Film Room: Sheldon Richardson Just Made The Best Defense in the NFL a Whole Lot Better

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Sheldon Richardson, former Pro Bowler and former Pro Football Focus (PFF) all-pro, recently signed with the Minnesota Vikings on a 1-year, $8 million contract. Richardson joins Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Danielle Hunter, giving the Vikings Pro Bowl caliber talent at every spot along their defensive line.

Richardson provides an immediate upgrade at the 3-technique position. Last year, he had the 9th-best pass rushing productivity among defensive tackles (one spot ahead of Ndamukong Suh), the 15th-best run stop percentage (two spots ahead of Geno Atkins, and 5th-best excluding nose tackles), and Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 graded him as the 7th-best defensive tackle in the NFL.

But Richardson’s impact on the Vikings is so much more than just a one-position upgrade. In Mike Zimmer’s defense, a good 3-technique under tackle is a linchpin position, transforming what the edge rushers can do, what the linebackers can do, and what the secondary can do.

But why tell you when I can show you?

Richardson has a knack for making big plays

That might be hard to believe if you looked at his stat sheet — Richardson only had one sack last year — but Richardson is an impact player. Just watch, as this play came in primetime against the NFL’s best offensive line. Seattle is up by one touchdown, but the Eagles are mounting a big comeback and have driven all the way to the six yard line. Guess which player single-handedly shuts that drive down?

The Eagles run a read option here, where Wentz reads the defense, keeps the ball, and runs to his right. Richardson takes on first-team All Pro tackle Lane Johnson, and not only fills his gap, but redirects Johnson to shed the block and get out in front of Wentz.

Richardson then uses his length and strong hands to strip the ball at the one yard line, and it bounces through the end zone for a Seahawks touchback. Seattle took possession and scored a touchdown on that next drive, and the Seahawks marched on comfortably to victory.

This next play came on third down in the last two minutes of a three-point game.

This play showcases so much of what makes Sheldon Richardson so valuable. It’s not just getting a sack on third down to set up what could have been a game-winning drive; it’s how Richardson wins here. Richardson punches initially with his right arm into the right shoulder of No. 71, using his 34.5″ arms (longer than the average NFL offensive tackle’s) to bull rush the guard back almost ten yards. The right guard can’t deal with that length or strength, and as he flails his arms to get a grip on Richardson, Richardson uses his left hand to swat away the blocker’s hands.

Watch it in slow motion: He never even touches Richardson’s pads.

That leads me to my next point.

Sheldon Richardson is a freak

Look at his Mockdraftable spider chart:

Those combine measurements match Richardson’s tape, too: he’s explosive off the snap, ridiculously agile, strong as an ox, can turn 90° on a dime towards the quarterback after shooting upfield vertically, and he’s got the length of Stretch Armstrong. It’s like if Aaron Donald had a left tackle’s arms.

Richardson’s strong as an ox…

This next play is one of the most disrespectful I saw all last year:

The Colts try and double team Richardson, but Richardson responds by knocking not just one, but both offensive linemen onto the turf before jumping over their bodies to join in on the run stuff.

Richardson’s strength is most obvious when he’s lined up one-on-one against a lineman, where his initial punch can send an offensive lineman stumbling back, and he can bench press linemen three yards back into the pocket. Watch for No. 91 on these highlights:

Richardson’s strength lets him immediately win at the line of scrimmage, and gives him power to bull rush straight through blockers or throw them aside when he needs to shed a block.

And he’s quick as a cat…

The most important attribute for an under tackle in a 4-3 Under defense is quickness. The 3-technique has to be able to time his jump and explode immediately at the snap, shoot upfield quick enough to penetrate his gap (typically the weak side B-gap), and once in the backfield, close in and finish the play.

Richardson checks all those boxes. See how Richardson’s lightning-fast first step allows him to shoot the gap for this 6-yard tackle-for-loss:

Richardson’s quickness enables him to knife through and around blocks, and even speed rush as an edge defender:

That quickness makes him particularly deadly on stunts, as there are so few defensive tackles with the burst, bend, and balance to win around the edge while starting a snap along the interior. Richardson is one of them, as he shows on the safety-sack above, where he beats Matt Kalil around the edge on a stunt. You can only imagine the kinds of pressure packages Mike Zimmer will dream up with an athlete like Richardson as his under tackle.

And while Richardson’s snap quickness is great, it’s his pursuit and closing speed once he gets upfield that’s most impressive:

Part of what makes Richardson so special is the agility, pursuit, and motor on display here. Once upfield, Richardson can pivot on a dime and move laterally, with closing speed to chase down skill players and a relentless drive to make tackles even on screens to the far side of the field.

Richardson has the reach of a heavyweight boxer

Arm length for a lineman is like reach for a boxer: if your arms are long enough, you can hit your opponent even when they can’t hit back.

Sheldon Richardson has 34.5″ arms, which is long enough to play left tackle. That means when he locks into a blocker’s pads, that blocker often won’t have the reach to push back. Revisiting the sack from the Falcons game above, you can see how Richardson’s arm length allows him to lock into the guard’s pads, and the guard is simply unable to do anything about it:

But Richardson’s length doesn’t just help him outreach his opponent; it also gives him a wide tackle radius, allowing him to finish plays and get quarterback hits, sacks, and tackles for loss by the fingertips of his strong hands:

Traditionally, the prototypical 3-technique is someone like Ndamukong Suh: 6’4,” 310 pounds, with great power and explosiveness, so that they can win with size, strength or quickness.

Recently, however, a new prototype has emerged: someone like Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald, with outrageous power and athleticism, but slightly lighter and shorter, prioritizing leverage over size.

The crazy thing about Richardson is that he is the best of both worlds: like Donald or Atkins, his 6’2″ height gives him natural leverage, but like Suh, his 300 pounds and 34.5″ arms mean he can win with his size, too. And he has athleticism comparable to each. It’s extremely rare that a defensive tackle would have both a shorter height and long arms, but Richardson is just a built-in-a-lab level of freak.

Richardson’s a masterful technician

But Sheldon Richardson doesn’t rely solely on his freakish athleticism to dominate. In fact, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Richardson’s game is how technically refined his game is. Just watch how Richardson’s hands move on this play:

This is some straight-up Mr. Miyagi stuff. No. 67 throws a million punches, but Richardson anticipates, intercepts, and redirects every single one, all while violently driving the guard back to collapse the pocket and force the poor throw.

That play didn’t make the highlight reels, but it might be my favorite snap from Richardson all of last year.

Richardson’s quick and violent hands were on display all season:

It is simply uncanny how Richardson is able to neutralize Pro Bowl-caliber blockers by swiping away their hands and knifing past them like they’re tackling dummies. It’s like watching Bruce Lee or something. And to me, it’s the most impressive part of Richardson’s game.

Richardson has mastered almost every pass rushing technique out there.

Sheldon Richardson isn’t a one-trick pony, either; he has virtually every technique and tactic in his arsenal to beat his blockers and get to the quarterback or ball carrier. Starting with his swim move:

A good swim move is really tough to execute in the NFL because by raising your arm up to “swim” past the blocker, you’re surrendering leverage, on top of exposing your rib cage to the blocker. But because Richardson is so quick and so smart with his hands, he’s quick to swat and swipe a blocker’s hands away and savvy enough to know when he has a window to swim past a lineman.

Richardson is discerning enough to know when to bust out his swim move, so that when he does, he’s really able to slingshot himself past the line and into the quarterback. That craftiness, on top of his quickness, length, and strength, give Richardson one of the better swim moves in the NFL.

Conversely, a rip move is a lot more common in the NFL, because when the defensive lineman turns and throws the rip (i.e. the uppercut motion the lineman uses to move past the blocker), he gives the blocker a much smaller target to block. Richardson has the explosiveness and strength to rip through blockers and the balance and bend to finish once he’s penetrated the pocket:

We’ve already seen how Richardson can win with his strength and length, which is why his bull rush is also extremely effective:

Once Richardson locks his long arms into a lineman’s chest plate, it’s usually only a matter of split-seconds before he’s at the quarterback. Richardson even has a passable spin move, which he’ll use as a pass rush move or to shed blocks and redirect himself towards the ball:

That hardly covers every pass-rushing technique, but it does show how versatile and refined Richardson’s technique is. That versatility and unpredictability make him a nightmare in one-on-one situations, because Richardson can win in so many different ways.

Richardson has great awareness and high football IQ

On top of his athleticism and technique, Richardson is a very savvy, football-smart player. Take a look at this interception:

On first glance, this might just look like a lucky play. And Richardson certainly was lucky that Goff threw the ball high and Gurley tipped the ball in the air. But the fact that Richardson was in place to make the play is a testament to his awareness; while the rest of the defensive line rushes towards the quarterback, Richardson sniffs out the screen almost immediately as he sees the guard and center pull out. On top of that, he also has the instincts to scoop up the tipped ball for the turnover.

Later on in that same game, Richardson had another heads-up play when he immediately recognized a fumble, shed his block, and caught the ball in the air for a 20-yard return:

Richardson’s statistical production

Maybe you’re wondering, “If Sheldon Richardson is such an athletic freak and so technically refined, how come his stat sheet doesn’t look like it?”

