Three weeks ago, Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown took over the fourth quarter against the Tennessee Titans, rushing for 80 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries in the game. His final touchdown sealed the game, and the Colts defeated the Titans 30-27.
It would seem like that kind of performance would warrant more touches for the fifth-year running back, especially given the fact that he’d been outperforming running back Trent Richardson since Richardson arrived in Indianapolis. But, that would not be the case. Due to some inexplicable coaching and an early two-score deficit, Brown received just two carries in the Colts’ next game, a 40-11 blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
It’s the story of Brown’s career, really. Brown ran for 80 yards on 14 carries against Tennessee last season, as well, and didn’t receive a single carry the next week. In 2010, Brown broke out with 129 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries against Jacksonville in Week 14 but received just 15 carries over the next four games, including a loss to the New York Jets in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
Brown has rarely gotten a consistent chance to be the main guy in Indianapolis, his one chance came in 2011 when Joseph Addai was hurt. Brown ran for 4.8 yards per carry that season but was relegated to the bench under the new coaching staff in 2012 after an injury cost him a few early-season games.
Now, Brown seems to have another chance at a starting gig, despite the Colts’ every attempt to bury him on the bench. He certainly deserves it.
Despite limited opportunities this season, he's succeeded, rushing 71 times for 378 yards, a 5.3 yard-per-carry average. He's also added 18 catches for 161 yards, the most he's had through the air since 2010, when he had 205 yards (and there's still four games to go).
Brown's advanced stats are extremely positive as well. His 20.8 percent DVOA would be second among starting backs. His Expected Points Added (EPA) of 14.4 is eighth-best in the league, despite the fact that he's had limited opportunities. His EPA per play is fifth-best in the league. His Pro Football Focus grade (+4.3, subscription required) running the ball is 16th out of 52 backs, again despite limited opportunities. His elusive rating from PFF is third-best in the league, and he earns 3.0 yards after contact per carry, fourth-highest in the league (subscription required).
So what is it about Brown that's allowed him to be so successful this season, especially since the Colts' offensive line has looked so putrid?
To be honest, it's the exact reasons that Richardson has struggled: vision and burst.
Tennessee defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said some interesting things about Richardson and Brown in an interview with Fox Sports.
With a guy like [Trent], everybody knows he’s a downhill runner. A lot of times guys shoot at his legs. He’s a smaller guy so nobody tries to hit him up high. When guys are shooting at your legs, that could result in injury so I think that’s probably one of his cases is he feels, ‘they’re shooting at my knees. I got to figure out how to not allow this to happen.’ So I think that’s probably the biggest thing with him is he’s probably afraid of getting hurt.
I think the biggest difference between the two is Donald Brown, he’s not caring. He’s giving up his body and just running through the holes at full speed. He’s not breaking down and trying to see if he can shake a guy in the backfield. If he’s in the backfield he’s coming through. The first time he’s going to make a move is once he crosses that second level. He’s a straight power back.
Then Trent Richardson, you can see sometimes, he does a little tip-toe through the line and tries to figure out what he’s going to do before he gets to the hole.
Now, it's impossible to say whether Richardson is actually afraid of getting hurt, or whether he's thinking about that at all. But, the two biggest criticisms of Richardson have been his lack of decisiveness in hitting a hole and his vision in actually finding the holes.
Both of those things are things Donald Brown struggled with early in his career. Fans were furious with Brown's dancing behind the line and his "soft" play, not hitting holes with authority. This season, however, Brown has been very good at seeing holes, anticipating offensive line movement and bursting through holes with authority.
Let's take a look at a few plays from the two Titans games to illustrate that point.
This first play came in the Colts' first matchup, in the second quarter.
Brown lines up against eight defenders in the box, and the run's pretty telegraphed.
When Brown first receives the handoff, there seems to be little in front of him. It's a hot mess, which isn't uncommon for the Colts' offensive line this season. The best plan would seem to be to try to bounce it outside, or maybe try to squeeze just inside the tight end.
But Brown watches the pulling Hugh Thornton and can see the momentum going outside. Knowing that Thornton is gravitating that way, Brown anticipates a hole opening up behind him and stays true on his course forward.
From the back angle, you can see what Brown sees: no hole but the potential of one as Thornton moves outside and Gosder Cherilus turns his man inside. There is a potential problem with Coby Fleener's man, who has all but disengaged from the block, but as long as Brown hits the hole as soon as it opens, he should be able to make it through.
The hole opens, and Brown has daylight for a 15-yard (or more) run. The linebacker nearly gets there, but Brown doesn't hesitate and blows by him into open space.
Here is what the play looks like live:
Seeing it in live time helps you see how Brown thinks about making cuts at least two different times but anticipates the hole and then is able to run through the contact from the linebacker for another 12 yards.
This kind of thing happens a lot for Brown. Check out this play, from this past week.
Once again, the play is very telegraphed, and the Titans have nine men in the box.
Brown cuts this one back but has four potential tacklers around him. He makes one hard cut, runs through the contact and has himself a 15-yard gain.
Again, this isn't all that uncommon for Brown this season. He's run through contact well, and while he doesn't have elite tackle-breaking ability (he often loses his balance too quickly), he is running powerfully enough to squeeze a few extra yards out. It all comes down to his decisiveness. As a running back, if you hesitate, you're done. Brown isn't hesitating.
Here's another example. Brown gets to the hole and there are three Titans defenders. He makes one hard cut inside, using their momentum against them, and blows by for a big gain.
It's not like any of these are gaping holes that are opening up ahead of Brown, but he's managing 15 yards or more on carries like this. He's always run well with a fullback, and he does read his offensive line well when he's being decisive.
Right now, he's being decisive, and while the Colts offensive line is bad, occasionally they'll give a back just enough room to make a play, and Brown is making those plays.
He's running well enough that he likely will earn himself a decent contract somewhere this offseason. The question is simply where.