INDIANAPOLIS – There was one reporter in the scrum surrounding Marlon Mack this week who looked a little out of place.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Anthony Walker sneaked into the back of the pack while the NFL’s leading rusher was meeting the media and waited for an opportune moment.
As the interview was breaking up and there finally was a quiet space to fill, Walker pounced.
“What did your roommate say to you before the game to make you play like that?” Walker asked.
Mack broke into laughter and attempted to cut his road trip partner off.
“Man, watch out,” he said. “I’m not paying you no mind right now.”
It seems everybody wants a piece of the 23-year-old running back’s success. That’s what happens after a 174-yard game, the largest individual rushing output for the Colts since Edgerrin James in 2004.
Mack is more than happy to share the credit where appropriate, especially when it comes to the offensive line.
The left side, and in particular guard Quenton Nelson, was dominant in the season opener at Los Angeles. As the contest wore on, Indianapolis’ physicality took an increasingly greater toll on the Chargers defenders.
Mack took advantage with 153 yards on 17 carries in the second half, including a 63-yard touchdown sprint that gave the Colts new life after they fell behind by 15 points midway through the third quarter.
It was the kind of performance head coach Frank Reich had in mind when he preached throughout the offseason the virtues of the running game and his desire to rank as a top-five rushing offense this fall.
To hear Mack tell it, he has the easy job. The big guys up front clear the lanes, and he bursts through the seams.
“Our o-line, they attack hard,” Mack said. “To see what those guys do on the field, watching them from the backfield is pretty much amazing. Seeing the holes when you run through is pretty crazy.”
That’s one perspective. Opposing defenses likely have a different view.
Mack’s emergence as a significant offensive weapon coincided nicely with the Colts’ 9-1 finish to the regular season a year ago.
He rushed for more than 100 yards four times in the final 10 weeks during the playoff run. Then he set a franchise postseason record with 148 rushing yards in the AFC Wild Card victory against the Houston Texans.
The streak included 25 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown in the regular season finale on the road against the Tennessee Titans. That game was winner-take-all for the wild-card berth, and it’s stuck with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel this week as he prepares for Sunday’s rematch at Nissan Stadium.
He took note of the Colts’ 203 rushing yards against L.A., and the performance didn’t come as a surprise.
“I mean this is a physical football team,” Vrabel said. “I mean this is a team that ran the ball against us last year, at the end of the season and at different times. I think it just makes it that much more obvious that that’s the strength of their football team. That’s something that we are going to have to be ready for.”
It’s an all-day chore.
Reich admitted early in his career as a play caller it could be difficult to remind himself to stick with the running game. He spent 14 years as a backup quarterback in the NFL, and there can be an inclination to solve every problem with a pass.
That began to swing the other direction during Reich’s time in Philadelphia. He saw the way a balanced run game helped support quarterback Carson Wentz during an MVP-level passing season. And he again saw the importance of that dimension when Wentz went down with an injury late in the regular season and backup Nick Foles led the Eagles to a surprising Super Bowl upset against the New England Patriots.
Reich tells offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni to keep close track of his habits on the sideline during games these days. If Reich ever begins to abandon the run, it’s on Sirianni to get in the head coach’s ear and get him back on the right track.
Not that it’s a problem that comes up often.
Reich has supreme faith in this offensive line, and he’s not afraid to play the bully. That mentality paid off with a 16-play, 80-yard drive to tie the game against the Chargers in the fourth quarter.
Mack carried the ball eight times on the series, and although the touchdown came on a 19-yard pass from Jacoby Brissett to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, it was Mack who punched in the 2-point conversion on the ground.
“I think it’s just a challenge,” center Ryan Kelly said. “It’s like us versus you. Who is going to get more tired? We had some long drives there starting back at our 10(-yard line), and to go all the way down there and finish it with the 2-point play was awesome. It was just a good feeling knowing that you just consistently moved that ball down the field, and it wasn’t just one big play.”
There will be big plays through the passing game in the future.
As much as Reich might enjoy it, he knows Indianapolis won’t rush for 200 yards every week. His offense is designed to attack defenses at their weakest points, and the game plan is tailored each week to a new opponent.
So Mack won’t see 25 carries every week.
While the numbers in Week 1 were eye-popping, that’s not Mack’s focus moving forward.
He knows consistency is the key. Mack wants to stay healthy, play the role he’s asked to play each week to the best of his ability and take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way.
“I just think just go out there and play ball, man,” he said. “Don’t try to look at the numbers thing cause when you look at the numbers thing, that’s when things start not going well for you. Just go out there and play hard, and just things will come.”