The Indianapolis Colts' running game, a crucial part of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's offense, suffered another blow on Thursday, as the Indianapolis Star reported that RB Ahmad Bradshaw may need season-ending surgery.
2012 fifth-round pick Vick Ballard is already out for the season, so the loss of Bradshaw would mean that the top two backs on the Colts' roster this offseason are no longer available. Former first-round pick Donald Brown is the only back remaining in what was supposed to be a back-by-committee approach in 2013.
Of course, the Colts do have another back at their disposal: former Cleveland Brown Trent Richardson, whom the Colts traded a first-round pick for two weeks ago. Richardson hasn't wowed anybody during his first two weeks in Indianapolis, but he has the potential to be a Pro Bowl running back, which is why he was selected third overall in 2012.
But can he make up for the loss of Bradshaw, and, to a lesser extent, Ballard? The Colts paid a high price for Richardson in hopes that he could be the bell-cow back of the future. They may not have expected him to be so necessary so soon, but that's the situation they now find themselves in.
Can Richardson carry the load?
The Workload Isn't the Issue
There are really two questions being asked here. First, can Richardson handle being the feature back in the Colts' system, one of the more run-heavy systems in the league? Through four weeks, the Colts have run 121 running plays, seventh-most in the NFL.
Brown should get a few more carries going forward, but the Colts see Richardson as the lead back, as evidenced by the 20 carries that he received against the Jaguars, compared to three for Brown.
Can Richardson handle that kind of responsibility? Based on his history, the answer is a cautious yes.
Coming out of the University of Alabama in 2012, one of Richardson's universally lauded strengths was his size, build and strength, factors that made him an ideal bell-cow back in a league that is moving into more back-by-committee approaches.
During his rookie year at Cleveland, Richardson struggled with injuries throughout the season, showing up on the injury report during all but one week. But, Richardson played through it, playing 15 games and averaging over 17 carries per game (10th in the league). Coming out of college, he was a back known for being able to wear down a defense and excel in the fourth quarter.
While that hasn't transpired in the NFL yet, the potential is certainly there, and the situation he was in in Cleveland didn't really lend itself to efficient fourth-quarter running.
There shouldn't be worries about this question: Richardson can physically handle the load.
How Effective Can He Be?
Whether Richardson can actually be effective, however, is a different story.
After 17 games in Cleveland, Richardson averaged 3.54 yards per carry. Advanced metrics told the same story: Richardson was just 34th out of 42 qualifying backs in Football Outsider's DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and 71st and 72nd out of 83 backs in Win Probability Added and Expected Points Added respectively.
So far in Indianapolis, Richardson has produced similar results. He's averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per carry for the Colts, and both Bradshaw and Brown have been just as productive with much fewer chances.
As Patrick Daugherty of Rotoworld pointed out, Richardson simply isn't finding and hitting holes quickly enough, and it's ended in far too many runs for no gain.
But there's a flip side to the argument, as the Colts haven't put Richardson in the best situations to succeed. During a film study of the Jacksonville game, I found that Richardson ran behind a fullback on 15 of his 20 carries. On those carries, the Jaguars' defense tended to play the run first, and Richardson gained just 2.5 yards per carry.
On the five carries that he obtained without a fullback, Richardson averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
While the circumstances don't excuse Richardson for poor vision and decisiveness at times, they do give us a hint as to how the Colts are using him: to set up defenses. Defenses become much more wary of the run with a fullback in the game, and the Colts are taking advantage of that.
With a fullback on the field, the Colts averaged 10.4 yards per passing play, while just 6.3 without against Jacksonville. Whether it was using play-action or not, the Colts were able to have a lot of success through the air when the fullback was on the field, and Richardson's ability/willingness to take a beating on the ground is a part of that.
So What's the Answer?
Can Richardson continue to fill in for Bradshaw and be effective doing it? Yes and no.
He has talent and potential, but he needs to improve on his vision and decisiveness in the backfield in order to be a premier back.
The Colts, on the other hand, can help him by putting him in varying situations. Indianapolis has found a lot of success when they've gotten Donald Brown in space, and doing so for Richardson could pay dividends as well.
Brown should see more than three carries per game in the coming weeks, but Richardson will be the lead back, and the one that defenses will key on. If he continues to be effective enough to boost the passing game, the Colts can succeed even without Bradshaw.