The signs were there from the first play of the game. Trent Richardson took the handoff, aimed at Samson Satele’s left hip and then saw the wham block ahead of him blown up and the formidable bulk of DT Kevin Vickerson forcing his way across his path right at the point of attack. Richardson had taken only three steps and the play was already dead, forcing him to cut and improvise. As it happens he made an impressive jump-cut to his left around Vickerson and what was left of the pulling guard he just beat, scampering for 4 yards before being brought down by Rahim Moore the safety.
This play looks completely unremarkable on the stat sheet, just a standard 4-yard run, leading people that look at those things to question if Richardson is really running with any purpose, or if he is just another back, capable of getting only what the line gives him and nothing more. Well in this instance he gained 4 yards more than the line gave him, because the line gave him nothing, forcing him to make it happen on his own. He may not have been able to break it open completely, but he wasn’t far from doing so (Moore only just took him down by the ankles as he burst toward daylight), and he turned a dead play into a positive one on first down.
The truth about Richardson is that his career in the NFL is only 22 games old and features injuries and some truly ugly blocking. We really haven’t seen enough to accurately determine what he is or isn’t yet, but it’s certainly too early to be writing him off as a player that can’t get it done running the ball. After this game there was another round of people looking at the stats and the fact that he wasn’t able to get much going and blaming him for it, rather than taking a look at the blocking that was supposed to be opening up holes for him.
Of his 14 carries, Richardson arrived at the intended point of attack to find it still viable just four times. That means that on 71.4% of his carries by the time he arrived at the hole he was supposed to hit it was already blown up! He was forced to make a cut in the backfield 10 times by defenders beating his blocking almost immediately, quickly enough that the average point at which he was forced to cut away from the intended point of attack was -2.1 yards. 2.1 yards deep in the backfield. Even counting the plays that weren’t destroyed before Richardson made it to the hole, the average point at which he was hit by a defender was just 0.8 yards down field.
The point I’m making? Richardson could be the hybrid lovechild of Adrian Peterson and Barry Sanders and he would struggle behind the blocking he saw against the Broncos.
There were occasions though when we saw flashes of what he is capable of. On one of the four occasions the hole didn’t collapse around him he was able to break off an 8-yard run up the middle. That may not sound like much, but it was a fantastic example of the skill set that Richardson brings to the table and why two teams have now spent a first-round pick in acquiring his services.
When Richardson heads toward the line of scrimmage there appears to be a pretty sizeable hole opening up to the left of center, and you might wonder why he doesn’t just head straight for it, but he can see that on either side there are Denver defenders squeezing it closed. Instead of heading straight to the space and finding himself taken down by one of them, he pushes the run up behind his guard before breaking to the space at the last moment, ensuring that both defenders have the maximum amount of distance to cover to get to him.
When he makes his first cut he burst through the closing gap like Will Smith exiting the mother ship in Independence Day as it slams shut behind him, only to find himself heading right for SS Duke Ihenacho who has read the play well and closed in to take him down for a minimal gain.
He then breaks out a move that most don’t believe he possesses in his arsenal, cutting off one leg he springs back to the inside away from the would-be tackler, lifting himself just high enough to leave Ihenacho grasping at air instead of what he was sure would be Richardson’s standing leg just moments ago.
As nice as those first two moves were, Richardson now runs unavoidably into contact as one of his linemen has lost control of his block at the second level. Rather than looking for another finesse move to get away from the inevitable tackle, Richardson lowers his head and goes into full-on power-back mode, dragging a pair of Denver players for additional yardage.
This was a gain of just 8 yards, but it represents everything that is good about Richardson’s running at the moment — good that exists in spite of the ugly statistics that he and the Colts are putting up on the ground.
That run was a rarity in a game in which Richardson tallied just 37 yards on 14 carries. What he saw far more often was his way blocked by bodies, both blue and white, as soon as he was handed the ball. Far too often Richardson looked up to see situations like this:
That isn’t to say that Richardson is entirely blameless, or that he couldn’t have squeezed out a little more from the game. Every running back leaves something on the table at some stage in a game. Adrian Peterson will go through tape of a game in which he topped 200 yards and pick his play to pieces, pointing out cuts he could have made here, moves he could have broken out there, as if he’d been held without a significant gain all day. On Richardson’s fumble, for example, he was a little too quick to abandon the intended point of attack — perhaps simply used to bailing on it by that point in the game given what had happened to him so far — and instead of delaying a beat to let his blocking develop, elected to bounce it outside where he was gang-tackled and ultimately stripped of the football.
There were plays too where he perhaps didn’t find the ideal spot to cut towards once the initial play had broken down. I’m not saying Richardson has been incredible or anything, but when the biggest issues come from not being able to fix other people’s mistakes, perhaps you need to think about those mistakes being made so consistently, rather than his inability to turn lead into gold.
This is why separating a runner from his blocking is so difficult to do. On that play Richardson was a little too quick to bail on the play and try to bounce it outside, but was this because he didn’t see it? Was his clock simply reset by the caliber of the blocking on that day and he had become conditioned to having to try to make things happen on his own? Even on something we can identify as a mistake from Richardson we can’t accurately determine the cause of that mistake.
The bottom line is the Colts have been an awful run blocking unit this season. People point to the numbers put up by Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown behind the same line, but for a couple of reasons those comparisons aren’t necessarily fair. Firstly, the line hasn’t been the same all the way along. The Colts have been dealing with injuries and re-shuffling, and did so several times in the course of this game alone. Secondly, the sample size is so small that one half-decent run by any of the three runners instantly swings their average YPC wildly up or down. Bradshaw may have a much healthier looking average, but based on just 41 attempts.
Lastly, those numbers don’t take into account the situations or formations in which the three are being used. Richardson is being used more than Brown in heavy sets, when teams are expecting the run, only magnifying the problems on the O-line.
Where am I going with all of this?
He may never live up to the draft picks that have already been spent on him, but it would be a mistake to write Trent Richardson off as just another guy running the football, a plodding power back with little else to his game. The Colts are giving him little to no chance at the moment, but the tape shows a guy who is making explosive moves with the ball in his hands. Only Marshawn Lynch has more than the 34 forced missed tackles Richardson has tallied this season, and there is no back in football with a significant number of carries who is making people miss at a better rate than Richardson. This is a guy who is doing his best to make things happen, but so far hasn’t been able to overcome the plays crashing down around him.
If the Colts can’t improve their O-line it may never happen, but I don’t think we can pin the blame on Richardson right now, whatever the average yards per carry is.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam