Defensive Rookie of the Year award winner Sheldon Richardson was already practically a star entering his sophomore year in the NFL. In a surprising change from his dominance as a pass rusher at Missouri, Richardson demolished running lanes as his primary strength as a rookie. In his second year, he has begun to flourish as a pass rusher. His performance this past week against the Vikings without Muhammad Wilkerson was a perfect demonstration of his strides in this area.
Richardson was on the sideline for about ten defensive snaps because Rex Ryan is not very smart, but still managed three sacks, a safety, an additional QB hurry, and QB hit. He moved all around the defensive line like Muhammad Wilkerson would normally do if he suited up. Sheldon proved what he can do if used as a weapon when he’s not mainly locked in as a 3-tech tackle.
I want to point out that even with his rise as a pass rusher, his stellar play stuffing the run has not decreased. Though it hasn’t been as incredibly consistent, he still shows why he’s going to eventually become one of the most well rounded defensive lineman in the league in a year or two.
First, you have his unconscious ability to stack and shed blocks. It is dynamic how dangerous he is with the skill. Not many lineman in the league can do it with such speed and power combined when he hits it right. Against subpar Vikings’ guards, Richardson put on a show shedding blocks whenever he could on Sunday.
This is basically Sheldon’s rookie year massacre in one play. All year he abused lineman with this method of reading the run play spectacularly while setting up the offensive lineman blocking him to fail. He moves laterally with the guard as Matt Asiata heads up the middle, but puts all of his weight into his left foot, plants it, and swings the guard aside to shed as Asiata cuts to his gap. This isn’t just clogging up a run lane, this is pure disruption. No matter how efficient the rest of the Vikings’ blocking was, Asiata was doomed if he chose to cut left because Richardson’s stack and shed ability wins the play alone.
However, many defensive tackles are not in position to impact the play by directly penetrating through winning their battle and in that case, it is sometimes a bad move to do so. Nobody had to tell Sheldon that his rookie year, and it is no different now. Even when he can’t stop the run himself by shedding, he’s diagnosing the runs so fast that he finds other ways to make an impact. These two plays are good examples of this.
Richardson is so active with his hands, and it shows here. He doesn’t shed the block, but he uses the contact with the lineman while reading the run to realign his positioning. His instincts and lateral movement are like that of a linebacker, and he tracks down Asiata to help drive him backwards with David Harris. Asiata needs a yard to convert the third down. He didn’t get that yard. When the run isn’t sent to his side of the trenches, Sheldon still makes plays. It’s hard to find guys who do more than just their own jobs efficiently, but that’s Richardson for you. His role is expanded because of what his hands and movement skills allow his to do. Below is another example of his powerful yet smart disruption.
By jumping that gap inside, Richardson’s run lane is open. The risk is worth it, though. He has trust in his teammates to fill it up. Besides, him blowing up the inside running lane takes his guard that was responsible for him out of the lane, so it’s open space for any other Jets’ defender to clog up. He takes this chance in hopes of getting to Asiata in the backfield himself, but the quickness of his disruption inside is so fast that his lineman trails out and his impact is certainly felt.
His run stopping prowess is just a continuation of his rookie year, though. His pass rushing has improved dramatically and he’s that much more dangerous than he already was. He was in the Minnesota backfield even more than the statistics will tell you. Why? He already had the lightning quick first step and excellent hand usage, but he never knew how to really take it to the next step. He resorted to a constant bull rush as a rookie, and it was effective at times. Now, he’s incorporating new pass rush moves and shedding into his rush game and he’s an entirely new machine. Like I mentioned earlier, moving him around so he can rush from the nose, 3-tech, and 5-tech only gives him more chances to experiment and do more damage.
To make one thing clear, his bull rush is still fierce. When guards open up their chests and backpedal because they expect something more diverse, Sheldon can still make them pay with a drive of power.
Teddy Bridgewater is a smart young player, so he was attentive to step up in open space to the right, but Sheldon blew up his pocket with his bull rush.
