One of the most maligned players on offense (aside from the beloved Curtis Painter of course), is 3rd year running back Donald Brown. Now, I like Donald Brown, he seems like a really nice guy, and a very gifted athlete. He seems to have the physical gifts to be an NFL running back, at 5'10" and 210lb. He was a prolific rusher at UConn, racking up over 2000 yards in Connecticut in his junior year in the Big East, earning him the title of Big East Offensive Player of the Year.
However, in his NFL career, that has not translated to success so far in his first 2 seasons. We have seen glimpses of what he can be, but also have seen numerous plays where he has simply looked out of his element, in over his head. One thing I have noticed recently while watching the Colts preseason games is that there is one major element of Brown's game that seems to let him down at the NFL level. He is a capable runner. He has speed. He has some power. He has some shiftiness. However, he has one glaring weakness in his game that results in an overall inability to be consistently productive in the NFL.
Donald Brown simply has very bad field vision. He seems to think he can only stick to the called play and follow his lead blockers, and that his only responsibility is to run as designed. Unfortunately, in the NFL, plays do not always work as designed, and a smarter player must read the situation and make better cuts in order to be more effective.
Play 1 - 4:24 left in the 1st Q, 2nd & 10, gain of 3
Donald brown is going to run a simple draw up between Castonzo and guard. The linebacker at the 25yd line is playing the run, while the one circled behind and to his right, is going on a blitz, but Dallas Clark picks him up perfectly and he's locked out of the play. When Brown receives the handoff, this is what he sees:
The defensive end is on the *inside* shoulder of castonzo, while the linebacker is drifting high, with Reitz in front of Brown, moving toward the linebacker preparing to set up a block. Brown has 2 visible options at this point. He can run right toward the tight little wedge between Saturday, Reitz, and Castonzo, where there will certainly be very little room to move, or he can cut toward the sidelines, where castonzo would have his man sealed outside, and reitz would still be able to engage the linebacker that is hovering 5 yards downfield.
Instead of seeing the available lane to the outside (in yellow), brown sticks to the designed running route and runs right into Reitz's back, and is taken down easily by #93 of GB who was already on the inside shoulder of castonzo on the play. The result is a minimal gain of just 3 yards.
Play 2 - 11:12 of the 2nd, 2nd & 10 - gain of 2.
This time Donald Brown is getting the ball on a delayed draw right up the middle. Here's what he sees when he receives the handoff:
Brown, once again in green, has 2 possible reads. up between saturday and Reitz who both have their men very well engaged, or down between Diem and Linkenbach. Linkenbach has his block well engaged, while diem is getting ready to block the linebacker who is just floating, waiting to see which read Brown makes in order to react and give chase. Dallas clark had been engaged with a linebacker on the delay, but has lost engagement at this point, and the linebacker is headed toward the gap to the right of Diem. Once again, Brown simply picks the hole where he sees an available blocker in Diem, rather than making the smarter read and moving up under Saturday, where there is also a wide receiver ready to lead block. He hits the gap with 3 converging defenders, instead of the one where only one player has an immediate chance to hit him, and a player that Diem may be able to block out of the play anyway. The result is that he's hit immediately upon entering the running lane and his taken down by both the linebacker breaking free of Clark, and the cornerback collins who is abandoning his blitz and coming back to fill the gap. Minimal gain of just 2 yards.
Play 3 - 1:23 in the 2nd, 2nd & 3 - Loss of 1 yd
This is perhaps the most bizarre of the 3 plays i saw today. This seems to be one where Donald Brown does react to the play, changing the designed run route, but his read is horribly wrong and it results in a much worse run than what would have been probable had he stuck to the design. Here's what he saw when he took the handoff:
In green, is the running lane that Brown should take, and the one I believe that the play was designed to create. There's a great line of blocks set up along this pink line, and while there are defenders for GB on that side of the field, Brown should easily be able to pick up first down yardage, especially when he's already in stride and the GB defenders are just reacting to the play. Garcon is also expecting the play to come in his direction and is moving toward the play to setup a block.
Instead, Donald sees something that isn't there, and cuts back, following the path in yellow.
Unfortunately for Saturday, he's expecting the run to go outside, where as you can see in pink, the blocks are great, and moving downfield, with Garcon also in position for further blocking. But Don Brown in green, has cut back up the middle. Saturday, expecting an outside run, has sealed his man inside rather decently. With Donald now deciding to run directly back inside to where Saturday has his man, the DT simply releases from saturday and moves toward Donald, and Saturday is seen above lunging forward since his leverage is lost. Meanwhile, the left side of the line, Castonzo especially, is thinking the play may develop down the right side of the field, and is moving that way (Reitz is on the ground though). This leaves a free defensive end 97 also in pursuit in the middle, where no Colt player is expecting the run to be going.
Needless to say the DT and DE combine for an easy stop on brown and the play is a loss of yards.
I've taken the liberty of filling in what I can only imagine Curtis Painter must have been thinking, considering that he was getting this team moving down field in the 2 minute situation, with probably his career hanging in the balance.
Anyway, this seems to be the main problem with Brown. If we look at the long run by Addai, we see how a better runningback reacts to the play. Addai sees the field when he takes the handoff from painter:
From the initial trajectory Addai takes, this looks to be the typical stretch run the Colts love to employ, where Addai simply gets out to the sideline and then turns the corner and takes it as far upfield as possible. However, as he receives the handoff he sees that the blocks have not developed in a way that the linemen are sealed to the inside. Rather, saturday and Diem have successfully sealed their men inside, while linkenbach and Eldridge are running with the GB defenders who have anticipated this very common colts plays and are trying to seal the outside themselves. Addai recognizes this immediately and simply takes a sharper turn upfield, earlier than as designed, taking it in between the two sets of blocks pictured above.
The result is a big gain for Addai and the Colts moving the chain. I think Donald Brown would be a great back if he was running behind a better line. If the Colts line could regularly develop blocks and setup run plays as they're designed to be blocked, Brown can put up games like his 100+ yd performance last year with regularity. The problem is, Indy's line is wildly inconsistent in run blocking, and this means that Brown needs to work on seeing the field better and making smarter cuts, even if it's against the original play design.
I'm not quite ready to write off Donald Brown yet, but as of right now he appears to be no better than the 3rd back on the team. He's probably a better back than Jarvarris James, but James is a solid special team contributor for the Colts. I expect Brown to make the final 53 man roster, but I hope that his place on the final depth chart is safely in that third RB position. Addai looked spectacular last night, and Delone Carter looks every bit the back we're hoping for him to be.
As for Donald, well...we'll just have to see.