It was a read-option run, and Richardson decided to keep the football rather than hand off to running back Deon Jackson. As Richardson slipped out of the grasp of Buffalo Bills defensive end Greg Rousseau, he looked to turn the corner and run up the sideline.
That’s when Bills cornerback Kaiir Elam — a teammate of Richardson’s at the University of Florida — converged and began to square up to tackle the oncoming quarterback. But Elam didn’t attack the ball carrier like you’d expect. Instead, he almost seemed to be trying to avoid contact with Richardson. Since when do defenders pass up a clean shot at a quarterback?
When the quarterback is 6-foot-4 and a chiseled 244 pounds, conventional rules do not apply.
“It’s like what my old man used to tell me,” Colts right tackle Braden Smith said. “You’re not gonna get hurt when you’re the one delivering the blow.”
At Richardson’s size, there could be a fair amount of blows delivered to defenders. That’s exactly what happened with Elam, who absorbed a big hit as the quarterback’s momentum carried him out of bounds.
But at what cost? That’s the question Richardson and the Colts must reconcile.
The physicality is “part of my game and part of my style,” Richardson said. “I like to hit people first and try to put them in a pickle sometimes so they have to make a decision. Coming out Sunday, I’m going to try to play a little bit smarter and understand that I can’t take big hits if I’m trying to play the whole game.”
Richardson will make his regular-season debut when the Colts host the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS), but even in his two preseason appearances, Richardson didn’t shy away from contact.
Given how much pain the Colts have endured at quarterback in recent years — they haven’t had a quarterback start back-to-back openers since Andrew Luck in 2015-16 — it’s imperative that Richardson stays upright.
But it’s also important to understand how difficult it can be for a player of Richardson’s size to merely give himself up. Receiver Josh Downs, all 5-9 and 171 pounds of him, can only dream of what having Richardson’s stature must be like.
“I say sometimes, ‘They’re lucky I’m not AR’s size,’” Downs said. “I would run that thing every time. Stiff arm, hurdle, jumping over [tacklers]. I would try to do all that.”
The reality is Richardson might actually need to do so at times. The Colts have a number of unproven players at skill positions, especially with All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor remaining on the physically unable to perform list through at least Week 4. Richardson could pose the biggest matchup problem for defenses given his running ability. Richardson averaged 6.9 yards per carry in his career at the University of Florida, including 654 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns last season.
Deploying him as a runner is going to be tempting for coach Shane Steichen. And getting the most out of those runs is going to be difficult for Richardson to resist.
“First of all, there’s how big he is, and then, you don’t know whether it’s a slide or if he’s going to keep running,” Colts linebacker E.J. Speed said. “That can add like 5 yards right there. And, then, he has the feet to actually be elusive.
“So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see Anthony go for like a 30- or 40-yard touchdown or even bigger. Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of defenders missing him in that second level.”
Some of this will be dictated by Steichen. He’ll be calling the offensive plays for the Colts and determining how many designed runs Richardson can handle. Decisions that involve improvisation, in which Richardson leaves the pocket and scrambles, will fall on the quarterback. But the playcaller can decide when he wants to deliberately put his quarterback in harm’s way based on the plays he dials up.
Looking at Steichen’s decisions from last season, when he was the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, can be instructive. Under Steichen, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts ranked first among quarterbacks in designed runs — by a wide margin. Hurts’ 100 designed runs were significantly more than the 79 for Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, who ranked second.
The Eagles also gained a reputation for the so-called “push play,” which featured offensive teammates pushing Hurts from behind on quarterback sneaks. The rule allowing such plays was reassessed during the offseason but not outlawed. Considering the Eagles were 29-of-32 on quarterback sneaks in 2022, don’t be surprised to see the tactic employed by the Colts this season in short-yardage situations.
Don’t expect Steichen to shy away from taking advantage of one of his quarterback’s greatest strengths.
“That’s one of his superpowers, getting out of the pocket, running and creating explosive plays,” Steichen said. “It is definitely tough on a defense when you’ve got to account for the quarterback as a runner.
“Obviously, we have to be smart. There is a time and a place to go get it, and there is a time to be smart and get down or get out of bounds.”
Richardson insists he can play it safe when needed.
“I know how to slide,” he said, somewhat unconvincingly. “I’ve done it maybe seven times.”
And at those times when Richardson chooses not to slide, defensive players would be wise to proceed with caution.
“We talk about it all the time,” Richardson said. “… If we have to have it, I’m definitely going to put my body on the line for the team.”