The Indianapolis Colts traded their 2014 first-round pick for second-year running back Trent Richardson less than two weeks ago. The move's been debated quite hotly since. In an era where NFL teams are passing more than ever and running less, why would a front office give up such a king's ransom for what some people consider to be a position with diminished value?
The Colts will tell you that they want to be balanced on offense. That they wanted to pair quarterback Andrew Luck with a top-flight running back. It comes down to the "old-school" running game at the center of their philosophy.
Let's back up for a minute.
In 2011, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman left beautiful Palo Alto and the program they'd built at Stanford for the big stage in San Francisco. This dynamic offensive-minded duo have brought a somewhat unique brand of football to the NFL over the past couple of seasons. I'm not talking about the pistol or the read-option (while those are two major components of their offense). No, at its core, Harbaugh's 49ers are a power-O run team, utilizing wham & trap blocks and the counter and its variations to demoralize opponents and beat them into submission.
"Greg Roman is the best," said Jim Harbaugh last year as the Niners were prepping for the Super Bowl. "He's the best coordinator in football, I really believe that. Innovative. I believe he's changed a lot about football this season in terms of bringing the traps back to football, bringing the counter back to football, bringing wham plays back into football. Some of the formations that we use, back into football."
The Niners are no longer alone in their retro-innovation of using traps, wham-plays, and the counter in their offense. They are now joined by the Colts and their old-school, smashmouth style of play. As you might expect, the Colts' new offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, cut his teeth under Roman and Harbaugh at Stanford. He took over as offensive coordinator (or the "Andrew Luck director of offense") there when they both left for the NFL. Hamilton, under new head coach David Shaw, retained the style Harbaugh and Roman had developed in their tenure there. He's brought it to the NFL now too.
The style is characterized by the heavy use of tight ends, the fullback, extra offensive linemen, pulling guards, tackles, and misdirection. For an idea of some of the types of runs and formations that you can expect to see from the Colts this season and into the future, let's take a look at the tape.
The toss sweep
The Colts under Pep Hamilton love to get their offensive linemen up off the line and outside on the move. They use varying pulling from their linemen to open up running lanes and provide blocking up front for their running backs.
2-7-IND 23 (14:35 1st Q) (Run formation) A.Bradshaw left end pushed ob at IND 32 for 9 yards (R.Jones). IND - Thornton (69) reports as eligible.
The play below is from Week 2 against the Dolphins. You can see why this type of scheme is difficult to defend. It involves misdirection with the quarterback by way of a bootleg, and this particular run asks just about every Colts player on the field to make a block on a defender.
Take a look:
Reggie Wayne and Coby Fleener crack back (or simply seal block) on Miami's two outside defenders. The Colts then pull their left tackle Anthony Costanzo, all 6'7, 311 pounds of him, and ask him to act as a lead blocker on the outside. How much fun would it be to take on that block as a defensive back?
On the play-side, the left guard downblocks to his right and takes Paul Soliai (a beast in the run game) out of the play immediately. Indy's center pulls left, and the right guard moves to the second level immediately. Fullback Stanley Havilii lays an excellent lead block to spring Ahmad Bradshaw, and Costanzo on the outside does a fun little dive-tackle that takes the corner out of the play. It happens so fast that it's hard to see each component, but it's a coordinated effort that each member must execute well in order for this play to work. In this case, it's choreographed beautifully.
It's a trap!
2-9-IND 33 (7:58 2nd Q) (Shotgun) D.Brown up the middle to JAX 17 for 50 yards (M.Harris).
Trap plays are a personal favorite of mine. Traps work well because they take advantage of an aggressive defense, using that aggression against them.
Watch below. The right tackle and right guard snap out of their stances and simply let the attacking defensive tackle, Brandon Deaderick, fly right by. The right tackle actually arm whips him a little bit so his momentum gets his balance way over his feet. Deaderick is now deep in the backfield, but off-balance and now out of position. To add insult to injury, he gets trap blocked by the pulling left guard, which clears a nice hole for Donald Brown.
