By Nick Whalen
Editor’s Note: Whalen submitted this piece Sunday morning prior to Martin’s 251-yard, 4-touchdown rout of the Raiders defense. Martin did not leave big-play opportunities on the field.
Due to the injury concerns, most high profile RB’s come into the NFL as underclassmen. So despite being a senior, Doug Martin was a running back prospect I was very high on last winter. Martin has a physical tools and a complete game: thick build, quick, agile, powerful, good vision, and solid hands.
Because Tampa Bay selected him in the first round and head coach Greg Schiano was the coach responsible for recruiting Ray Rice at Rutgers a back with similar skills, expectations were high for Martin entering the 2012 NFL season . I decided to watch every touch of Martin’s NFL career to see how he’s doing. Granted, hindsight is 20/20 and no player always makes perfect decisions. The intent of this article is to first show where and why he was struggling and then how he has progressed into a successful NFL RB.
Martin’s Initial Learning Curve
The first four games in Martin’s NFL career were somewhat of a disappointment and some raised concerns about him. After 79 touches, he had only on touchdown and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. None of the four defenses he faced were in the top 10 for rushing yardage allowed or rushing yards per attempt.
Martin averaged over 4.4 yards per carry during all four seasons of his college career at Boise State, which made his low yards-per-carry statistic a peculiar situation. If I could provide one consistent criticism it would be patience. As Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress stated about fellow rookie runner Trent Richardson entering the Ravens game, many young runners are in a hurry when carrying the football and fail to let plays develop because they are trying to hard to make something happen when they actually can do more by doing less.
Here are multiple plays of Martin where he doesn’t illustrate enough patience and leaves hidden yardage on the field.
Second-and-10 at the 12 yard line vs. Dallas
Dallas jumps offside, which makes this a free play for Tampa Bay. The offense runs a power play with the left guard pulling to block the Cowboys’ inside linebacker. Martin gains 7 yards by hitting this play inside. However, Martin misses this cutback (in black) because he finds a crease inside (in blue) and hits that before allowing the play to develop.
This end zone angle from a couple of frames earlier during the play reveals much more to Martin’s decision-making flaw. No.62 is losing his leverage to the inside and the safety (in yellow) is unaccounted for and flowing free from the right side. Yet on the backside of the play, Martin has two receivers in position to help him get into the end zone. The general rule for running backs is to read the helmets of the linemen and flow to the shoulder opposite the defender’s helmet. If Martin is reading the helmet of the defender he makes the cutback towards the receivers to No.62’s outside shoulder. Of course, this is a quick play and even the best runners miss these opportunities. At this stage of the rookie’s learning curve, Martin was missing this a little too often.
Several frames later, No.62 gets beat inside and that safety closes down the running lane. It forces Martin to lower his head and use his power to gain yardage. Looking backside once again, the cutback lane is there and the two receivers are blocking the only second-level defenders in the area. The end result is a seven-yard gain, but with a little more patience from Martin he has a walk-in touchdown.
Second-and-5 from the 7 yard line vs. Dallas.
This is the very next play for Tampa Bay and Martin makes an immediate cutback after the exchange with the quarterback. He rushes the cutback (in blue) and the defenders react immediately. The defender in the yellow circle is meeting the blocker based on Martin’s cut. If Martin would have pressed the hole (in black), the cutback would’ve been less dramatic and he could get downhill faster.
The defender that read the cutback (in yellow) has now defeated his block and approaches Martin. The alley player (in orange) has now squeezed the once promising cutback lane, which forces a minimal gain for the runner. This angle further demonstrates if Martin would have pressed the hole towards the area in black before attempting the cutback to the red area it would led to a run with only the safety between him and the end zone. Martin earns four yards, but as you’re beginning to see, four- and seven-yard carries may move the chains but the expectation for these well-blocked plays was much more. Martin left potential touchdowns on the field.
The very next play, Martin gets the ball near the goal line and cuts too quickly into the hole.
The ideal scenario would be Martin pressing a gap or two (in black) away from the hole to allow the defenders to flow over the top. On this play, I highlighted in yellow the unblocked defender that would flow if Martin had pressed the hole correctly and waited for the cutback. Instead Martin goes straight for the cutback in blue, which is premature due to his depth of seven yards from the end zone.
This angle illustrates why Martin’s cut was ineffective. The defender in yellow didn’t flow very far and Martin is cutting to get to the end zone from six yards away. Two frames later the same defender in yellow is meeting Martin four yards deep in the hole and Doug has nowhere else to turn.
In a backwards way this decision might have worked for Martin if he had chosen this hole initially and then cut to the right (black). The point is that running backs get huge gains when they allow aggressive defenses to flow in one direction and then cut back and Martin could have been productive with a press and cut in either direction. Instead Martin immediate tries to cut back and is lack of of patience results in no gain.
Martin makes a poor choice on this screen play. After catching the pass, he cuts inside of his blockers to the middle of the field (blue). Players should rarely cut to the middle of the field on a screen pass. Reading the initial block is necessary and the desired route for Martin (in black) would take him to the outside with more room to operate.
Multiple frames later, Martin’s poor decision becomes clearer. Surrounded by multiple defenders, Martin’s gain is minimal compared to the 20 yards he should have earned (at least) if he chose the desired path (in black) and have more positive options. One would be to make the defender (in yellow) miss or benefit from his extra blocker to help him get into a crease. Instead he gains just nine yards because of his urgency to make something happen rather than allow the play to develop with just a touch more patience.
