INDIANAPOLIS – DeForest Buckner’s specialty is defense. Always has been, always will be.
But one of the NFL’s premier defensive tackles has seen enough – during the offseason program, training camp and two preseason games – to offer an enlightened evaluation of a teammate who’s expected to lead the Indianapolis Colts back to relevancy.
That would be Anthony Richardson. Heard of him? Starting rookie quarterback.
Buckner shared his appreciation for Richardson in a sideline interview on the Amazon Prime Video broadcast during Thursday night’s 27-13 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Just the energy that he brings,’’ he said. “Just seeing the growth since OTAs and training camp, and seeing him compete, getting those live reps have been awesome to see.’’
His next observation was the salient point.
“Also seeing his ability to extend plays, making something out of nothing,’’ Buckner said. “That’s an element we’ve kind of been missing a little bit.
“The confidence he’s been growing has been awesome.’’
Richardson started and played the entire first half against the Eagles after being held out of last Saturday’s meeting with the Chicago Bears.
A quick glance at his stat line hardly elicits the oohs and aahs you might hope from the No. 4 overall pick in the draft: 6-of-17 passing for 78 yards, five rushes for another 38 yards. And that was while directing the Colts’ No. 1 offense – minus center Ryan Kelly and right guard Will Fries – against an Eagles’ defense devoid of its starters.
In his two preseason appearances, Richardson completed just 44.8% of his passes and averaged a mundane 5.0 yards per attempt with no touchdowns and one interception. He picked up 45 yards on seven attempts.
But Richardson’s rookie impact undoubtedly will transcend whatever his stat line conveys.
“There’s no question,’’ Shane Steichen said. “Sometimes your stats don’t always tell the true story. You create explosive plays. If you can score points however you need to score points, that’s what we’ve got to do. So that’s where Anthony’s at.’’
Richardson’s work in and out of the pocket caught his coach’s eye.
“That’s one of his talents,’’ Steichen said of Richardson’s rushing. “Just his ability to create outside the pocket is definitely going to help us.’’
Richardson’s downfield passing game remains a work in progress – he and Alec Pierce are far from a finished tandem – but his presence and confidence in the pocket already are evident. Whether he’s working the run-pass option (RPO) or using play-action or avoiding the rush, he’s going to be a weekly stress test for defenses.
“I just try to keep my eyes down the field unless there’s a wide open lane,’’ Richardson said. “If there’s an opportunity to give someone the ball, then it’s their job to run the ball; I just have to deliver it.
“But if I see a lane, I’m going to try to take it and get some yards for the team.”
Against the Eagles, Richardson started and ended with three inefficient three-and-out first-half possessions, but countered with three scoring drives: Deon Jackson’s 3-yard run, a 1-yard TD by rookie Evan Hull and Lucas Havrisik’s 41-yard field goal.
Everything was on display, which means the good, the bad and Richardson’s demonstrative personality. He punctuated Jackson’s TD by flapping his arms in Fly Eagles Fly style in front of 69,879 fans at Lincoln Financial Field.
Richardson whistled a hard pass over the head of a wide-open Michael Pittman Jr., but dropped a perfect throw over linebacker Ben VanSumeren into tight end Kylen Granson’s hands for a 17-yard gain along the left sideline.
“Great spot,’’ Granson said in the locker room. “He put some juice on it and put it in a space that only I could make a play on it.’’
“Great throw,’’ Steichen said. “He put it only where Granson could catch it.’’
Richardson was credited with a fumble when he lost control of the football as he was delivering it downfield – Pittman recovered – but otherwise was agile and elusive in the pocket. On his third drive, Richardson temporarily juggled the ball on fake to Hull, recovered and scrambled to his left for 16 yards and a first down.
He later converted a third-and-10 with a 12-yard scramble. Richardson’s size – 6-4, roughly 250 – and strength enabled him to deliver a pass with a defender draped on him.
The most impressive play with his legs occurred on third-and-11 at the Philly 28 midway through the second quarter. The Eagles blitzed their linebackers, and Richardson spun away from VanSumeren’s sack attempt for 5 yards to give Havrisik a more makeable field goal attempt.
“You (saw) him extend the play multiple times,’’ Pittman said. “He was picking up first down after first down and that leads to points.’’
Even on the opening drive that accomplished nothing, Richardson’s threat was obvious.
After a false start penalty on Quenton Nelson put the Colts in a third-and-15 hole at their own 15, Richardson broke containment and picked up the necessary 15 yards. A holding penalty on Nelson negated it.
The Richardson-led offense finished with 149 yards and 13 first downs in the first half, and averaged 4.5 yards on 33 snaps.
“Shoot, I thought he did a solid job,’’ Steichen said. “We scored three out of the first four drives, which is good. The two-minute drive (at the end of the half) wasn’t what we wanted, but we’ll go back and look at the tape.’’
Richardson’s response to Jackson’s 3-yard touchdown – flapping his arms – was calculated.
“I was thinking about it before the game,’’ he said. “Sometimes when you get into the end zone, you just freeze up and don’t know what to do. So I was contemplating what I was going to do if I scored or if somebody else scored.
“So I ran down there and I was just flapping my arms and having fun. I hope nobody took it the wrong way. I was just balling, having fun out there, and enjoying it.”
Center Danny Pinter, starting in place of Ryan Kelly, was taken off the field on a cart on the first play of the third quarter. The injury to his left ankle occurred when players fell on him from behind.
Rosters must be trimmed to 53 by 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The Colts open the regular season Sept. 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium.
This and that
The Jonathan Taylor-less running game finished with 127 yards on 31 attempts. Richardson’s 38 yards led the way, followed by Hull (25 on six attempts), Jake Funk (23 on five) and Kenyan Drake (21 on 5).
Gardner Minshew completed an incredibly efficient preseason. Against his former team, he was 9-for-11 for 102 yards and an 8-yard TD to Drake. In three games, Minshew was 28-of-32 (87.5%) for 281 yards, two TDs and a 124.1 rating.
Rookie tight Will Mallory led the Colts with 43 yards on two catches.
Linebacker Liam Anderson led the defense with nine tackles while Philly native Zaire Franklin added six.
The defense notched three sacks: one each by Dayo Odeyingbo and Khalid Kareem, and a shared sack by Tyquan Lewis and McTelvin Agim.