Heading into the postseason, I'm not sure many people would have thought that Dan "Boom" Herron would've been near the top of the consistent, impact performers of the 2014 NFL playoffs list, but here we are. Herron has taken over the role as the lead back for the Colts (he saw 68 of Indy's 75 snaps last week), and his play has been instrumental in helping Andrew Luck and company knock off the Bengals and Broncos to get to the AFC Championship Game.
Herron's rushed 34 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the Colts' two postseason wins -- a solid, not flashy performance -- but he's also become a threat in Luck's pass game, both receiving and in pass pro, and that versatility has made him very valuable. Herron has 18 catches on 19 targets for 118 yards in the postseason thus far, which is eight more catches than any other player -- receivers included. He's the only player with 100-plus yards after the catch.
Herron has been a solid runner, showing burst on the outside and toughness inside, and apart from some fumble issues, has the potential as a sustainer in Indianapolis' offensive attack. His versatility in the pass game, though, has given the Colts a weapon they've been missing since Ahmad Bradshaw fractured his tibula in Week 11. To that point, Bradshaw had seen a timeshare in the backfield but was really a favorite target on third down for Andrew Luck, who frequently looked to him as a dumpoff or swing-pass option. Bradshaw scored six touchdowns on 38 catches - the most touchdowns and eighth most receptions among running backs to that point in the season. Bradshaw presented issues for opposing coordinators because of that dual-threat, Herron again adds that element.
"When the opportunity comes," he told the Indy Star, "you just have to really seize it and really take advantage of it."
And, somewhat quietly, he has. Since Week 12 when Boom was thrust into a bigger role, Indy's won seven of eight games, and for a team that calls passes about twice as often as they call runs, he has taken advantage of his touches, both on the ground and in the air.
Let's take a look at a few examples of how he's done that.
Tough inside running
The Pep Hamilton run game is pretty multiple but what you will see a good amount of is inside runs following pulling guards and centers. In the old Stanford power-O scheme that he brought to the pros, there's still that "smash mouth" feel to it at times, despite the prolific pass game Indy prefers.
In it, you've got to have the patience and vision to let your blocks set up, then once they do, keep your feet moving and get your pads low. In this play below from Indy's big win over the Broncos, Herron first runs into a stone wall, but then keeps his balance and spins away from contact for extra yardage.
"Herron really does a great job of being very patient with the runs," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said this week. "He really waits for the blocks to develop. He'll find his creases and then does a great job of hitting those downhill very hard.
"He runs extremely hard," Patricia continued. "Very powerful type of runner but has the ability to cut back into open spaces in the backside too. You'll see him take some jump-cuts and some plays where he has good vision on the cuts to the backside where he can get some positive yards."
He can hit a backside run lane, and I've seen him bounce a few plays outside as well.
Moreover, he's more than willing to just lower his shoulder and bulldoze a defender for a few extra yards.
"To see him go out and play through - that's a darn good defense we went against and they tackle well - and he took some shots like a lot of guys took in that game," Pagano told the Indianapolis Star after the win over the Broncos. "He's a tough, tough, tough kid."
Outside run game
To run effectively on the outside in this league, a running back has to have speed and decisiveness. Herron displays both. He's not the fastest player on the field, but he's surprisingly adept at getting to the corner and making the turn.
I think his explosive first few steps factor in here -- Herron had a 35" vert at the Combine back in 2012 and a sub-seven second three cone number -- so while he may not have that "homerun" long speed, his initial burst is big for the wide toss/pitch game that Indy likes.
The screen game
Of course, I'm not going to try to overstate how effective Herron's been as a runner. His 3.4 YPC average in the Playoffs is middling and the Colts don't run the ball a ton to begin with, but where Herron brings a ton of value is in his versatility. As I noted above, his ability to factor into the pass game is huge for Andrew Luck and the Colts.
"He's done a great job of running; good balance, good toughness, good vision - made a lot of extra yards on his own," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week. "But I'd say the big thing has been how involved he's been in the passing game. That's been huge. I don't know, he might be like one of their most targeted guys or second most targets, whatever it is, in the playoffs. He's gotten a lot of balls. I think that's his role as three-down player: blitz pickup, passing game and obviously the running game. He's given them a big lift there."
One aspect that he's factored in on is in the screen game.
When you're facing a team that likes to get after the quarterback and has a strong pass rush, one of the tried and true counters is the screen pass. Use that aggressiveness against your enemy.
The underneath game
Check downs have sort of a negative connotation in the modern NFL, but can be very effective particularly for strong-armed gunslingers like Luck. You're essentially forcing your opponent to cover the entire field if you have a strong check down game. Herron's made his hay in this area.
"You're going to take what the defense gives you and he's making great decisions right now," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "He's managing things well on the offensive side of the football obviously. The backs, if they elect to play deep and over the top and take away things down the field, then he's never going to turn down a profit, so to speak.
"So we've had success of late with the check downs to the back and they've been a big part of our success of late. He's doing a great job, he's making great decisions and he'll need to do the same thing on Sunday."
Exhibit A: The swing pass.
"It's been drilled by Coach Pep [Hamilton] and Coach Clyde [Christensen] and talking to Chuck," Andrew Luck noted this week. "Those yards are big if you can get them underneath at any point in the game. Obviously, there are situational points where you need to push it downfield, but we're not going to force it just for the sake of forcing something downfield. Some of our most explosive plays have come with Boom [Herron] catching it on a checkdown, Dwayne [Allen], Flee [Coby Fleener], Jack Doyle, Zurlon [Tipton]. They're doing a great job of that."
Exhibits B and C: The dumpoff.
Herron's shown that he's a smooth route runner and has soft hands and good body control to make the catch and turn it upfield in one motion. Obviously, his ability to make a defender miss a time or two doesn't hurt.
Kick him out wide
One play that caught my eye in the Broncos win was this one, where Indy split Herron out wide, ran a clear out route with Hakeem Nicks, then dragged Boom underneath.
This kind of play doesn't necessarily come naturally for most running backs.
The main thing that Herron brings to the Colts' offense is an element of balance. A player that can effectively execute the role he's been asked to play can change a lot of things.
Herron can run the ball, taking some pressure off of Luck's arm and providing some "umpf" for the offense. Toughness, physicality, these things help wear oppenents down as the game goes on. It strengthens the play-action pass game, in my opinion. It keeps defenses off balance. He can provide an underneath option, which stresses defenses vertically, and swing passes and outside routes stress defenses horizontally. The Colts can exploit mismatches if teams put a linebacker on him. Herron's just shown that his versatility gives them so many more options on offense, and that's sure to be a big factor this week against the Patriots.