Facing an Unblocked Defender
I won’t spend much time on this play because it’s simple. Life (black) or death (blue). The unblocked defender is coming off the edge and Martin decides to fit it inside instead of running to daylight.
The end result is a two-yard gain.
Examples of Martin’s Progress
During the last three games prior to the Raiders match up, Martin has generated a significant increase in production. His 58 attempts for 296 yards with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average with 2 touchdowns and 8 receptions for 207 yards and 1 touchdown is a massive improvement. Let’s explore his recent positives.
A few frames into this stretch play, Martin has a cutback lane (in blue).
This time he’s patient and doesn’t go right away to the hole. He takes the mature RB route to press the hole (in black) to set up the defense. The defender (in yellow) is responsible for the quarterback Josh Freeman.
Below is a different angle that gives the play more perspective.
It only takes a couple of steps from Martin to make the defense over pursue and leave a nice cutback lane to the left. This makes for a one-on-one match-up with an unblocked defender for Martin and earns him a lot of green grass.
From this angle, it’s easy to see the wall formed from the backside offensive linemen and why the cutback was a good decision. Martin (yellow) only needs to make the defender (brown) miss for a big play. The result of the play is a six-yard gain, but it shows the patience necessary to succeed at the NFL level.
Interesting how a longer run can be considered a more inefficient play than a shorter one, but the context of the blocking scheme, the defense, and the players’ decisions is vital.
Draw Play vs. Minnesota
This is a few seconds into a draw play against one of the better run-stopping defenses in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings.
Martin has many options and chooses to cut to his right (black arrow), which leaves him one on one with a defender (yellow).
A second later you can see the defender (yellow) closing on the ball and Martin (red) cutting behind his blocker to find a better path. In past weeks, Doug Martin would have just lowered his shoulder and earned a four-yard gain. But he’s evolving into a runner who is learning when to lower the pads and take what’s ahead of him and when he should be more creative and patient. Running the football is a true balancing act when it comes to decision-making, especially as the speed, knowledge, and athleticism of the opposition is a notch higher than the runner’s previous level of competition.
Two frames later, Martin is one on one with a defender (yellow) in the hole. Notice the pursuit over the top of the defender (brown), this is why pressing the hole on this play is important.
Martin thinks better of the hole because of the defender over top and continues to cut behind his blockers. Martin changes direction all the way left and the defender over top (brown) is now out of position on the cutback. Harrison Smith (yellow) is coming downhill too hard at the point of attack and Doug Martin makes him pay for it.
I apologize for the perspective of the shot above, but it’s the only one to show the pursuit angles of the defense. The defender over the top (brown) is out of position and now trailing Martin (black) who is taking an angle to the sideline. Harrison Smith (yellow) takes his downhill angle too fast and now has to adjust his path in hopes of catching Martin. This play was likely a four-yard gain before the cutback, but Martin transforms it into a 41-yard gain down the sideline. He wasn’t too urgent with his decision-making. Instead the rookie keeps his head up, doesn’t over react, and makes the defense pay for being aggressive. That’s the balance act of running the football that separates NFL-caliber talents for NFL starters.
This is a few seconds into a screen pass where once again he cuts to the middle of the field, but this time it’s a good decision. Doug Martin makes the correct choice by reading his initial block (yellow). The intriguing part is what happens later in this play.
As Martin uses his power to break through two arm tackles, he keeps his eyes down field. His lineman should take care of blocking the safety in orange, but the other safety in blue is coming into play. Martin clearly has his eyes on him and cuts to stay close to his blocker. This is impressive in many ways: difficult to focus down field while breaking two tackles, anticipating the angle of the safety, and the patience to hug the blocker to gain the maximum amount of yards.
From this angle you can see that the other safety (blue) is going to be just a little bit too far away to tackle Martin on this play. Had Martin not hugged this block and anticipated the angle, I don’t think this play goes for a 64-yard touchdown. Good blocking by the offense, but great play by Doug Martin. It’s a subtle adjustment, but the ability to read and react to the play with just a nuance of patience makes all the difference.
Stretch Play with ISO Component vs. Unblocked Defender
The offensive linemen are stretch blocking to the left with a lead blocker taking on the linebacker, mixing in a little bit of a ISO to the play. The Vikings linebacker (yellow) does a great job of taking on the lead blocker deep in the backfield and winning at the point of attack.
Having the designed hole blown up by the linebacker, Martin is forced to cut back. With the unblocked defender (yellow) closing on the backside, Martin does try to fit it inside like he did in the last example against the unblocked defender. He remains patient and jump cuts around the garbage in the backfield.
A few frames later, Martin is around the trash and continuing with the play design. What would’ve been a two-yard gain, Martin turns into nine yards.
The progression of Doug Martin has been impressive. Perhaps he’s become more comfortable with Tampa Bay’s schemes. Perhaps he’s learning the speed of the game. Perhaps he’s become a more patient runner. All I know is that his last three weeks isn’t a mirage, just a glimpse of what’s to come.
Nick Whalen is a former high school quarterback with experience as an assistant student coach with Drake University, Carthage College, and Montana State. He also spent two years as an assistant student coach with Western Kentucky. He has been a quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back coach for three different high school teams. Whalen is a writer at Dynasty Rogues. Here’s his RSP Writer’s Team and Q&A. You can also check out his piece “What is Wrong with Jay Cutler?” at the RSP blog. Follow Nick at @_NickWhalen.