The last time that the Texans’ defense squared off against formidable Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, he left cleat marks all over them and a crowd of frustrated defenders in his wake.
One of the fastest and most powerful runners in the NFL, Taylor leads the NFL with 1,205 rushing yards and has scored 16 touchdowns overall with 14 touchdown runs. He gained 145 yards on 14 carries and scored two touchdowns during a 31-3 victory over the Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium earlier this season that included an 83-yard run during which he busted through a gaping hole.
It’s an extremely difficult assignment for the Texans’ defense, which ranks 31st in rushing defense and is yielding 135.6 yards on the ground per contest heading into Sunday’s game against the Colts at NRG Stadium.
“He’s having an amazing season,” Texans safety Eric Murray said Friday afternoon. "He’s hitting the hole really hard and these guys are missing tackles on him. He’s got the long speed to really hit a home run. We’ve just got to be up to the task, stay in our gaps and tackle him.”
A former second-round draft pick from Wisconsin, Taylor is obviously difficult to tackle because of his tackle-breaking ability and strength. He's also hard to catch up with once he hits top acceleration.
A former track star from New Jersey, the 5-foot-10, 226-pounder rushed for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns for the Badgers before declaring early for the NFL draft after rushing for 2,003 yards and 2,194 yards in his final two college seasons.
“He’s a powerful runner with top-end speed that can change direction and everything,” Texans rookie defensive tackle Roy Lopez said. “You’ve got to take control of your gap and lean on each other and do your part - be one of the 11 on defense and make sure you’ve got your gap, and make the play when it comes to you.”
Taylor has rushed for 100 yards in all of Colts’ six wins during which he’s averaged 138 yards and 20 carries. When the Colts have lost, he’s averaged 15 carries and 63 yards and failed to hit the century mark.
“He has everything you are looking for in a great running back, when you have a commitment to the run like they do,” Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. “He has size. He has great vision in the hole. He can run in between the tackles. He’s as fast as anybody on the field, I know he was a track star in high school.
“He can catch the ball out of the backfield. So, every-down back that can do it all. It’s a big challenge. Of course, you’ve heard a lot about being gap sound. It’s about pursuing, getting as many guys to the ball as possible when you play a guy like him.”
Taylor is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has a 76-yard touchdown catch.. Besides his 83-yard jaunt against the Texans, Taylor has runs of 78, 40, 38, 34 and 33 yards.
During the Colts’ loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Colts All-Pro offensive guard Quenton Nelson lobbied coach Frank Reich for more running plays with Taylor.. The Colts lost the game after a span during which they had 26 straight passing plays.
Taylor leads all running backs in Pro Bowl balloting.
“We’ve got the best back in the league,” Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said.
Taylor scored a franchise-record five touchdowns in a win over the Buffalo Bills. He had a season-high 31 carries.
"J.T. has been balling, and props to that guy," Texans defensive end Jacob Martin said. "He’s been running his tail off all year. I think for us to be successful on defense, it comes to us playing gap-sound defense and limiting those big yards in the run game and those big shots on the play-action. I think us staying sound in the run game will lead us to playing their play-actions well, and trying to make the Colts as one-dimensional as possible.”
The Texans know what’s coming. Now, it’s a matter of slowing Taylor down.
“It’s very important when you’re playing him, obviously,” Texans coach David Culley said. “We saw a stat this morning that when he rushes for 100 yards this year, they’ve won every game. When he hasn’t rushed for 100 yards, they’ve lost. Obviously, it’s very important for our defense to have gap control, especially run gap control.
“Stay in our gaps more so than any time this year, not that it’s not as important as always, but obviously, this guy’s playing very well right now. Their offense is playing very well, they’re running the ball really well.”