The short answer is that his stat sheet does look like it — you might just be looking at the wrong stats. Richardson may have only had one sack last year, but sacks are a poor predictor of future pass rushing production. Total pressures (including quarterback hits and hurries) are far more predictive of future performance, and in terms of pressure per pass rush snap, Richardson ranked 7th-best among all defensive tackles.

Richardson was also a monster in the run game, with a run stop on 8.7% of rushing plays — 5th-best among interior linemen (excluding nose tackles). He was also one of the only starting defensive tackles to not miss a single tackle all last year.

Throw in an interception and two forced fumbles (this fumble was credited to Kam Chancellor, but I’d argue Richardson deserves at least half the credit for knocking the ball loose), and that’s top-10 production for a defensive tackle, easily.

What’s even wilder, though, is how much more you can expect from Richardson in Mike Zimmer’s scheme:

Sheldon Richardson and Mike Zimmer are a match made in heaven

Mike Zimmer is famous for his exotic blitz packages, complicated pattern-matching coverage concepts, and pre-snap reads and motions in his defensive schemes. But amidst all that ridiculous variety are two cornerstones: the 1-technique nose tackle and the 3-technique under tackle.

Linval Joseph, the prototypical 1-technique nose tackle, lines up on the strong-side shoulder of the center (strong-side meaning the side of the formation with more linemen). He is the bulwark of the defense, responsible not just for the strong-side A-gap, but for controlling the center of the field and demanding multiple blockers.

Now Sheldon Richardson, a prototypical 3-technique under tackle, will line up on the weak-side shoulder of the weak-side guard. He is the under tackle. He’s not just the namesake of the 4-3 Under scheme; he is the lynchpin of the defense. The entire 4-3 under scheme is set up to get your under tackle into one-on-one matchups, where he can dominate with quickness, power, and technique.

Sheldon Richardson has never been in this good of a situation. In 2015 and 2016, the Jets misused him as an outside linebacker. In 2017, Richardson was rightly moved back to play the 3-technique, but Seattle didn’t have a premier nose guard, and as a result, Richardson wound up eating a lot of double teams:

As you can see, he still found a way to be productive despite the double teams. But it was still a far cry from the caliber of player Richardson can be when he’s schemed consistently into one-on-one matchups where he dominates.

The last time Richardson was in a situation even comparable to playing 3-technique next to Linval Joseph and the rest of the Vikings defense was in 2014, where he played mostly 3-technique next to Damon Harrison. As an elite nose tackle, Damon Harrison took on double teams and controlled the line of scrimmage, setting up Richardson for one-on-one matchups, play after play.

The result? Richardson recorded eight sacks and earned one of the highest grades in all of football. In fact, there were only four defenders in the NFL that year with higher grades than Richardson: Aaron Donald, Justin Houston, Von Miller and JJ Watt. That’s a DPOY-caliber level of performance.

And just as Richardson will benefit from playing next to Linval Joseph, the rest of the Vikings’ defense will benefit from Richardson. Danielle Hunter, in particular, should see increased production: with a premier under tackle consistently collapsing the interior of the pocket, QBs are less able to climb the pocket, setting up the weak-side pass rusher to win far more consistently with their speed rushes.

The weak-side backer (Eric Kendricks or Ben Gedeon) should greatly benefit as well — the 4-3 under is designed to leave the weak-side backer unblocked so they can flow to and track down the ballcarrier with their speed. Richardson’s burst and pursuit should benefit the run defense overall tremendously, resulting in more tackles for losses and fewer gaps for backs to run through.

And of course, all that synergy in the front seven extends to the secondary as well. Shorter drop backs shrink the field vertically.  Pressure forces errant throws and interceptions.  And a more reliable pass rush means Zimmer can be more aggressive in his coverages — more press coverage, more safeties dropping back, more robbers, and more ballhawking.

In conclusion, Sheldon Richardson Is Good at Football.

Sheldon Richardson is the kind of player Mike Zimmer dreams about: big as a tank; quick as lightning; with the length to outreach left tackles, yet the height to win with leverage; violent hands like a Kung Fu master; and the technical mastery to win in every way on every snap.

Even when miscast as a linebacker in New York or when facing double teams in Seattle, he still produced pressures at a top-10 rate and run stops at a top-15 rate among interior defenders. When properly cast as a 3-technique next to Damon Harrison at nose guard, he was a borderline defensive player of the year candidate.

That’s where he’ll play in Minnesota.  Except the defense around him will be even better, and he’ll be playing for one of the best defensive schemers in the NFL.

The best defense in the NFL just got a lot better.