INDIANAPOLIS – When preparations need to include “wet-ball drills’’ to simulate possible inclement conditions for the upcoming game, a team occasionally pulls out a bucket, fills it with water and frequently dips the football in it.
Voila! Wet ball.
A bucket wasn’t needed as the Indianapolis Colts ramped up work for Sunday’s primetime meeting with the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The extended forecast for kickoff: heavy rain, which could lead to flooding and mudslides in the area, and wind gusts that might reach 40 mph.
“Yeah, the forecast is not good,’’ Frank Reich said Friday. “We’ve talked about it all week.’’
Friday’s practice was held outdoors and players dealt with a steady drizzle and light wind. Conditions were dry Thursday, but the weather cooperated with a stiffer breeze.
“I understand what they are calling for could be a lot worse than what we saw yesterday and today,’’ Reich said, “but I think the guys have worked hard. We’re as prepared as we can be.’’
At best, conditions for an important game – the Colts are 2-4 and can ill afford to fall further behind 4-2 Tennessee in the AFC South, especially with their Oct. 31 rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium looming – will be less than ideal. The Niners, meanwhile, are looking to snap a three-game losing streak and remain relevant in the NFC.
Wind and gusts can wreak havoc with passing and kicking. Toss in rain, and efficiency can really be iffy.
“Any quarterback and kicker will tell you that the wind is more of an issue than rain,’’ Reich said. “Then obviously the combination of (wind and rain) is the toughest.
“But we’ll be ready. Like I said, we’ve had good work all week and had some wind and some rain, so probably optimal preparation conditions for us.’’
Conventional wisdom might include altering the offensive game plan to take the adverse weather into account. If it’s going to be problematic for quarterback Carson Wentz to throw the football, perhaps it makes sense to lean heavier on the Jonathan Taylor-led run game.
And that’s despite Wentz being on a nice three-game run: 60-of-87 (69%), 870 yards, six touchdowns, 9.8 yards per attempt, a 123.4 passer rating.
The run game, meanwhile, seems to be rounding into form. Also, All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson is expected back after missing three games with a high sprain to his right ankle.
Taylor has cracked the 100-yard mark in two of his last three games, including a season-best 145 yards in the win over the Houston Texans, and has averaged 6.7 yards per attempt during that stretch. As a team, the Colts have averaged 145.3 yards per game and 5.1 per attempt over the past three.
For a variety of reasons – flow of the game, facing double-digit deficits in the each of the first three games – the Colts have yet to fully commit to their run game. They’ve rushed at least 33 times twice and Taylor’s busiest game was 17 carries in the opener against Seattle.
The key to Sunday? Adjust to whatever the conditions are at kickoff.
“You have to get a feel, and I think you can still throw it,’’ Reich said. “Obviously I’ve coached and played in a lot of bad-weather games so I feel like I have some experience at that.
“We’ve got a big, strong-armed quarterback. I think we have the right kind of players that can still mix it up. But you have to make those little adaptations during the game depending on the wind, the direction of the wind, crosswind, with the wind, against the wind. I think there is a certain part of playing the quarterback position and calling a game that you have to make those factors as you go.’’
Wentz won’t complain if the Colts’ offense Sunday evening winds up being more run-centric. He’s encouraged by what the team is getting out of its ground game, and the idea there’s room to grow.
Taylor already has established himself as one of the NFL’s rising stars at the position. He finished 3rd in the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,169 yards, and capped it off with a franchise-record 253 yards in the regular-season finale against Jacksonville. Six games into year 2, he ranks 5th (472 yards).
Taylor also is unleashing his big-play skills: a 76-yard TD on a screen pass against Baltimore and an 83-yard run against the Texans. The 83-yarder was the longest run for a franchise whose former running backs include Hall of Famers Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson.
Twelve of his 87 attempts (14%) have gained at least 10 yards. Taylor already has runs of 23, 23, 38 and 83 yards.
“To be able to turn around and on any given play know JT may go the distance, or any of our backs for that matter, it definitely encourages me,’’ Wentz said. “And I think it motivates those guys up front because they know how dynamic our backs are if they can spring them up to the safeties or get them into the second level.
“It’s definitely exciting and encouraging to see the kind of progress we’ve already made, and where we can go.’’
Naturally, Wentz enjoys watching Taylor breaking off a long run or maximizing a reception.
“Oh, yeah, I’m stoked,’’ he said. “It makes my life so much easier.
Those chunk plays – a 76-yard TD with a simple screen or 83-yarder around the left side with tackle Eric Fisher sealing the edge and wideout Zach Pascal blocking downfield – not only energize the offense.
“It really kind of stuns or shocks a defense and then it’s up to that defense how are they going to respond?’’ Taylor said. “Are they going to continue to be stunned, shocked, rattled, or are they going to be able to find a way to settle back in?
“That’s when you want to continue to keep your foot on their neck. After a big play like that, continue to keep your foot on the gas to not allow them to get a chance to settle back in.’’
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