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Break it Down: Trent Richardson trade gives Colts' passing offense a new level of action

Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck, seen here in Oct., 2012, can help each other in many ways. Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck, seen here in Oct., 2012, can help each other in many ways. (MCT via Getty Images)

Every week, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke break down key plays from the previous week, and examine concepts you may see more often down the road.

The Indianapolis Colts' trade for ex-Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson gives Indy general manager Ryan Grigson and his team a potentially elite running back to match with an offense that is set to be equal parts power and aerial excitement under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. And the ways in which the Colts use play-action make Richardson an especially interesting addition.

“We’re going to find ways to have balance in our attack,” Hamilton said in June, as he was finishing up offensive installations.  “We have to be able to run the football.  Running the football is going to set up our passing game, set up our play-action passing game.  It’s going to give us an opportunity to create one-on-one matchups on the perimeter for Reggie [Wayne] and T.Y. [Hilton] and [Darrius] Heyward-Bey and, of course, our tight ends.”

Hamilton knew what he had when it came to play-action, because he was Stanford's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2011, when Luck became one of the most coveted and impressive quarterback prospects of his generation. Stanford had a heavy play-action game based on a power running attack, and it was this that Hamilton wanted to implement in his new NFL home.

Certainly, he had the right guy under center. In Luck's rookie season under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, he completed 65 passes in 102 attempts for 9.23 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and two interceptions when play-action was part of the concept. Without play-action, he completed 274 passes in 525 attempts for 6.25 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Stanford offense wasn't a heavy vertical one because Luck didn't have those kind of targets -- but between Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, he has them now.

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This year, the Colts are running more play-action, but they're getting less impressive results.

In play-action, Luck is 10-of-17 for 137 yards, one touchdowns and an 8.1 YPA. Without play-action, he's 33-of-49 for 362 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 7.4 YPA. It's possible that the primary cause of that downturn in play-action effectiveness is that with Vick Ballard out for the season with a torn ACL, and Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown as mere stopgaps, defending the run isn't the first thing on the minds of Indianapolis' opponents. Or the second. Or quite possibly the third. And in a Pep Hamilton offense, that's simply unacceptable.

Still, you can create shot plays from play-action without a dominant back. One matchup advantage we've already seen in the Hamilton offense happened with 5:45 left in the first half of the Colts' 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. The Colts had 1st-and-10 at their own 29-yard line. The key aspect of the play was the drag route run by tight end Coby Fleener -- this was a staple concept at Stanford when Luck, Fleener and Hamilton operated the offense for the Cardinal , and it still works in the NFL. Freeze the linebackers with play-action, take the secondary out with deeper routes, and have your athletic tight end take advantage of whatever's left on defense with a crossing route designed to align with boot-action (rollouts off play-action). In this case, what Fleener had left to deal with on defense was very little.

Fleener Drag

On this play, Heyward-Bey runs a straight vertical route up the numbers on the far side, while Reggie Wayne runs up the right seam and cuts inside at the 40-yard line. Heyward-Bey takes out cornerback Nolan Carroll and safety Reshad Jones, while Wayne's deep cross brought safety Chris Clemons out of the picture. Cornerback Brent Grimes, who was trailing Wayne for a second, tracks back to assess any flat responsibility, in case Luck chooses to fling a pass in Brown's direction. Linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe bite hard on the fake and take several steps to their left.

Nobody expects Luck to stop and throw across his body to Fleener (light blue arrow), which is why his favorite target at Stanford is so wide open in Indianapolis. Wheeler has to recover quickly and run furiously the other way to catch Fleener. And since his help is dealing with Indy's deep receivers, Fleener gains 18 yards on a simple drag route. Clemons, working Wayne on the deep cross, eventually gets over to Fleener at the Colts' 47-yard line. It's pure Stanford, right down to Fleener's delayed release off the line, which gives the linebackers one more thing to think about.

Richardson should add more of those matchup threats from his presence on the field alone. That process should start when the Colts face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and it will be a fascinating schematic face-off. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were both at Stanford before Hamilton and current head coach David Shaw, and it was Harbaugh and Roman who set up the power-based passing game Luck benefited from in college.

Richardson gives the Colts a great X-factor in that game.

"We did not bring him in here to be the waterboy on Sunday," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said of his new offensive asset. "He'll be ready to roll ... [with] as much as he can handle."

And to those who are concerned about Richardson's rather pedestrian stats through 18 NFL games -- 298 carries for 1,055 yards and 11 touchdowns, less than one would expect from the third-overall pick in the 2012 draft -- Grigson has an easy answer: Project him in a different offense. That's certainly what the Colts did.

“I know the numbers,” he said. “But the yardage is there. You see it when you’re watching the film. Obviously, if you have a guy that’s your main threat in the offense, that’s who defenses are going to key up. Trent isn’t even near his ceiling. We’re talking about the third pick in the draft and that’s not because he’s a ham-and-egger.”

Pagano put it more simply: "This guy is a rolling ball of butcher knives. He fits our scheme to a T."

Yes, and in more ways than you might imagine.

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