These new pass rush moves of his are no joke, though. He often uses a swim, rip, undercut, and even has a spin move he’ll throw in on occasion. Some of these were showcased on Sunday.
This play from the second year star is just way too quick for any interior lineman to be used to blocking. His initial swim move on the guard is enough to make him move on to helping out the tackle on Babin. He then extends his swim by jutting by the center with both arms already past the point where the center can get a good punch on him, and pushes by him while lowering his pad level so he can easily swim through. It all happens so fast that neither the guard or center looked truly ready to take him on with a full effort. This is as close to a sack as you’re going to get, as Bridgewater has the awareness to dump it out incomplete at Asiata’s feet. His swim move already seems like that of a veteran’s when it’s at its best. It’s not very consistent and risks him opening up his chest to get knocked off balance, but it’s ferocious when it’s quick enough.
Richardson’s safety on the Vikings’ first offensive possession was a thing of beauty. It helped show how things happen when Rex runs stunts with his front seven, which used to be a Jets’ staple in their hay-day. Jason Babin chipped inside to eliminate the guard, letting Sheldon hit the edge with momentum versus Matt Kalil. Some might not have considered the defensive tackle a possible force off the edge in his rookie year, but he’s really piecing together the puzzle on all cylinders rushing the passer.
Though he is making strides with his speed to power conversion, Sheldon didn’t need much of that on his safety. Babin does a great job knocking the guard back inside and leaves Richardson fully isolated with Kalil. His hips are so fluid and of course he’s naturally faster than almost all defensive tackles in the league, and that’s evident here. Surprised, Kalil has to try and get back outside and set his feet to inhale a power-rush. Richardson smartly used his bend around the edge instead since Kalil wasn’t prepared to extend. Look how low his angle gets during his bend. It’s so impressive and frankly unbelievable for a nearly 300 lb player. Keeping his arm out to rip Kalil and keep him at a distance, he easily gets to Bridgewater and punishes him.
Even with his quick learning of how to be a more dynamic pass rusher, of course Sheldon is going to sift through some inconsistency at times. This isn’t a terrible thing for him, however. When he can’t get to the passer, he’s still dangerous if the passer tries to improvise. In a containment role or spy assignment, Richardson can spring out and ruin an offensive play before you can blink. This is how he got his last two sacks versus Minnesota.
Realizing he’s double teamed on the weakside of the line, Richardson drops back into a spy role so Bridgewater can’t easily escape the pocket. It worked to perfection, given that his shedding ability is so great that he could pounce on the rookie passer as soon as he considered to run. He swims and pushed by the tackle so fast that the tackle could never have possibly been aware he needed to make an additional block to free up running space for Bridgewater.
With a new array of pass rush moves that his basis of quickness, hand usage, and diagnosis can elevate to the next level, Sheldon Richardson is truly one of the most dangerous defensive tackles in the league. Since his run defense is still nearly on the same elite level it was on last year, he’s really one of the most well-rounded ones. It’s not like he just broke out this game, either. He simply had to take more chances since he didn’t have Muhammad Wilkerson playing on the same defensive front with him, and the changed mentality definitely paid off. At the end of the day, he’s still been doing this all year, though, steadily improving.
I think Sheldon has rounded his play so well that he must be in the discussion for one of the best defensive players in the league, if he’s not already. If it weren’t for Muhammad Wilkerson still doing his thing, he would far and away be the Jets’ best player (if that means anything). The guy simply bends what we originally thought was the ceiling of what defensive tackles could do versus interior lineman. He makes some of his opponents look completely inferior. Since the Jets are, well, horrendous, and it’s almost the end of the season, I gathered some of my favorite and most dominant plays of Richardson’s throughout the season. I included that lethal spin move, too. Notice how every one of these is versus some sort of double team, too. Enjoy.
Watching the guy at his best is a treat. At this point, he make plays only a select few in the league can. Thus, he just has to hone these skills even more to achieve more consistency. The good thing? It’s so easy to buy into even more improvement with how he’s throttled this league so far. He was one of the most dominant defensive lineman in the conference from Day 1, and he’s taken massive strides from there.