Is this a reactionary article? Maybe. Are the Bills bad? Undoubtedly. Is Marlon Mack a good running back? Let’s find out together.
Coming into Week 7 with the NFL’s third-best defensive unit in terms of yardage, the Buffalo Bills were absolutely gashed by the second year running back Marlon Mack. Mack’s stats popped with 126 yards on 19 attempts (6.6 YPC), a 20-yard touchdown run, a 2-point conversion, 2 receptions for 33 yards, and a receiving touchdown that showed off some really nice acceleration. Despite being only the fourth Colt to have rushed for 100 yards in a game since 2011 (Donald Brown, Vick Ballard, Frank Gore), there seems to still be some disdain and uncertainty about Mack’s ability to handle the brunt of the workload in Indy.
I wanted to write an article that gives an overview of what actually happened on Mack’s touches & examines both sides of the argument for or against Mack. Before I dive into that, let’s get into what can’t be disputed, the tape:
- 1st & 10 at IND 25 (15:00) – Completed pass to Mack for 4 yards
- Colts start off their opening script in 12 personnel (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB). Mack catches a wide-open swing pass underneath a Wheel/Post concept. Mack can’t break first-round-rookie Tremaine Edmunds tackle. Simple 4 yards.
- 2nd & 6 at IND 29 (14:27) – Mack run for 5 yards
- Next immediate snap, Colts in 12 personnel again with Luck under center in a 2×2 formation. Mack sheds linebacker Matt Milano’s tackle at the line of scrimmage & wills his way for 2 extra yards.
- 1st & 10 at IND 10 (8:30) – Mack run for 2 yards
- Colts open up this drive 0-0 & go with a Singleback Ace look (12 personnel again). Mack takes the zone stretch to the left, doing a nice job of forcing Jerry Hughes’ leverage to the outside, but can’t escape Milano, only getting a short gain.
- 2nd & 8 at IND 12 (7:55) – Mack run for 4 yards
- Reich designs a nice little misdirection up the gut. Corner Phillip Gaines literally bounces off of Mack as he forces his way into a group of Bills. Refs whistle the play dead before Buffalo can take him down.
- 3rd & 4 at IND 16 (7:08) – Incomplete pass intended for Mack
- Still 0-0 at this point, Colts are backed up in their own territory. Colts are in Gun Trey Open, strong left. Luck faces heat right up the A gap from Edmunds & throws a really low ball to Mack. Even if he caught it, he wouldn’t have gotten the first. It’s a wash.
- 1st & 10 at IND 38 (4:57) – Mack run for 4 yards
- Colts are in 11 Personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) with H-Back Ryan Hewitt in. Luck hands it off to Mack on a trap run, where it looks like he gets tripped up by Chester Rogers who is trying to lay a block on corner Taron Johnson. Mack gets up & kind of looks around like, “Who tripped me?”
- 4th & 1 at IND 47 (3:22) – Mack run for 10 yards
- On their own side of the field… in a tie game… Reich rolls the dice & goes for it on 4th & 1. Colts line up in 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR) & run a strong stretch to the left (I’m assuming they like the combination of Castonzo & Nelson, and I don’t blame ‘em). Mack waits at the line of scrimmage for just a brief second, squaring up his running lane before bursting then spinning out of the hole for an emphatic first down.
- 2nd & 10 at BUF 43 (2:36 ) – Mack run for 9 yards
- Following a play-action off of Mack on 1st down (incomplete), the Colts come back and run an inside zone to the right from under-center. Braden Smith is immediately beaten off the line by Trent Murphy who nearly snags Mack for a 4-yard loss (which would have forced a huge 3rd & 14 outside of FG range). Mack then adlibs his way around Star Lotulelei who also manhandled Ryan Kelly out of his blocking assignment. Mack finds his own hole right up the middle before being brought down by DT Jordan Phillips.
- 1st & 10 at BUF 19 (14:19) – Mack run for 2 yards
- Now in the redzone, the Colts lineup in shotgun with 11 personnel. Mack takes an outside zone behind Glowinski & Smith before his legs get wrapped up by corner Tre-Davious White. Bills defensive front looked like they were lined up ready to stop the run. The very next play, the Colts fake an inside zone to Mack & Luck hits Erik Swoope for the first score of the game.
