Zack Moss' 'grinder' mentality bringing physical attitude, and hidden yardage, to Colts' offense

Last Halloween, the Colts traded running back Nyheim Hines to the Buffalo Bills for a conditional draft pick and running back Zack Moss.

Isaiah McKenzie told Moss that day – and still jokes with him now in the Colts’ locker room – that he wished the trade into existence.

“I got you traded for Nyheim,” McKenzie tells Moss, “because I wanted you to run the ball.”

McKenzie spent three seasons as Moss’ teammate with the Buffalo Bills, where he averaged 4.1 yards on 225 attempts over 31 games. Moss never had more than 500 rushing yards in a season and averaged about seven carries per game.

But McKenzie – and his Bills teammates – knew Moss was better than those numbers suggested. He just needed a chance.

In Indianapolis, Moss is getting one.

“I feel like in Buffalo he wasn’t used as much,” McKenzie said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault — we were kind of a passing team, less running. And he’s a bigger back that ran between the tackles. (Buffalo) getting Nyheim, that was pretty cool. And him coming here gave him a great opportunity because the Colts run the ball.”

Moss, in his 2023 regular season debut, rushed 18 times for 88 yards with a touchdown in the Colts’ 31-20 Week 2 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday. In four starts since joining the Colts – dating back to Week 16 of the 2022 season – Moss has 341 yards on 63 carries (5.4 yards/attempt) with two touchdowns.

In that span, Moss’ 23 missed tackles forced are second in the NFL, and that’s with him missing Week 1 due to a forearm injury sustained in training camp. He’s averaging 3.6 yards after contact per rushing attempt, tied for seventh in the NFL. He has nine explosive runs (10 or more yards), good for sixth among running backs.

And it’s not just the results when Moss gets the ball in his hands. It’s the way he runs.

“He ran hard (Sunday) and breaking tackles – I think it just brings energy to the football team,” head coach Shane Steichen said. “To get those two or three extra yards, tough running, is awesome to see. When guys do that, like I said I think guys feed off it, the offensive line feeds off it. The whole team, defense, special teams sees it and it gets the momentum going.”

In the visitor’s locker room at NRG Stadium after Sunday’s game, right tackle Braden Smith was explaining the attitude Moss’ running style brings to the offense. He talked about Moss’ emphasis on finishing plays and churning out extra yards brings momentum to the Colts’ offense, and how his physicality instills a certain attitude in his teammates.

“You see how hungry he is to get the extra yards like a real grinder,” Smith said.

The way Smith emphasized the word “grinder” sounded like he wanted to put his pads on and block for Moss again Sunday afternoon. And that’s the sort of mentality the Colts have when No. 21 touches the ball.

“To be able to run even if it’s not blocked perfectly, we know he has our back,” left tackle Bernhard Raimann said. “He’s gonna get extra yards out of it and he’s always going to run downhill, he’s always going to run hard.”

There’s a tangible benefit to Moss’ physical play, too, beyond the intangible attitude it helps build. Moss forced seven missed tackles against the Texans; all seven came on five first down runs. A rough estimate is Moss gained an extra 25 or so yards by sidestepping or breaking tackles, and churning out extra yardage as he was being hit.

And with those extra yards, the Colts were largely able to avoid being put into second-and-long situations, which in turn allows an offense to be less predictable and more aggressive.

“When you have those very short runs – those zero or one, minus one or two-yard runs compared to those four, five, six-yard runs, it opens up a lot of the playbook, a lot of the call sheet for the play-caller,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “I thought Zack, gosh he played really well. Zack ran so hard. The guys were blocking. If you take a look at that tape one more time, you’ll see some great double-team blocks by our offensive line really moving the first level of that defense. Zack made the most out of it, man. Zack didn’t just get what was there, he got more. He kept going, he kept fighting and did an amazing job playing almost the entire game.”

That’s the other thing here – Moss played 55 of the Colts’ 56 offensive snaps against the Texans, with those 55 snaps a career high.

As his former and current teammate McKenzie said a year ago, and still says now: All Moss needed was a chance.

“I was glad he came here and got an opportunity,” McKenzie said. “He balled out in the last game of the season here and then he came back, last week, he did great job. I hope he continues to do that.”

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