Chad Spann is a reserve running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers after stops with the Colts and Buccaneers. I have interviewed Spann multiple times since this time last year. The former NIU walk-on who began his career ninth on the depth chart and ended it as the 2010 NCAA touchdown leader is a confident but grounded player who learned early that everything he’s going to get as a football player will be earned with hard work and persistence.
It won’t be a surprise to most fans if Pittsburgh drafts a running back in the mid-to-late rounds as a hedge for Rashard Mendenhall’s recovery from a knee injury. Even so, Spann is still the only healthy running back on the roster with change of pace, third-down skills. There’s a strong likelihood that Spann’s name becomes more common on the lips of beat writers this summer.
Q: I read your DLF interview and I’d like to build on it. You talked about the Steelers organization with me in the past. Now that the season is over and you’ve had time to reflect, tell me specifically what you like about being in Pittsburgh.
A: Man, it was really just a culture shock going in there after being in Tampa and Indianapolis. It was completely different. The environment. The coaches. The players. The very first day I was there Coach Tomlin spoke to me and said, “If we’re going to be working together, we might as well know each other.” We talked for a second before practice and then after practice we sat down and got to know each other a lot better.
My first day there I sat in my running back coach’s office and talked to him for a good 30 minutes and we discussed my strengths, my weaknesses, the things that he wants me to work on and the things that they need me for…
Q: What specifically did you talk about that you could share?
With Kirby Wilson we talked about coming in and possibly playing third down. We separate our offense by down and it’s really unique the way that they did it compared to the Colts and the Bucs. The Colts had one running back and they just ran with him for the whole series.
Tampa Bay would use LaGarrette [Blount] only in 21 personnel [Two backs and a tight end] and Kregg Lumpkin would come in for 11, 12, [single back with one or two tight ends] or other personnel. In Pittsburgh it’s different. I’ll see on the board:
- 3rd and 3 – Red(man)
- 3rd and 6 – Mo(ore) or Mendenhall
They really broke it down to situational football, which is a phrase you’ll see Coach Tomlin use a lot. They try to use everybody’s strengths on every down. That’s something I had never seen before when breaking down situations for running backs. It was pretty interesting.
Q: You told DLF that you were spending a lot of time working on your receiving skills during the offseason – specifically running routes. What are some of the technical components of route running that you’re working on right now?
A: It’s definitely being able to get in and out of your breaks. That’s the hardest part. I work at EFT Sports Performance up here in Chicago. Johnny Knox and Devin Hester work out here and I’ve had great guys to train with as well as Raiders receiver Eddie McGee. He trained with me last year for our Pro Day and before the Draft.
We’re in there every day and when we work on skills training we work on exploding out of that two-point, wide receiver stance. We work on dropping our hips and making our cuts and try to make every route look the same – at the beginning and no matter where you’re going. Being able to drop my hips, get my head around, and locate the ball, are all things I have been working on.
It’s not something that I struggled with before but it is definitely something that can help separate me from other people, especially in this organization.
Q: Marvin Jones of Cal put it well when I talked with him this year, he said that the thing about playing receiver is that the more you improve at the position the more you realize that the smallest details really matter. Let’s talk about the details that go into that initial explosion off the line. Is there anything you can share about what you’re doing to generate that burst?
A: There are a lot of things I’m doing this offseason that I’ve never done before – as far as skills for running backs and receivers. For receiver skills I’m doing banded starts. I have three big weight training bands tied together. One is around my waist and another is around my trainer’s waist behind me. I’ll do five-yard sprints as if I’m exploding off the line. The resistance helps me build my explosion.
I’ll set up cone drills and cutting drills – cutting back left and right and back and forth. We’ll do that with the band on it so I have resistance while making these cuts, which helps my explosion. I’ve also run routes with these bands. I ran hitches and as soon as I catch the ball the resistance tightens up and I have to turn and run with it.
That’s the kind of explosive stuff I’ve been working on this whole offseason.
Q: One thing that was really instructive was watching Michael Irvin do a segment on television with A.J. Green and Greg Little on how to make hard breaks and the importance of that plant leg. He mentioned that a lot of younger receivers are reticent to plant as hard on that front leg as they should because they don’t have the confidence that they’re leg will hold up to that hard type of movement despite the fact that it will.