On the second level, the right guard is able to seal off a running lane against the linebacker because he pulled immediately. Brown makes a couple of defenders miss on his way to 50 yards.
Jumbo, beefy, badass looking formations
I wouldn't even know what to call this. It's essentially nine guys working in concert to let the one guy behind them pick up a yard. It's saying, we're going up the gut, try and stop us.
2-1-SF 1 (11:23 1st Q) J.Reitz reported as eligible. T.Richardson right guard for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.
Tight end Dominique Jones acts as a fullback on this play, settling in his motion off of the right shoulder of the right guard. The right guard downblocks with the center to double team Justin Smith (smart), and Jones gets a shoulder into the linebacker. Trent is home free for his first touchdown as a Colt.
I just like this play because it's so no-nonsense.
Ironically, a very similar version of this play was a staple of the Niners' offense in 2012 (example here against the Falcons in the NFC Championship game last year, as the Niners made their way to the Super Bowl). In this case, the Niners actually pull their left guard across the formation.
2-6-IND 24 (:53 1st Q) A.Bradshaw left guard to IND 37 for 13 yards (A.Brooks).
The counter is a bygone classic. It's characterized by the first few steps or movements of the running back and lead blocker. Ahmad Bradshaw's one step to the right before he changes his direction to the left -- combined with Andrew Luck's pivot at the snap and sneaky handoff -- are meant to 'sell' to the defensive line and linebackers that the run is going to the right.
Of course, San Francisco's linebackers are very good, and Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman don't bite on the misdirection (they do practice against this every day). That's where TE Dominique Jones, again acting as a lead-blocker, and tackle (playing right guard here) Jeff Linkenbach come in. Linkenbach pulls left at the snap, and takes Willis on the outside. Jones heads up through the seam to head off Bowman.
Bradshaw follows his blocker, rookie safety Eric Reid misses the tackle, and the Colts pick up 13.
The draw play, with a twist
2-6-IND 44 (9:49 3rd Q) (Shotgun) D.Brown left end to SF 40 for 16 yards (E.Reid).
This isn't your normal draw play. First off, Andrew Luck kind of jogs to his left at the snap (almost awkwardly as if it were a broken play) and executes an inside handoff to his running back Donald Brown.
In this case, though, it's drawn up like that. With Luck in shotgun, the little side strafe cuts down on the time it takes to hand off. Brown is already out on the edge when he gets the ball. With Costanzo moving downfield to neutralize Aldon Smith (mislabeled as #98 - he's actually #99), Brown has a big lane.
Considering most draw plays have the running back in shotgun come across his quarterback's body, this is a nice misdirection. It works, as the Niners appear to be out of position to stop this.
Mixing in some zone
Just for good measure, the Colts also mix in some good old fashioned zone blocking.
1-10-IND 42 (8:43 4th Q) T.Richardson right tackle to IND 47 for 5 yards (D.Whitner).
This is a simple zone run. At the snap, each linemen steps laterally to the left, which is meant to get the defense across from them flowing in that direction. The idea behind this play call is for the running back to run toward his left tackle's ass-crack (in the words of zone blocking scheme guru Alex Gibbs) until he finds a seam.
Here, you see the center and right guard combo-block on the nose tackle. Once it seems the right guard has some semblance of control that NT, it's up to the center to move downfield and block at the 2nd level. This is the classing zone strategy.
In this case it looks like Richardson thinks he can slip in to the seam behind the center, but that hole closes up and gets jumbled. Instead, he cuts back across the grain, and with San Francisco's defense all flowing in one direction, finds some daylight.
There you have it, just a quick look at a few of the Colts' run schemes. This wasn't an exhaustive list or meant as a total representation of their identity as an offense, but is meant to give you an idea of some of the interesting things they have been doing with their blocking.
Particularly interesting is the manner in which Pep Hamilton and the Colts gave Roman and Harbaugh a taste of their own medicine on their way to an upset victory in Week 3. Now, the Colts face off against the Seahawks, who are undoubtedly ready to test Hamilton's brand of offense after facing the Niners' similar scheme twice a year for the past couple of seasons.