Sheldon Richardson enrolled at Missouri as a 5 star recruit, but up until this year, he failed to make a major name for himself. After transferring from a Junior College, and being redshirted due to a wrist injury in 2010, Richardson spent much of 2011 in a rotational role as he battled a shoulder injury. In this role he was able to make several flash plays, but failed to be a consistent force. Early this year, Richardson finally gained the attention of the national media, but it was more due to his comments as opposed to his on field performance. However, this would change very quickly as Richardson more than managed to make a name for himself with his spectacular play.
One thing that stood out in my review of Richardson was just how explosive he was. His first step off the line is incredibly quick, and this alone is often enough to overmatch interior linemen. Another word that I would use to describe Richardson is one you don’t often hear associated with 300 pound defensive tackles. Fast. Richardson’s motor is constantly running, and he is an absolute bear in pursuit. I’ve seen him cut off angles and run down quarterbacks and runningbacks on more than a few occasions, and I would not be surprised to see him clock in around, and perhaps better Warren Sapp’s 40 yard dash time of 4.69. If you throw on the tape of Richardson, you are likely to see several instances in each game where he’s involved in a tackle several yards down the field. Due to this tremendous athletic ability, it’s also not rare to see Mizzou stand him up as a linebacker, in order to have his momentum moving forward and maximize the amount of ground he can cover.
Richardson’s speed isn’t solely subjected to chasing down players in the open field. Another thing that his athletic ability gives him is the ability to consistently beat down and cut off blocks. Pictured below is the designed blocking scheme on a counter action by the Florida Gators. Both the RG and the RT are going to pull out ahead of the RB, which leaves the center responsible for cutting off Richardson’s path to the backfield.
When Richardson gets off and reaches full burst in such a short space and time period, the block is nearly impossible to make. The outcome of this play is not only a whiffed block by the center, but Richardson is actually able to beat the RT to his spot as well. As a result, Richardson nearly drops the QB trying to make the handoff in the backfield. Instead, he will have to settle for blowing up the RB for a 6 yard loss.
Richardson’s struggles seem to arise in situations in which he is lined up in positions where he cannot outrun angles. This positioning is often referred to as “heads” alignment, in which Richardson will line up directly in front of an offensive lineman, perhaps only with the slightest of shades to either side of the offensive lineman. Pictured below are back to back plays in “and goal” situations for South Carolina in which Richardson was aligned this way. When the offensive lineman had a direct path towards Richardson, the lineman was able to get under Richardson’s pads, and Richardson ended up making contact with the offensive lineman outside of the chest plate. The result is Richardson getting pushed off the ball.
Fortunately for Richardson, he can do more than simply out run angles. When he is aligned in his more familiar 3 technique position (lined up over the outside eye of the guard), he very rarely allows offensive lineman to get into his chest. I’ve seen him work a “rip” move on various instances, but his bread and butter move seems to be the “arm over” or swim move. This move involves hitting an offensive lineman with one hand, in order to shift the offensive lineman’s momentum or body weight in one direction. After completing this step in the process, the defensive lineman brings his opposite arm over the offensive lineman’s shoulder in order to bypass him. Richardson is devastatingly effective with this move, and he uses it in both the run and pass game.
I usually try and refrain from making player comparisons, as they are often misconstrued, but in watching Sheldon Richardson play, I am quite frequently reminded of Atlanta Falcons DT Jonathan Babineaux. The former Iowa Hawkeye has been a model of consistency for the Falcons, and has been in my mind, one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the NFL. Babineaux has struggled at times in the run game when the Falcons have asked him to play in a 1 technique or nose tackle role due to depth issues, but he has been tremendously effective as a 3 technique, and he has even shown success in lining up as a base left defensive end this season. Much like Richardson, Babineaux has tremendous quickness, and relies heavily on the swim move in order to break free from his blocker.
To conclude, Sheldon Richardson is an extremely explosive and athletic defensive tackle, who will likely find himself among the first 20 picks in April. At this point in time, I have him ranked as my #2 DT behind Star Lotulelei. While I never expect Richardson to have gaudy statistics it needs to be remembered that you don’t need to be Geno Atkins in order to be a successful defensive tackle. Much like Babineaux, I expect Richardson to be a valuable asset to a team due to him spending a significant amount of time in the offense’s backfield.