As the Colts trailed the Los Angeles Rams by 15 early in the fourth quarter of Week 4, Aaron Donald wrapped his arms around Anthony Richardson in the pocket.
Most of the time Donald – who one day will don a gold jacket in Canton – does that, the best-case for a quarterback is an incomplete pass. Even worse, it's a sack or an intentional grounding flag; worst-case, Donald forces a turnover.
instead, Richardson flicked his wrist and ripped a pass down the far sideline to wide receiver Alec Pierce, who caught it for a 38-yard gain.
And as the Colts turn their attention to generating more explosiveness out of their offense in 2024, that's a play running back Jonathan Taylor can't get out of his head.
"I just keep thinking about Los Angeles, with Donald coming down the pipe and he stood tall in the pocket to deliver that ball," Taylor said. "It was insane to see the accuracy the ball was thrown with, the velocity — it was like, okay, that's special."
In the four games Richardson started in 2024 – Weeks 1, 2, 4 and 5 – the Colts were ninth in explosive runs (14) and 10th in explosive passes (21), per Pro Football Focus. The Colts weren't able to build on those early encouraging signs with their rookie quarterback, of course, as Richardson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5.
Notably, the timing of Richardson's injury – which came in Taylor's season debut after he was activated from the PUP list – meant he and Taylor were on the field for just two plays in 2023, both in Week 5 against the Tennessee Titans. The first was a toss sweep to Taylor that gained three yards; the second was on a third-and-26 screen pass that went to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
And while we didn't get to see it in 2023, having two of the Colts' most explosive playmakers lining up next to each other could create headaches for opposing defenses in 2024.
"Combining those guys in the backfield is going to be big for us," head coach Shane Steichen said. "Obviously, we'll get those reps in the spring and training camp and gel and create that chemistry with those two back there. We've got a chance obviously with both those guys in the backfield to be very explosive."
Richardson had four explosive runs as a rookie, with all of them coming on intentional running plays (either read options or designed QB runs). In other words: None of his explosive runs came on scrambles.
But that also gets at a part of Richardson's game we saw a glimpse of in 2023: When he escapes the pocket, he keeps his eyes downfield and looks to pass unless there's a clear lane for him to run. And his willingness to take shots downfield, either inside or outside the pocket, adds another aspect to the Colts' offense opposing defenses may come to respect.
"When he plays, people defend you a little differently," general manager Chris Ballard said. "I do think – I think we saw it already, it kind of naturally happens when he's in there. Either with his feet or with his arm because of what he's able to do. Look, he's got a lot of work to do and there will be some moments next year where he'll still look like a rookie. It's going to happen. I think his ability to push the ball down the field and create allows for those explosive plays to happen."
It's not always as simple as this, but when a quarterback is willing to push the ball downfield, it usually takes away from a defense's willingness to load the box to stop the run. And if you load up to stop the run, it can create opportunities for a quarterback like Richardson to throw it deep.
Both Pierce and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (who's set to be an unrestricted free agent in March) mentioned Richardson's willingness to throw deep as something that'll help not only the Colts' offense, but their own games going forward.
"He loves to throw the ball deep, so it'll definitely help my role," Pierce said. "That's something we talk with the coaches — they say hey, keep your head up, should have some more opportunities next year. I'm just going to take all the information I got this year, go into the offseason, use it to learn, watch the film, grow, get better."
It's no secret that the most explosive offenses usually are among the top in the NFL. Nine of the league's 10 most explosive passing offenses made the playoffs (the Minnesota Vikings were the only exception), while five of the top 10 explosive rushing offenses made the playoffs. The Colts finished 2023 with an explosive pass rate of 11.2 percent (26th) and an explosive run rate of 12.2 percent (16th).
Richardson, of course, still has to earn respect from opposing defenses – while the Colts were encouraged by his four games as a rookie, Ballard emphasized the 21-year-old quarterback still has "a lot of work to do." But if Richardson continues on the trend he was on this fall – whether it was on throws with one of the best defensive players in a generation wrapping him up or dashing into the Houston end zone twice – it'll open things up for the entire Colts offense.
And that includes Taylor, who again, we haven't really seen play with Richardson yet.
"I think that just depends on the defense, whether you choose to respect it or not," Taylor said of Richardson's running ability. "I can't say I hope you do respect it because if you do, I mean — it's a bad deal either way. I guess it's going to be all on the defense. Whatever you choose to respect, you gotta pick your poison."