INDIANAPOLIS – Jonathan Williams was cut by three teams during his first three seasons in the NFL.
And just when the 25-year-old running back seemed to be finding a foothold in the preseason this summer, he suffered a broken rib that sent him to the sideline.
Still, Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have raved about the former Arkansas star for more than a calendar year during private film sessions behind the scenes.
So maybe Williams was the perfect player to lead the 2019 team’s resurrection Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Led by Williams’ 116 yards on just 13 carries, Indianapolis had two rushers go over the 100-yard mark in the same game for just the fourth time in franchise history during a 33-13 pounding of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Great win,” Reich said. “We needed that one after a two-game losing streak. We felt it all week. There was good preparation. There was an intensity and focus that I think we have all the time, but there seemed to be a little something extra this week.”
It all started with Indianapolis rediscovering its identity.
The rushing game was the trademark of a 5-2 start that included physical play on both sides of the ball and a paucity of unforced errors.
That changed in recent weeks as opponents stacked the box and clogged the running lanes. But the Colts (6-4) broke out in a big way against the Jaguars (4-6).
The team averaged 7.3 yards on 36 carries, and the 264 total rushing yards represented the 12th-most in franchise history. It was the best rushing performance in almost exactly 15 years, dating back to a 275-yard game against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 21, 2004.
Marlon Mack rushed for 109 yards on 14 carries before suffering a fractured hand early in the third quarter. He and Williams became the first Colts rushing duo to hit the century mark in the same game since Randy McMillan (112) and Albert Bentley (100) on Oct. 6, 1985.
The only other duos to accomplish the feat in franchise history are Lydell Mitchell (133) and Don McCauley (109) in 1973, and Lenny Moore (120) and Alan Ameche (108) in 1956.
“I played in a backfield in college that we had two thousand-yard rushers,” Williams said. “So it’s nothing that’s new to me, but it’s new here. We just run behind the offensive line.
“They practice and they come in every day, every week, early in the day, and they start it off. We run behind those guys, and it’s a joy to run behind them. I appreciate it.”
Reich said he could tell early in the week something was different with left guard Quenton Nelson, who nearly scored a rushing touchdown of his own.
The 2018 first-round pick came up just short of the goal line on a carry that originally was ruled a 1-yard touchdown run and prompted an immediately viral end zone celebration.
Though that score was wiped out, Nelson and his offensive line mates rebounded in a major way from three weeks of subpar performances.
“I just wouldn’t want to be in his road this week,” Reich said of the all-pro guard. “He just had something special going on this week, and those guys all up front played great.”
The rushing revolution helped snap a string of nine games decided by just one score to open the season for Indianapolis.
Even this one was close early.
After D.J. Chark caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from returning quarterback Nick Foles, Jacksonville held a 7-0 lead with 6:53 to play in the first quarter.
Then the Colts scored 31 unanswered points.
Mack used a pair of spin moves during an incredible 13-yard run for a touchdown that tied the score with 35 seconds remaining in the opening period, and a 34-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri – who was perfect on five kick attempts – gave Indianapolis a 10-7 lead with 8:26 remaining in the first half.
Following Nelson’s failed third-down run, returning quarterback Jacoby Brissett tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marcus Johnson to extend the lead to 10 points with 8:46 to play in the third quarter.
By the time Brissett added a 5-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds remaining in the period, the rout was on.
Nyheim Hines capped the rally with a 7-yard touchdown run with 12:42 left in the fourth quarter, and the Colts led 31-7.
Brissett was an efficient 15-of-24 for 148 yards with one touchdown and one interception in his first game back from a sprained MCL in his left knee. But he was more than happy to watch the running game lead the way.
“I think our o-line, and really our offensive group as a whole, took pride in that today,” Brissett said. “When we installed our run game this week, the main thing was just execution, and I think we did that in all phases of our run game.
“It opened up some of the passing plays, but I think our guys did a great job of taking control of the line of scrimmage.”
It was a similar story on defense, where rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin recorded his first career interception before leaving with an ankle injury and Indianapolis held the Jaguars’ vaunted ground attack to just 29 yards on nine carries.
Foles was 33-of-47 for 296 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in his first game back since breaking his clavicle in the season opener. Chark caught eight passes for 104 yards and both scores, including a 20-yard pass that provided Jacksonville’s final points with 59 seconds remaining.
Rookie linebacker Bobby Okereke intercepted the 2-point conversion and returned it for the Colts’ final points, and defensive end Justin Houston recorded a late sack to push his streak to six consecutive games.
But all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard still wasn’t satisfied with the defensive performance.
“We always talk about shutouts, and that’s what the defense wants to do,” he said. “If they don’t score, they don’t win. So if you see anything past zero, it’s not a good day for us.”
The victory, coupled with the Houston Texans’ 41-7 loss against the Baltimore Ravens, moved the Colts back into a first-place tie in the AFC South.
They have a showdown in Houston on Thursday night and likely will play the game without Mack, whose injury will be further evaluated Monday.
That could put Williams back on center stage in another game with critical playoff implications.
He’s confident he and his teammates will be up to the task.
“This game is over, and we’ve gotta get ready for the next week,” Williams said. “It’s gonna be a short turnaround, but we’ll be ready.”