I hate a lot of things in this world – long lines, bad drivers, screaming children on an airplane. Most of the same inconveniences that everyone else on earth hates too. What I disdain more than all of these annoyances, however, is watching a good football player be unjustly crucified by America’s various sports media outlets for a crime he did not commit. If you had not caught on by the title of this piece, that football player is Colts running back Trent Richardson, and the crime in question was Indy’s maddeningly ineffective ground game.
All the stats in the world suggest that Richardson had a colossal train wreck of a season in 2013--2.9 yards per carry, only one run over 20 yards all year, just three touchdowns against two fumbles. Richardson even came in ranked 45th out of 47 running backs with 100 or more carries in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement metric (-22.2%). For comparison’s sake, Richardson’s teammate Donald Brown came in 14th at +19.2%. Like many things in football, however, stats can be extraordinarily misleading. I went into my film study for this piece thinking that Richardson, coming from an Alabama offense that primarily utilized zone blocking on run plays, was uncomfortable when reading the "gap" running plays, such as power, ISO, wham, trap, and counter, that the Browns and Colts employed. That discomfort then presumably lead to the "tentativeness" and "lack of vision" that was so often reported around the football media circuit.
And then I watched the film.
After charting 69 total runs across five different games, a sample size that includes over a third of Richardson’s total runs in 2013, I came to a conclusion that went directly against every standardized number in the book – Trent Richardson is a beast. Out of those 61 runs, here is how they broke down by play type.
Gap runs – 44/61 (64%)
Zone runs – 17/61 (25%)
Toss plays – 6/69 (8%)
Draw plays – 2/69 (3%)
Even more surprising, out of 42 "bad runs" that went for three yards or less in those five games, only four of those bad results were directly the fault of Richardson himself. That means that a staggering 90% of Trent Richardson’s so-called bad plays were caused by the abysmal run blocking that Indianapolis and Cleveland put in front of him last season. There were times while watching Oniel Cousins and Samson Satele get defeated over and over where I was almost in disbelief with just how impossibly hard it was for Richardson to find a well-blocked lane. If Satele was not beaten, then surely Gosder Cherilus had blown a block, or Anthony Castonzo, or Hugh Thornton, or one of Indy’s many tight ends who could not seal an edge if their lives depended on it (I’m looking at you, Coby Fleener) had. In short, I would argue that Richardson got his 2.9 yards per carry in spite of the blocking in front of him. Had a lesser talent been behind that line, it could have been much, much worse.
One of the most popular arguments against Richardson that gets perpetuated almost daily is Donald Brown’s seemingly successful year behind the exact same offensive line. Brown’s 5.3 yards per carry average gets thrown around a lot, but that stat never really addresses the fact that Brown was almost exclusively used as a change of pace back. Brown’s numbers are inflated by several games of five carries or less that had huge average yards per carry totals. 21.7 YPC on three carries against Jacksonville, 8.3 YPC on three carries against San Francisco, and 7.6 YPC on five carries against Houston certainly look nice on the stat sheets, but Brown’s games with heavier workloads look entirely different. In the five games in which Brown had ten or more carries, he had a YPC average below 4.0 in three of them. In his 7.9 YPC effort against Kansas City on ten carries, 51 of his 79 rushing yards came on one run out of the shotgun against a dime package with six defensive backs on the field. Brown’s other nine carries averaged 3.1 yards. Meanwhile, Richardson totaled over 50 more carries than Brown despite being on the team for two fewer games. Richardson was the workhorse, and Brown his complementary back. When Brown was asked to handle bigger loads, his raw numbers suffered just as much as Richardson due to Indy’s terrible offensive line. Nobody in that backfield was safe. Nobody.
The issues that plagued the Colts in the trenches were many. There was no movement generated at the line of scrimmage, bad back side blocking on cut back lanes, and pulling guards completely whiffed on linebackers in space. You name it, and the Colts' offensive line probably managed to mess it up somehow. Let’s start with the most egregious of the problems with Indy’s run blocking – their complete inability to move people off the ball.
The Colts are running their bread and butter power play out of 21 (two backs, one tight end) personnel. Richardson’s first read on the play is the highlighted B gap. Rookie left guard High Thornton was tasked with down blocking San Diego’s nose tackle while left tackle Anthony Castonzo doubled teamed Corey Liuget at the point of attack and advanced on to Manti Te’o on the second level. Meanwhile, center Samson Satele and right tackle Gosder Cherilus were to seal off the back side of the run while right guard Mike McGlynn and fullback Stanley Havili cleared a path for a bounce to the edge. If all went according to plan, Richardson would be choosing his hole based on his read of the inside linebackers. If one or both of them flashed inside to fill the B gap (red arrow), Richardson would bounce outside and hit the edge with McGlynn in front of him. If the linebackers followed the pull to the edge (orange arrow), Richardson would hit the B gap behind Castonzo and get whatever he could inside. While not exactly fool-proof, this is the kind of play design that has fueled traditional downhill power run schemes for decades.