- 2nd & 8 at BUF 29 (9:25) – Completed pass to Mack for 29 yards. Touchdown.
- In literally the exact same formation as the snap above (and similar field/hash positioning), the Colts run Mack on a check & release swing pass. Mack catches it behind the line of scrimmage & takes it about 32 yards, blazing past corner Dontae Johnson & safety Micah Hyde untouched for the touchdown. Mack now puts the Colts up by 2 scores.
- 2 Point Conversion Attempt (9:25) – Mack run for 2 yards. Successful.
- After a penalty (illegal formation & an unsportsmanlike conduct on Jerry Hughes – LOL) on the first extra point attempt, the Colts, now attempting from the 2 yard-line, opt to go for two. Colts line up in Singleback Ace (12 personnel) and let Mack plow his way with ease on the dive.
- 1st & 10 at IND 18 (7:16) – Mack run for 23 yards
- On the Colts very first offensive snap since Mack’s touchdown & subsequent 2-point conversion, Mack takes an outside handoff to the left out of a heavy 13 personnel (3 TEs, 1 RB, 1 WR) look. Mack gets sprung free off of an excellent block from Glowinski. Mack goes untouched until being pushed out of bounds by Micah Hyde.
- 1st & 10 at BUF 26 (4:47) – Mack run for -2 yards
- Following a big gain off of an end-around from Mack to Hines, Mack is blown up by Jerry Hughes & Jordan Poyer. Colts ran the exact same play that they did on the second play of the game, in which Mack was nearly blown up behind the line on that snap as well.
- 1st & 10 at BUF 11 (2:30) – Mack run for 8 yards
- Colts now in scoring position again, they run a trap out of an offset 12 personnel (eligible lineman) formation. Mack is nearly sprung into the end zone off of a nice block by Braden Smith but gets wrapped up by Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde at the 3.
- 2nd & 2 at BUF 3 (2:00) – Mack run for -2 yards
- After Luck takes it down to the two-minute warning, the Colts go right back to Mack out of a heavy 22 personnel package. Mack does the best he can to find a lane but is met pretty quickly by three Bills linebackers.
- 1st & 10 at IND 25 (7:42) – Mack run for 15 yards
- With the Bills now finally on the board (24-3 at this point), Mack takes an outside zone 15 yards (as he carried Milano for the last 3 yards) behind a monster block from Quenton Nelson.
- 1st & 10 at IND 40 (7:06) – Mack run for 6 yards
- Mack takes an inside zone up the middle, following Hewitt for a nice gain to keep the Colts on-schedule so to speak. Colts lined up in a stacked look out of 11 personnel.
- 1st & Goal at BUF 2 (14:44) – Mack run for -4 yards
- Following Quincy Wilson’s fumble recovery (off of Kemoko Turay’s strip sack) that he should have scored on, the Colts line up in an obvious heavy formation again. Colts run the same outside stretch out of 22 personnel that the Bills have seen 3 times now. Mack is swallowed up immediately.
- 2nd & 14 at IND 13 (10:18) – Mack run for 9 yards
- After an ugly screen pass to Chester Rogers, Indy lines up in 12 personnel & runs a really effective inside trap. Mack is tripped up near the line of scrimmage but is able to stumble ahead for a nice gain to put the Colts in 3rd & manageable… which they convert off of play action to Eric Ebron.
- 1st & 10 at IND 34 (8:53) – Mack run for 4 yards
- With the game now at hand & Reich trying to milk the clock, the Colts come out in heavy 22 personnel. Mack takes a weak zone handoff up the right side for a decent gain in an obvious running situation.
- 2nd & 6 at IND 38 (8:16) – Mack run for 8 yards
- On the following play, out of 11 personnel, Mack takes an inside zone to the left following a block from Hewitt. Mack carries Jordan Poyer on his back for about 3 yards in an effort to get the first.
- 2nd & 9 at IND 47 (6:56) – Mack run for 5 yards
- With some misdirection on a fake jet sweep to Rogers, Mack takes a weak zone to the right for a nice 5-yard gain that probably should have only been a 2 yard gain.