I would think as a running back you would have that confidence because you are used to making hard, lateral cuts. However does what Irvin shared with Green and Little ring true to you?
A: Definitely. Those lateral cuts are what make running backs. That’s always a focus. We talk about not “pitter-pattering,” put your foot in the ground and make the cut. I’ve heard coaches talk about that at every level I’ve played. It’s another thing I continue to work on this offseason – making sure I’m making that plant and one-step cut as fast as I can.
When you start taking multiple steps you’re slowing down and giving that defender more time to react to what you’re doing. Its very important to be able to put your foot in the ground, be able to pick your other foot up and have the hips to be able to open and up and make that sharp enough cut that you need to.
Q: SmartFootball.com’s Chris Brown brought up a great point that there are a couple of different views in the football community about breaks. There are coaches that teach the speed cut for certain route situations as opposed to the hard break. What are you learning about using a speed cut versus a hard break?
A: Working at receiver we use speed cuts a lot on routes that break flat – say an out route or a dig. You don’t want the DB to be able to slow down with you and then react. You take your three steps, your five steps and you plant and drift towards the QB to shield the defender. We use those a lot in those kinds of routes. I don’t use those a lot when running with the ball, but those are the kinds of things you want to do as a receiver.
Now when you’re running hitches and comebacks that’s when you want to drop your hips and make that turn because the angle of the break is much sharper than an outward- or inward-breaking route. A lot of times with these routes you have to come right back down your stem – breaking right back where you just came from – and dropping your hips is the fastest way to get out of those turns.
I’ve also learned that there’s ways to make those speed cuts and drop your hips at the same time because when you’re making those speed cuts you have to get your head around and the fastest way to get your head around is to drop your butt and get your butt through. I’ve been practicing those speed cuts all the time. We’ll set up four cones in a box and I’ll have my back to the quarterback and I’ll do karaoke up fiver yards to get to the next cone and I’ll make that speed cut while dropping my hips and turn all the way around to make that play.
That’s not a realistic play because you wouldn’t be facing one direction and then have to turn the complete opposite direction on the same play, but…
Q: It’s kind of like over-preparing to get good at a certain skill.
Q: Is there anything unique to the passing game that differs as a running back as opposed to being split out as a receiver? Are you looking at the defense differently?
A: When lining up at running back in the passing game it’s almost like a step down from playing quarterback. You have a lot of responsibilities – not as much as a quarterback, obviously – I have to make sure none of the corners or linebackers are blitzing, I might have to help out either one of the tackles with their pass rush assignment, and then I have to get out into my routes. There’s a lot of information that I have to process quickly as a running back that pertains to the whole field. I’m not just watching one side of the field, but everything.
One thing that I have learned over the years is that the safeties will tell you the truth. Other defenders may lie, corners will line up wrong, but safeties are gonna tell you the truth and when the ball is snapped more than likely they are going to be in a position to cover up for a blitz or something like that. That’s why as a running back there’s a lot of information I have to account for before getting into my routes.
Q: Does that make Troy Polamalu a good liar?
A: Yeah. Definitely – a great liar.
Q: You mentioned to me that you’ve been studying Ray Rice’s game and that Coach Tomlin would like to see you add weight without losing your speed so you could potentially fill that kind of role in Pittsburgh. If possible, could we do a game break down of Ray Rice together like we did with a game of yours last year?
A: Yeah, just let me know when.
[Stay tuned for that Ray Rice game study in the next 4-6 weeks.]
More stories about Spann at the RSP blog:
- New York Times Fifth Down Blog Q&A w/Chad Spann
- Behind the Blue Curtain: A Glimpse at Colts Training Camp
- Behind the Blue Curtain Part II
- Behind the Blue Curtain Part III: Making the Cut the Hard Way
- Stiff Arms and Green Dogs: Grinding Tape with Chad Spann
- Grinding Tape Part III
- Grinding Tape Part II
- Grinding Tape Part I
- Chad Spann: Lessons and Work Ahead