Matchup Spotlight: How will the Colts stop Trent Richardson?

The Browns are one of the league’s worst teams through six weeks, but they’re trending up with an upset win over Cincinnati last week. 

But, with an utter lack of talent on the roster, the future success of the Browns lies in their run game and highly touted rookie running back Trent Richardson and the Cleveland running game. The rookie hasn’t been particularly effective thus far this season, averaging less than four yards per carry, but he’s flashed the potential that made him the third overall pick.

The Colts, on the other hand, just allowed Shonn Greene to have a career-high day, as the Jets’ running game single-handedly turned the game into a rout. 

So how will the Colts attempt to stop the rookie? Will they be able to? 

The first step to stopping the running game is the nose tackle. 

Unfortunately, the Colts’ nose tackle has been severely lacking all season. 

Antonio Johnson’s season has been an utter disappointment through six weeks. While most analysts and fans had low expectations in his move to a 3-4 nose tackle, he’s still managed to fall below those expectations. 

According to ProFootballFocus, Johnson has had just three defensive stops (a play that causes an offensive failure) in 94 snaps against the run. The 3.2% is 47th out of 52 starting defensive tackles. The last Colts tackle to have a percentage that low was Keyunta Dawson in 2008. Johnson himself has never ranked higher than 39th. 

I cringe thinking of Johnson as the Colts’ anchor, but until Josh Chapman gets healthy (which may not happen this season) it likely won’t change. 

The next step is the two defensive ends. 

Fili Moala will likely be out again this week, but that may be a good thing for the run defense. Second year lineman Drake Nevis has been playing in Moala’s spot, and has generally looked better than the starter all season. PFF has graded Nevis as the best run defender for the Colts so far this season, with a +3.0 grade, 12th among 3-4 defensive ends. Nevis’ nine tackles and three stops has given the Colts a boost in run defense, but it’s the other side that scares me. 

Cory Redding has had up-and-down play throughout the year, but stopping the run has not been his strength. His -7.5 grade is the worst on the team, but he is able to get penetration every once in a while and get a tackle for a loss. However, Redding injured his knee again last week, and may be unable to play against the Browns. If he is out, the Colts will rely on Ricardo Mathews, who struggled mightily against the run on Sunday. Mathews’ stop percentage of 2.7 is 32nd out of 35 3-4 defensive ends this season, and he was routinely pushed backwards last week against the Jets. Relying on Mathews for the lion’s share of the snaps will be a scary proposition for the Colts. 

The other primary run stoppers are the inside linebackers. The outside linebackers primary function is to set the edge, something that neither Dwight Freeney or Jerry Hughes do particularly well (Mathis is decent against the run, but likely won’t play this week).

Kavell Conner and Jerrell Freeman have been inconsistent against the run this year, each with their own specific reason.

For Conner, he’s an aggressive, physical player who generally is pretty good against the run. However, sometimes his aggression can lead to him biting on the wrong gap, leaving a lane for a big run by the running back, which we saw several times last week. Other than that, he’s generally decent against the run.

For Freeman, he tackles well and has pretty good instincts as to where the play is going. Freeman’s only issue is that he tends to get lost behind blocks if the defensive line doesn’t hold its ground. If Freeman has room to see the play develop and react, he can be effective. If not, he may rack up tackles, but not until the play goes 4-5 yards.

For this week then, the defensive line will be the key. Unfortunately, the Colts’ biggest weakness is the nose tackle and Cory Redding’s defensive end spot, both of which come against the Brown’s biggest strengths in run blocking. Center Alex Mack and left guard Jason Pinkston (or backup John Greco, if Pinkston is forced out as he was last week) have been the best run blockers on the line, especially Mack. The Colts’ defensive ends will need to play well to compensate for Johnson, who will likely be taken out single handedly by the Browns’ center.

It’s not a pretty picture, considering how the Colts’ defense has played this season (allowing two run heavy teams, Jaxsonville and New York, to run all over them). The Colts will need Drake Nevis to come up big, and for Cory Redding to play, if they want to force rookie QB Brandon Weeden to beat them.

Editor’s note: After I finished this, we got the news that Cory Redding sat out practice on Thursday, and is pretty much guaranteed to miss Sunday’s game. Thus, the Colts will be required to lean on Mathews and a healthy usage of Trent Richardson voodoo dolls to stop the run game. Carry on.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.