Philip Rivers still leaning on running backs in passing game


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INDIANAPOLIS – The message came quickly, and Philip Rivers has reinforced his words with actions.

Be ready, running backs. The football will be coming in your direction.

“He came in and told us as a running back group, ‘Just be ready,’’’ Marlon Mack said on a Friday Zoom conference call. “That’s why I try to do, be ready when he throws it to me.’’

 Since the Indianapolis Colts began full padded practices this week and the media has been allowed to watch, it’s obvious Rivers is an equal-opportunity disperser of the football. He shares the wealth with his receivers and tight ends.

And with the running backs.

That’s cornerstone of Frank Reich’s offense, and a natural byproduct of Rivers’ approach.

“We always want the running backs involved,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said, adding the desire is to create favorable mismatches with agile, fast backs against linebackers and safeties.

“Philip, in my opinion, is the best in the NFL and maybe the best in the history of NFL at finding his back. He’s phenomenal at doing that and for big plays. If you look at his history, that’s just what he has done.

Last season, Keenan Allen led the Los Angeles Chargers with 104 receptions. Running back Austin Ekeler was next with 92. Among running backs, only Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (116) had more.

Running back Melvin Gordon was Rivers’ second-leading receiver in 2018 and ’16. In 2015 when Allen missed the final eight games with a lacerated kidney, the Chargers’ leading receiver was running back Danny Woodhead, with 80.

As Rivers’ first training camp with the Colts has unfolded, he’s kept his running backs involved. Mack has only 52 receptions in three seasons, including just 14 last season, but clearly is more involved in the passing game.

“We all have to catch the ball,’’ said Nyheim Hines, who has excelled as a check-down option in two seasons with 107 catches. “Obviously my role as being the pass-catching back is important, but all those other guys have to be ready, too.

“Marlon has caught a bunch of balls. In a five-practice period, I don’t think I’ve seen Marlon catch more balls than he has with Philip. Running backs are mismatches and we all have to be ready. I’m super excited and we all are because a lot of teams may forget about the back in coverage. If Philip sees that, we’re going to take advantage of it.’’

Sirianni has no doubt Rivers will see it.

“Yes, we want to get the running backs involved in the passing game for the mismatches,’’ he said, “but when they start getting the amount of touches they are right now, that’s definitely Philip and just having that innate ability to know where his back is on all plays.

“Keep his eyes downfield, try to push it downfield . . . ‘Oh, I can’t,’ check it down. He’s just unreal at that. That’s one of the best things he does.’’

Injury update

There once again was a long list of Colts held out of practice. That included defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (hand), tight end Jack Doyle (neck) and defensive lineman Denico Autry (ankle).

The nature of Buckner’s injury isn’t known, and the team isn’t taking any chances with its prized offseason addition.

“It’s really just about resting his hand. It doesn’t have to do with anything else,’’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “When you’re a pass rusher and you’re working with your hands all the time, we know what he can do, we know how he can do it and he’s exhibited that to us over a few days.

“We’re just trying to get it healthy and get him back up to speed.’’

Others missing Friday’s practice were offensive tackle Braden Smith (foot), defensive tackle Sheldon Day (knee), wideout Chad Williams (foot), cornerback Kenny Moore (groin) and cornerback Isaiah Rodgers.

The team moved tight end Mo Alie-Cox from the physically unable to perform list to the active roster.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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