One step off the snap, and Thornton is already in trouble with his down block. Rather than getting his play-side hand on the tackle’s ribs and his back-side hand in the tackle’s chest to drive him out of the lane, Thornton attacks his target’s center mass and opens himself up to losing leverage. The nose tackle gets his hand on Thornton’s shoulder in preparation to toss him out of the way using Thornton’s own momentum.
Thornton gets discarded by the tackle (red box) while Te’o (orange circle) reads the pull and begins to scrape across the line of scrimmage to the outside. Both of Richardson’s options are now less than appetizing. He can no longer hit the B gap because of the nose tackle immediately beating Thornton’s down block, and bouncing to the outside is risky with two linebackers and a safety waiting for him.
Richardson’s decision was made for him by the nose tackle’s penetration. He cuts sharply to the outside while still three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Richardson eludes the nose tackle, but a blitzing inside linebacker is soon there to finish the job. Had Thornton not been thrown into the backfield so suddenly, it is possible that the linebacker’s blitz would have been held up just long enough for Richardson to make it to the edge without opposition. Instead, he is left alone in the backfield with two defenders.
Richardson’s incredible balance helps him stay upright just long enough to turn a three yard loss into a one yard gain, but this play would have gone for much more if just one additional person did his job along the offensive line. Guards might not get paid big bucks compared to other positions in the NFL, but their value to an efficient offense cannot be overstated.
Richardson’s ability to make something out of absolutely nothing was called upon with alarming frequency during his first fourteen games in a Colts uniform. The play above is just one sample of a trend that became more and more apparent as I watched tape. An even better example came in the third quarter of the very same game.
Indy is again running a power play to the strong side out of 21 personnel. Play-side integrity of the run is largely the responsibility of Coby Fleener, Gosder Cherilus, fullback Stanley Havili, and a pulling Hugh Thornton. Fleener is to double team defensive end Kendall Reyes with Cherlius and then advance to the second level to seal off the Mike (middle) linebacker. Meanwhile, Havili is tasked with getting inside leverage on the outside linebacker to create a lane for Thornton to pull through and take out Manti Te’o. If everything goes according to plan, Richardson will simply have to follow Thornton through the hole and cut to wide open grass.
However, as with virtually every running play for the Colts in 2013, nothing went according to plan. Cherilus immediately lets Reyes into his chest while getting a weak grip outside of Reyes’ arms. For those not familiar with the intricacies of offensive line play, not controlling a defender’s chest while attempting to block for a run play is a massive mistake. You simply cannot move an NFL defensive lineman out of the way without having any sort of control of his center of gravity. Having his hands outside the chest also opens Cherlius up to being flagged for an easy holding penalty.
Fleener’s double team knocks Reyes a little bit to the right. Because Cherilus let Reyes into his chest, Reyes immediately drags him down face first into the ground (yellow circle). Meanwhile, Havili loses inside leverage on the linebacker and compromises Thornton’s ability to pull through the lane. The two most important blocks for the entire play are falling apart right before Richardson’s eyes.
Reyes flashes into the backfield while falling down and forces Richardson to bounce outside (yellow circle) while Thornton engages the outside linebacker (blue circle). Had Thornton not rescued Havili from his failed block, Richardson likely would have been brought down for a loss. The downside of Thornton engaging the outside linebacker, however, is that Manti Te’o is now completely unblocked against Richardson on the edge.
Here is where things get ridiculous. Richardson jump cuts out of Reyes’ tackle in the back field, and without taking a single step after his landing, he immediately cuts back up field away from Te’o. Richardson’s right leg literally acts as a spring to catch his momentum, reload, and explode in a completely different direction in one fluid movement.
Even more impressive is that Richardson carries not one, but two tacklers for three yards to turn what should have been a tackle for loss into a four yard gain. This is rare physical ability that you just do not see very often. Normal humans tear ligaments doing something like that.
Here is an All-22 angle of the run to give some context to just how far Richardson dragged his would-be tacklers. Cherilus’ blown block is highlighted in red. This run was made completely on the merits of Trent Richardson. Average running backs do not get positive yardage on this play, let alone a four yard gain.
I cannot recall a runner who had so many short runs that should never have gained any yards in the first place. Richardson’s stat line might be full of small numbers, but if it were not for him, the Colts very well might have gone backwards in their ground game.
Whether Richardson was breaking a Derrick Johnson tackle in the backfield…
Or cutting away from a penetrating Arthur Jones…
Or just shrugging off the entire Ravens defense in general…
Or showing the Chargers what it is like to be on the other end of a LaDainian Tomlinson-esque jump cut…
…Trent Richardson was the very personification of "doing it by your damn self" in 2013. Speaking of jump cuts, Richardson did some downright freaky stuff both in the open field and behind the line of scrimmage last season. He might not possess the breakaway speed of C.J. Spiller or Jamaal Charles, but Richardson can embarrass defenders with the best of them when he's given a little bit of wiggle room.
