Trent Richardson means more to his Cleveland Browns than any other NFL rookie (save quarterbacks). Last year the Browns had the fifth-best scoring defense in the NFL, but the third-worst scoring offense. The best tailback prospect in years, Richardson has the size, speed and moves to immediately gash holes in NFL defenses—and keep that underrated defense off the field.
But in the Browns' first game against the Eagles, Richardson carried the ball 19 times for just 39 yards. What happened?
Richardson missed the entire preseason while recovering from a minor knee procedure. Maybe he's not 100 percent yet, or that he's not in game fitness. Maybe he's perfectly fine, but the Browns' line is holding him back, or what he's being asked to do doesn't match up with what he does well?
There's only one way to find out for sure: watch the game film.
The first play the Browns called was a perfect microcosm of their offense, both as it is and as it hopes to be:
The Browns line up in a three-receiver offset I formation, with fullback Owen Marecic ready to blast open a hole. Eagles defensive end Jason Babin is highlighted, with good reason. The Eagles run a defensive line system that emphasizes lining up wide to funnel the run inside; the Browns seem ready to take advantage of this.
At the snap, the Browns' center and guard double-team Eagles tackle Cullen Jenkins, blowing him off the ball and pushing him several yards back. If right tackle Mitchell Schwartz can seal off Babin, Richardson has space on either side of the guard:
In the "A" gap, there are two linebackers, and the fullback, Marecic, who doesn't look likely to get a good block on either. "B" gap, between the tackle and guard, there's nothing but daylight. Unfortunately for the Browns, Babin sheds Schwartz in the blink of an eye, and before Richardson can adjust he's dropped for a one-yard gain.
There was a lot of this during the Browns' season opener: an inability of the blockers to open a clear lane for Richardson, and Richardson seemingly waffling about which one he ought to hit anyway.
Later on, Richardson again seems to struggle to find holes that are definitely there:
The Browns line up in a single back, three-receiver, one-tight end formation. The Eagles are in a base 4-2-5 nickel:
One step after receiving the handoff, Richardson's eyes are up and he has big holes to either side of him:
Instead, he plows straight forward and gets tripped up.
On another play, though, Richardson shows good vision before combining it with highlight-reel power:
Again, the Browns line up in a three-receiver I-form, though this time the fullback is not offset. The Eagles are again in a 4-2-5 nickel. The interior of the Browns' line does a great job of splitting the Eagles' defensive tackles, and Marecic charges through the gap:
But as the red arrow shows, both Eagles 'backers are moving to plug up the hole; even if Marecic blows one up Richardson will still likely get hit just out of the hole. He sees the big hole to his left, cuts and goes. He accelerates upfield, lowers his head, and pops Eagles strong safety Kurt Coleman's hat off for a gain of nine—his longest of the day.
Richardson's debut performance was hampered by an iffy performance by the offensive line, but he also looked hesitant. When he had the confidence to use his speed and power, he did so impressively. But he was clearly "swimming," in NFL parlance: thinking instead of reacting.
A lot of this can be chalked up to rust: Richardson missed much of the offseason, and this was his first exposure to the speed of enemy NFL linebackers. He often struggled to read the second level correctly, causing many of his runs to be stuffed at the line.
It seemed like whenever he had the confidence to hit the hole hard, the blocks didn't hold.
The Browns are doing this the right way, though: they gave him 19 carries in a winnable game. They're giving him the diet of carries he needs to learn on the job, without leaning on him for the 25 to 30 carries they'll eventually want from him. He's not in workhorse form yet this season, but he could well get there.