For my inaugural post on this blog, I felt it was only fitting to start with another new face in the AFC North: Cleveland Browns rookie Running Back Trent Richardson.
Richardson had a tough start to his professional career, after rarely enduring any tough times in college for Alabama, as he posted only 39 yards on 19 carries in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Richardson had missed most of the off-season because of a knee issue so it wasn’t surprising that he showed some rust. Richardson’s struggles against the Eagles were predominantly a result of his poor vision on the day. A breakdown of that game can be found here.
All appeared to be solved in Week 2 however as Richardson ran for 109 yards on 19 carries, with 36 yards on four receptions and two total touchdowns. That performance came in Cincinnati against the Bengals.
While Richardson was obviously up against it during his first professional outing, being a rookie going against a top defense with no passing game to take the pressure off of him, not to mention also coming off an injury, not all of his struggles could be wiped away with excuses. Richardson’s primary issue in Week 1 was his inability to read defenses and find the best running lanes. That problem was evident again immediately in Week 2.
On Richardson’s very first carry, he showed that same hesitation in the backfield that cost him so many yards in Week 1.
Richardson is lined up in a single back set with a tight end to his right, two outside receivers and a slot receiver who motioned from the right to the left prior to the snap. The defense reacted by sending the nickel cornerback across with the slot receiver and rotating their safeties so the one to Richardson’s right was essentially lined up as a strongside linebacker at the snap of the ball.
At the snap of the ball, tight end Benjamin Watson steps inside to gain inside technique on the left defensive end. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz makes a similar move to double down on the left defensive tackle with Shawn Lauvao. Center Alex Mack has the responsibility of blocking the right defensive tackle on his own and initially establishes good inside position to potentially create a lane to his right. The Browns look to trap the right defensive end by sending Joe Thomas downfield and bringing Jason Pinkston across to push him passed Richardson and out of the play. Weeden’s backpedal aids the trap which is a successful one.
The middle linebacker is the only unaccounted for defender in the box, while the strong safety is lined up wide outside the tight end.
As Richardson receives the football, he is presented with two already developed gaps(red arrows) in the offensive line and another crack with potential between the center and the right guard(green arrow). Because the Bengals’ left defensive tackle is in good position to crash inside and take away the green lane, Richardson needs to wait for Schwartz to get into the tackle so Lauvao can attack the second level and occupy the free linebacker.
Joe Thomas’ positioning in the second level implies that the run is designed to go through that gap, but the chances of that run succeeding are hurt by the good initial move from the left defensive tackle. Richardson has to make an instant decision.
He either waits for the avenue to develop, or attempts to run through the two open gaps. The good positioning of tight end Benjamin Watson means that Richardson has a clean avenue to run into, but would need to overrun the free linebacker to gain anything more than 4-5 yards.
The widest avenue for Richardson to run through initially appears to be between the left guard and center, but because Alex Mack(number 55) had to step to his left in order to pick up the defender, Richardson has to attack the middle to set up the defense and help his blockers.
If Richardson attacks Mack’s right shoulder with one hard step, Mack can gain outside technique releasing Richardson onto the second level. With Joe Thomas, Pinkston and his two receivers to that side in good position, Richardson would have given himself a certain five yards and the potential for a huge gain.
Richardson initially hesitates, but doesn’t stick with the lane over the center. Lauvao and Schwartz got a good push on the left defensive tackle and Lauvao was in position to slip onto the linebacker at the next level. Instead of running aggressively through that crack or setting up his avenue to the left, Richardson instantly bounces outside and looks to gain the edge.
The edge was never there however and Richardson should have understood that once the safeties swapped positions initially. Richardson failed to recognize the numbers advantage that the Bengals’ defense had to that side of the center from the snap. He also didn’t understand the setup of his blockers because his tight end was attempting to seal the inside, which exposed him on the edge.
The result of those misjudgments is Richardson running straight into the left defensive end and safety on the edge.
Richardson’s vision and awareness of the defense, or lack thereof, cost him any chance of gaining positive yardage and benefiting from his offensive line’s good work. No running-back finds the correct hole on every single play, but because Richardson struggled significantly in that area last week, it was a very worrying start to the game for Browns fans to endure.
With a 5.7 yards per carry average, and a long of 32 yards as part of his 148 yards, Richardson was a lot more consistent in all facets of his game against the Bengals. He repeatedly ran off gains of 5+ yards, but his biggest gain of the day was the best example of why the Browns drafted him.
Brandon Weeden had just thrown a screen pass to Alex Smith for 17 yards, so the Browns were on the Bengals’ 32 with a first and 10 in the second quarter. Richardson is the single back in a four receiver formation. With the four receivers, and the fact that Richardson is off-set in the backfield, this is a formation that has the Bengals thinking pass. A response to that is for many of the defenders to line up deep.
When Richardson receives the football he doesn’t need to make a decision because there is a wide open lane to run through infront of him. The defensive line was taken out of the play by the play fake, while center Alex Mack is acting as a lead blocker running down the field.
Mack locates Rey Maualuga, but cannot sustain the block which forces Richardson to beat him with an impressive side-step. Unlike the previous week, Richardson doesn’t slow down when he looks to shake a defender. Richardson glides past Maualuga with a combination of his speed and strength barely even acknowledging his presence. Maualuga redirects the running back, but can’t slow him in the open field.
Once past Maualuga, Richardson has three defenders and two blockers between he and the endzone. Both of his blockers are to the outside of their defenders, so are in good position to give Richardson the sideline if he sets up the run properly.
Unlike on the first play of the game, and many plays in Week 1, Richardson shows enough of an understanding to realize that he must occupy the free defender(the safety) with a hard inside step. Richardson plants his left foot infield, before shifting his weight to the outside and using his acceleration to evade any defenders in pursuit from behind.
Because of the timing of Richardson’s plant and the aggression with which he ran the football, the previously unaccounted for defender has no chance at making a play on Richardson unless he can beat him to the pylon.
Once Richardson gained the sideline, there was simply no catching him. The Browns didn’t draft a back in the top three of the draft for him to be caught from behind. Richardson’s explosion allowed him to easily trot into the endzone.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian and Irishcentral, you can follow him on twitter @Cianaf