That all-too-precious wiggle room was hard to come by with such an ineffective offensive line, however. One of the more frustrating weaknesses I saw on tape for the Colts' run game was just how often Indy left the back door open for defenders to mess up their day. Whether it was blown blocks or not blocking anyone at all, Richardson was brought down by pursuing defenders during cut backs with startling frequency. One of the best examples of Indy’s problems on back side lanes came late in the season against the then-woeful Texans.
Indy is running outside zone to the strong side out of 21 personnel. Ideally, the right side of the offensive line will double Antonio Smith and seal out Joe Mays on the second level while blocking tight end Weslye Saunders kicks out Whitney Mercilus to form a nice play-side lane. If that fails, the left guard and H-back are tasked with cutting down Earl Mitchell and J.J. Watt while left tackle Anthony Castonzo drives out Brooks Reed to leave a wide open cut back lane.
Right guard Xavier Nixon starts the first phase of a standard "reach block", the "bucket step" or "drop step". Notice how his play-side foot drops back six inches at a forty-five degree angle. This is what offensive line coaches refer to as "losing ground to gain ground." By dropping the first step back by six inches, Nixon has enough room to swivel his hips for his second step to drive across Smith’s face. Unfortunately for Nixon, however, Smith is already slanting against the grain of his block as soon as the ball is snapped. This puts Nixon’s hips in the exact opposite direction of Smith’s, which makes it that much harder to recover and stop Smith’s penetration. Had Smith flowed with the current of the play rather than against it, this block might be in a better position to succeed.
Cherilus was also probably expecting Smith to flow with the play based on his outstretched arm (yellow circle) towards the gap that Smith would have occupied. In all likelihood, Cherilus was tasked with jamming Smith just long enough for Nixon to seal him out of the lane, but Smith had other plans. Richardson is already reading Smith’s penetration before Luck even fully turns around for the hand-off.
Richardson does not even have the ball yet, and Smith is already charging head long into the back field. Meanwhile on the back side, Castonzo is starting to engage Reed on the second level while Watt sidesteps past Jack Doyle’s cut block unscathed.
Here is the biggest mistake by any blocker during the entire play. Rather that squaring up on Reed and driving him down field, Castonzo gets turned perpendicular to Reed and loses all leverage. Reed can discard Castonzo with minimal effort from this position.
Reed uses Castonzo’s momentum to give him a little shove out of the way. By the time Richardson cuts away from Smith’s penetration, he is face to face with two of Houston’s best run stoppers with no blockers in sight. This is a devastatingly sloppy mistake from Castonzo. Had he squared up on Reed and thrown even a half-decent block, this run had a chance to gain some good yardage.
Instead, it shows up as just one more poor run on the stat sheet that will inevitably get blamed on Richardson.
It was both fascinating and frustrating to see just how often Richardson was betrayed by a blown block from the backside right when it seemed he was about to break a big gain. The only way Coby Fleener could have screwed Richardson any harder would have been to just make the tackle himself.
And of course who could forget the time that three offensive linemen let Dontari Poe into the backfield without so much as a pat on the back?
Watching the Colts attempt to run block in 2013 made me physically angry. It was like the fan inside of me was tricked into watching some bizarro football where everyone strives to mess up more times than the man next to him. When the Colts did keep it together long enough to block one play successfully from top to bottom, Richardson made it count. The problem was just how rare that kind of blocking was.
Should Trent Richardson fans still be worried going into 2014? Personally, I find more reason for optimism than skepticism. Gosder Cherilus may still be the right tackle, but Samson Satele is no longer in the building. Khaled Holmes is expected to take over as the starting center, and just by virtue of him not being Samson Satele, I would consider that an upgrade. Hugh Thornton might improve in his sophomore season as the team’s new right guard, but the real star of the show in Indy this year should be rookie guard Jack Mewhort. I studied Mewhort in depth this spring and really admired how ferocious a run blocker he was. Even against the feared Michigan State defense, Mewhort showed he has the size, strength, and technique to be a great bulldozer in the middle of the line. He also projects to be a good pass protector as a guard, considering he had decent "tackle feet" while in college. In short, Mewhort gives the Colts a massive upgrade at a position that should help Richardson become the best back possible.
In addition to Mewhort, Dwayne Allen will make his long awaited return this season as the only tight end on the roster who knows how to properly block someone. When you add up Holmes, Mewhort, and Allen’s collective upgrade potential, it is not far-fetched to think that Richardson might finally have enough room at the line of scrimmage to explode in his third season. If you ignore the noise from the media and take stats with a grain of salt, the tape screams one thing loud and clear – bet big on the Colts' ground game in 2014.