Analysis Notebook: Bonus Edition

| October 23, 2013

analysis notebook copyThe 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.

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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:

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or this:

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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 

 

  • redmid17

    Your concern is admirable. The decision to use run heavy formations by the Colts is dumb enough. However good his “missed tackles” stats are, his inability to make proper reads and subsequent cuts has already been noted this year and last year.
    There is a reason why the % of snaps he has taken in the last few weeks has dropped from a high of 75% to around 50%. He’s not been very good, even when the blocking was there.

    http://www.draftbrowns.com/2013/06/browns-film-room-trent-richardson/

    • PFFSamMonson

      As admirable as the work involved in that piece is I disagree with much of its content.

      People get into trouble a lot with analysing running backs assuming that they should always simply be expected to cut to where the space seems to be and everything else will take care of itself. The problem is that much of that space is entirely deceiving because of the leverage of blocks. That’s why Reggie Bush doesn’t gain 2,000 yards every season. He cuts to where he thinks there is space, but often it’s just a mirage, and he winds up making no more yardage – less in fact – than had he simply gone where he was supposed to.

      The point with Richardson though is that he has shown both good and bad during his short career, and as with any runner with iffy blocking in front of him (overall, rather than on specific plays) there will be plays where they bailed early rather than trusted the blocking.

      At this stage the Colts blocking simply isn’t of a standard high enough to evaluate any running back, so swapping between Brown, Richardson or anyone else they want to trot out there is just skirting around the issue.

      • Nick

        I think if you go back and look at last years film combined with this years, you will see a running back who never finds a cutback lane. It’s either go where the hole is supposed to be and run into the backs of your lineman or bounce it outside. I understand what you’re saying about the leverage of blocks in cutback lanes sometimes being deceiving, but he just doesn’t seem to see the lanes, period.

        At some point we need to face some facts here. We have a running back who was worked extremely hard at Alabama, who has had multiple surgeries on both knees already, and has shown suspect vision at the line of scrimmage.

      • redmid17

        I’ll be the first to say that the interior of the Colts line (Satele, McGlynn, Thornton, and sometimes Linkenbach) has been a relative dumpster fire, but then why did Ballard and Bradshaw have success running out of the same heavy formations?

        • PFFSamMonson

          As I said in the article – sample size. Ballard had 13 carries before injury this season. That’s basically meaningless. Last year his average was 3.9ypc.

          Bradshaw had 41 carries I think before injury, again one run of half decent length either way swings that average to amazing or pretty crappy.

  • Nick

    If this isn’t card stacking, I don’t know what is. How many games does it take to label a player? 22 of consistent performance, good or bad, seems like a lot already. His vision as a runner is just as big a problem as the line in front of him.

    • nogoodnamesleft90210

      Yeah, he really seems to lack vision for finding holes, which is not going to be factored into any elusiveness rating. Obviously I don’t have the All-22 to know this for sure, but every time I watch him play, he either dives straight into a hole or tries to bounce it outside. Rarely do I see him make a cut back or otherwise shift into a different gap. The only way I can explain his high “forced missed tackles” count is that he is constantly running straight into contact.

    • Bray Wyatt

      What holes? People complain that his vision is lacking but what holes is he supposed to be looking for????

      • Jim Bob

        When Brown looks better than Richardson, it may be that Richardson is not what we thought he was. With the same offensive line Drown and Bradshaw were able to double his yards per carry. Stop blaming everyone but Richardson. Just because two teams gave up first round picks for does not make him a stud running back waiting to happen…

  • Ryan Crinnigan

    It boggles my mind that the Colts will not put Trent in more in shotgun and 3-wide sets. Donald Brown would look even worse than Trent if we put him in those power formations. Maybe they don’t trust his pass protection. But is he really not better than “Goddammit” Donald Brown!?

    • Bray Wyatt

      I agree completely. I don’t think the Colts mistrust his pass blocking, he’s made some nice blocks so far. The reason he’s not in more 3 wide sets and shotgun is because the coaching staff won’t give up power run formations and they don’t want to use Brown in those.

      • redmid17

        Most of Browns snaps last weeks were on passing downs, so I’d lean toward the coaches trusting Brown more, if they trust Richardson’s blocking.

  • Topher Doll

    You said Richardson faced a collapsed hole 71.4% of his runs Sunday but what are those numbers for every other back? I doubt they are that high but I’m just wondering for comparison.

  • Bradybunch

    Last season this very PFF staff graded the Browns Oline +10.0 in run blocking which is on par with the Houston Texans. Yet PFF is claiming Richardson was dead in the water due to poor blocking. Well Foster and Tate must be Superman and the boy wonder. I’m not sure why I keep PAYING for such shotty analysis??? The deeper you dig the more inconsistencies you will see with the metrics on this site.

    • Topher Doll

      They also blamed his poor play on his QB, now he has an excellent QB.

      • redmid17

        For having such a terrible QB, he didn’t seem to face too many 8 man boxes last year. Per PFF data it was less than league average

  • Bradybunch

    In fact the Colts are rated 15th in run blocking by this very site for 2013. Should the RB’s for the bottom 17 teams cry “Poor Oline” too or is this just an excuse Trent gets to use?

    • http://www.219.com/ Josh Boeke

      Have to keep in mind that so-called “team” grades are actually just an aggregate of the individual grades. Saying a team is “15th in run blocking” is misleading because while their cumulative grade might be 15th, if different players are bad on different plays than as a team they are still a really bad blocking unit.

      In my opinion PFF grades really shouldn’t be used to make declarations about an entire unit or team, they should be used to talk about specific players only. Team grading would be really interesting but that’s not really what PFF does.

  • Poor Richard

    Richardson hasn’t even played 8 games in a Colts uniform yet, give the man some time.

  • Alan

    The first three paragraphs are completely useless. You can make a play-specific anecdote like that about any RB in the history of the NFL. I don’t understand if he’s faced so many guys in the backfield, why are the Colts 2013 and Browns 2012 run blocking grades not worse? Seriously, I like PFF a lot but broken tackles and elusive rating are not the only metric to judge a quality RB.

    • http://www.219.com/ Josh Boeke

      I saw Monson address this question on Twitter, the issue isn’t that individual blockers are bad, it’s that they seem to be taking turns being bad on different plays. The team blocking grade thus looks artificially inflated. We have to keep in mind that PFF grades are individual grades and not team grades. If the Colts offensive line was given a team blocking grade it would no doubt be a lot worse.

  • locdog284

    I know Rich hasn’t gotten much of a chance thus far, but I keep coming back to the San Fran game where he and Bradshaw received the same number of carries, but Bradshaw averaged like 2-3 yards per carry more than Richardson. I know that it was Trent’s first game as a Colt and also know that Bradshaw may have been used in situations more conducive to running, but they both got a great number of carries, and Bradshaw definitely was the more effective back in that game.

  • Scott@Seattle

    Its really tough to run the ball in the NFL. It takes a team effort. I laugh every time i hear a passing team is now going to run the ball by just getting a RB.

  • H.Y.

    Whether Sam’s take on T-Rich is right or wrong, this is EXACTLY why you don’t throw your first round pick to get a RB like Richardson.

    Performance of RB is so dependent on the line play, and if you have a solid run blocking, almost any RB in the league can have a productive season. So why waste the pick?

    If Richardson is a transcendent RB who can overcome poor line play, then it’s a different story. But we can safely say that is not the case.

    He might not be 3.0ypc bad, but he isn’t I-can-still-run-well-behind-bad-offensive-line good, either.