- 1st & 10 at BUF 20 (5:26) – Mack run for 20 yards. Touchdown.
- Mack’s last touch of the day is emphatic. Following a Kenny Moore interception & Jacoby Brissett now in to relieve Luck, Mack bursts to the left on an outside zone out of 12 personnel. Mack just beats Dontae Johnson in a foot race & sprints in untouched. Ballgame.
Myths That We Can Debunk With Evidence
“Mack was only good in garbage time.”
Mack had 97 total yards at the half, including a touchdown catch and a two-point conversion. Also, 15 of Mack’s 23 touches/targets No team in the National Football League, not even the putrid Bills (sans Vontae Davis), would quit at the half. The Bills were very much still in this game by the time Mack had accumulated the bulk of his yards, so that argument is now null & void.
“Buffalo quit before Mack started producing.”
Sure, Mack’s touchdown run on that one-play drive in the 4th was the nail in the coffin & perhaps Buffalo’s defense felt defeated after watching the only QB worse than Nathan Peterman toss an egregious interception, but Mack still showed off great patience before bouncing that run outside (something he has tried to do too quickly in the past). Then Mack just turns on the burners to beat Dontae Johnson, who has 4.4 speed per his Wikipedia page.
“Mack can’t make plays on his own.”
In a critical point in the first quarter (after Mack’s huge 4th down conversion), Mack avoids a 4-yard loss which would have forced an improbable 3rd & long & singlehandedly turns it into a 9-yard GAIN. This run is even more emphatic because, without it, Mack wouldn’t have been in position to set up his 29-yard catch & run touchdown later on that drive. In fact, both of Mack’s touchdowns were a result of him just being quicker and faster than the players across from him. If speed doesn’t help you make your own plays, I don’t know what does.
A Case Against Mack (Still):
The Buffalo Bills entered week 7 with a 2-4 record and had been embarrassingly blown out twice so far in the season, once by the Ravens (47-0, although Nathan Peterman started that game), and once by the Packers (22-0). The Bills were also starting career benchwarmer Derek Anderson, who had only signed with the team on October 9th in lieu of rookie Josh Allen’s injury. Anderson repeatedly committed turnovers that gave the Colts favorable field position, which obviously gave the Colts better opportunities to score. By Anderson’s last interception, you could tell that Buffalo’s defense had channeled their inner Vontae Davis.
Another knock on Mack’s case that may come up is the fact that both rookie running backs enjoyed a successful afternoon as well, which may be more of a credit to how well the offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Rookies Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines ran for 47 & 46 yards respectively, averaging no less than 7.7 YPC between the two of them. After all, I’m probably just overreacting.
A Case for Mack:
The biggest sign that this surge of production against a stout Buffalo defense wasn’t just a fluke? Mack built on his success last week in which he had 93 total yards off of 13 total touches. Mack did so, recovering from an atrocious drop that was compounded into an inexcusable pick six. Spin-Zone though… Mack bounced back after this to have a very productive day against a defensive unit that features Leonard Williams, Jamal Adams, Steve McClendon, Avery Williamson, and promising young linebacker Darron Lee.
Sure, the Buffalo Bills never stood a chance with Anderson at QB, but surely their 3rd ranked defense would stand up to the task against a desperate 1-5 Colts team, right? After all, the most yards that the Bills had surrendered to one back was 77 to Austin Ekeler (which featured a long 20+ run). Wrooooong. The Bills seemingly stout front 7 was pushed around all day, and Mack feasted all afternoon.
I’ll be completely honest here, I think Marlon Mack is a damn fine running back, and in only his second year, he’s got promise to become the best back the Colts have had in about a decade. I also don’t want to diminish a dominant performance by a Colts running back or a Colts offensive line, which feels weird typing. To prove that Mack is better than some Colts fans give him credit, I went back and watched every carry & target that Mack had on Sunday to see if there was more context in the tape. Spoiler alert. He is good at football and will continue to prove his doubters wrong.
If you are interested in any additional reading material on the best running back in Indianapolis, here’s a write up I did back in 2017 about Mack’s potential role with the Colts soon after he was drafted.