Isaiah Pead is an NFL running back prospect for the 2012 NFL Draft. The 5’11″, 198-pound University of Cincinnati senior is agile, and quick. He earns his tuition gaining yards from spread and pistol sets. This morning I’m watching Pead gain 191 total yards from scrimmage and score two touchdowns against NC State.
I’m not surprised about his performance, because I’ve seen Pead before. In another sense, I’ve seen Pead many times before. The Bearcats’ star runner shares similar tendencies of most good college running backs. However, one of these tendencies is a bad habit in the NFL. I call it, “taking trips to the corner store.”
Most of us have a favorite corner store in our neighborhood. We go there for gas, cigarettes, junk food, energy drinks, beer, lottery tickets, you name it. Nothing there is really good for us, but we can’t resist the temptation. In football I see the “corner store” as a running back’s decision to bounce a run outside.
Sometimes a trip to the corner store is necessary. Nothing else is open and you’re willing to pay a premium for the goods you usually don’t get there like aspirin, eggs, motor oil, or milk. The same applies to runners when there’s penetration into the backfield and the corner is the only logical choice. But more often than not, college runners take trips to the gridiron’s corner store out of sheer temptation for the big play.
C.J. Spiller, Reggie Bush, Jamaal Charles, and LeSean McCoy had to learn how to curb that temptation in the NFL. Even a bruiser like Larry Johnson had to stop making as many trips to the corner store to develop into a good NFL runner. Those that don’t learn, like former Minnesota Golden Gopher Laurence Maroney, never reach their vast potential.
There are two plays that I saw from Isaiah Pead in the first quarter of this NC State game that demonstrate the risky appeal of the corner store to a running back.
Pead’s first carry of the game was from an 11-personnel, pistol set with receivers 1×3. Pead flanked the QB to that one-receiver, weak side against a four-man defensive front. The defensive backfield appeared to be in quarters coverage on this 2nd and 10 play on the first series for the Bearcats.
The design of the run was a belly play where Pead would follow the pulling center to the outside shoulder of the right guard. But when the defense has a say in the matter, there can be a big difference between design and execution once the offense snaps the ball. In this case, the right defensive end crossed the face of the right tackle and got five yards penetration into the backfield with a great angle on Pead as the runner took the exchange from the quarterback.
Pead is an NFL prospect because of his decisiveness, agility, and quickness. On this play he puts it all on display. He makes a hard cut across the face of the defensive end to a crease that subsequently offers two choices: a small lane up right tackle or the temptation of corner store.
If Pead takes the run downhill, he’s likely to get wrapped at the line of scrimmage and fight for 2-3 yards. It’s not an exciting play, but considering the circumstances it would be a successful one. If he’s fortunate, the defense doesn’t finish strong and Pead breaks a tackle for a larger yield.
This happens a lot in the NFL. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was not a marquee prospect at Ole Miss, has made a living with the Patriots because he has the discipline to avoid the corner store, get downhill, and keep New England on a good down and distance schedule. Sometimes Green-Ellis will break a tackle or two and turn a run of 2-3 yards into a gain of 10-15.
Take a back with LeSean McCoy, C.J. Spiller, or Reggie Bush’s speed and quickness and instill that kind of discipline to avoid the corner store and they generate plays over 20 yards on a consistent basis.McCoy gained this discipline two years ago. Bush, and in recent weeks Spiller, and learned the same thing and their games are blossoming.
On this 2nd and 10 play against the Wolfpack, Pead is like most good college runners and can’t resist the temptation of the goodies that await him if he reaches that corner. His mistake is immediately apparent once he bounces the play out side. The strong safety and right cornerback shoot the gaps to the flat and string out Pead’s run. Pead executes a good stiff arm on the safety, but to do so he has to bend the run at an angle where he loses a couple of yards on his journey to the line of scrimmage.
Even when he stiff arms the safety he doesn’t completely eliminate the defender from the play. The safety slides down Pead’s body and wraps the runner’s legs just as Pead crosses the line of scrimmage. The runner falls ahead for a total gain of a yard. It’s a lot of work for a gain of a yard and at the same time he increased the risk for a loss of 2-3.
Pead does the same thing a series later on a 2nd and 3 play with 9:32 in the first quarter, inside the NC State 10 yard line. Pead again flanks the QB on the weak side of a 12-personnel pistol set. This time the line is unbalanced land two receivers are split to that strong side.
This run is a zone read. The offensive line slants to the strong side and the strong side linebacker run blitzes from the right corner to get penetration into the backfield. Pead had two options: cut inside the strong side linebacker and deal with the right defensive tackle who would be coming from the runner’s inside to meet Pead at the line of scrimmage or head to the corner store.
With that pick-six lottery ticket sign less than 10 yards away, the temptation is too great to resist. While it’s not a good choice, I don’t blame him as a runner with good athleticism for a college athlete. He and other FBS running backs generally make plays bouncing runs outside.
Pead darts around the linebacker, but that decision takes him a couple of yards away from the line of scrimmage. Now there are three defenders with an angle on him. Two are coming from backside pursuit and one is over top.
Pead manages to use a stop-start cut to elude the first defender and then drag the strong side linebacker a couple of yards. Pead is forced out of bounds a yard shy of the first down marker. The runner flashed a nice move and good effort to finish the run, but why opt for a run like this?
Pead had to stop and start, lose momentum, and then work harder for the same yield he’d at least get turning immediately downhill and falling forward through a wrap at the line of scrimmage. The worst-case scenario of cutting downhill on this play was no gain. The best-case scenario was the defensive tackle not getting a great angle on Pead, the runner bouncing off a glancing blow, and scoring. The likely case was a 2-3 yard gain without the potential for a loss of yardage.
What Pead and other running back prospects have to learn is that the corner store in the NFL doesn’t have as many goodies as it does in college football. If they don’t learn, they’ll have to find another way to earn their groceries.