL; 85.8 yards per game. It was 31st in 2021, averaging just 83.6.
That all changed with his relocation to Indy. Since Reich’s arrival in ’18, the Colts’ run game ranks 5th (121.5 yards per game). After ranking 20th in ’18, it’s been 7th, 12th and 2nd a year ago as Taylor led the league with a franchise-record 1,811 yards.
Ryan’s eyes seemed to light up when he was asked about directing such a run-centric offense at a time when the NFL is veering more and more toward the passing game.
“The game has changed a lot,’’ he said, “but winning on both sides of the line of scrimmage still counts. The way this team has run the football for the last handful of years, the back that we have in Jonathan and also as kind of a change-up in Nyheim (Hines) and what he can do.
“It’s dynamic. It’s great as a quarterback. It helps in so many ways. It helps in pass protection, it creates lanes to throw, it gets suck on play-action, it does a lot of the things that you like. It also wears down a defense.
“You will find no bigger proponent of the run game than myself and I’m fired up to play with these guys.’’
In Atlanta, Ryan leaned on a 1,000-yard rusher in five of his 14 seasons (Freeman twice, Michael Turner three times). The Falcons reached the playoffs in four of those seasons.
Reich describes Ryan’s insertion into the Colts’ offense “the perfect blend.’’
“He’s shown this in his career,’’ Reich said. “We think that’s the right formula that we’ve said from day 1. We want to be a run, play-action team and then be efficient and excellent in situational football.
“Matt brings all of that. He’s great run, play-action, and he likes being under center. So we’ll mix under center and in gun. He’s been good his whole career in situational football and then on top of that, he’s got that clutch gene – that in the fourth quarter he’s come through in the clutch many times.
“I really think the team is put together and gelling in the right direction.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.