When watching tape of the running back position in the NFL, I look for vision, acceleration through the hole (over long speed), short-area quickness and the ability to finish on contact.
Those are the keys in my book to finding running lanes and pushing the ball through the second level of the defense versus base or nickel fronts.
And that’s why I have to question the decision-making process of the Indianapolis Colts, as they continue to feed the ball to Trent Richardson when the tape tells me Dan “Boom” Herron is the better fit for this offense under Pep Hamilton.
Numbers can often be misleading, and they don’t always mesh with the tape evaluation. However, when comparing Richardson and Herron, it’s easy to see the difference in production.
Over the last three weeks, Richardson has carried the ball 24 times for 74 yards (just over three yards a carry) while Herron has put up 174 yards on 27 carries (6.4 yards per carry).
Plus, there is added value with Herron because of his versatility as a receiver (eight catches for 65 yards in that three-game span). Whether that is the screen game, the checkdown or a route designed to draw a specific matchup, the Ohio State product has the skill set to make plays out of the backfield for quarterback Andrew Luck.
With Richardson, I see a back who often fails to find running lanes and lacks the quick, lateral movement to bounce the ball to the edge consistently or change direction at the second level to make defenders miss.
I do think Richardson runs hard and is a physical football player. But he’s also leaving yards on the field when given the opportunity to make one cut and advance the ball.
Here’s an example of that from the Colts’ matchup with the Washington Redskins on the one-back stretch “C” scheme (pull the center) out of the Pistol alignment:
Richardson has to identify the linebacker flowing to the play side of the formation. That creates a vertical running lane for the back to stick his foot in the ground and push the ball up the field.
However, he stays on the initial path and buries himself behind the center instead of using his vision to get up on the second level.
I understand that Richardson isn’t running behind the Dallas Cowboys or the Baltimore Ravens offensive lines. Those two units maul opposing defensive fronts at the point of attack while creating multiple lanes for the back to attack up the field.
The Colts don’t have that same level of talent on the offensive line, but that doesn’t mean I should give Richardson a pass given the production the former Alabama star has left on the field.
Focusing on Herron, there is a different level of speed for the Colts offense when he is on the field (especially in a shotgun alignment). He hits the holes faster, the burst is there once he squares his pads, and I see more creativity in his game when finding room to exploit cutback lanes or defensive pursuit.
Take a look at Herron on the split-zone scheme (open-side tight end comes back across the formation on an arc block) versus the Houston Texans:
With the safety entering the front, Herron quickly identifies the cutback lane and works off the arc block to get into the open field. Here, you can see the quick, lateral movement to produce on a scheme that allows the back to press the ball to the front side of the formation or use the natural cutback lane.
In another example, Herron produced an explosive gain for a score off the one-back power scheme (pull backside guard) versus the Redskins with the Colts using a crack-block to dig out the safety entering the front:
I see the acceleration from Herron to get downhill out of the shotgun alignment while making the cut off the crack-block into the open field. That allows Herron to eliminate the angle from the free safety in the deep middle of the field on his way to six points.
These are quick examples, but there are plenty more on the tape that highlight the difference in overall skill sets with Richardson and Herron. And in my opinion, Herron gives the Colts more at the position when looking at his impact in both the run and the pass game (including explosive-play ability).
I do believe there is still a role for Richardson when the Colts reduce the formation to run the football based on down and distance, but I can’t deny what I am seeing on the tape.
Herron’s vision, acceleration, quickness and the ability to finish makes the Colts’ run game tougher to prep for from a defensive perspective. He can put numbers in the box score and produce in the zone/power schemes when given the opportunity to carry the ball in Indianapolis.
If the Colts want to create some balance in the call sheet heading into the postseason (while taking some pressure off Luck) , Herron needs to be featured at the running back position in the game plan.
The tape tells the story here.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.