Slippery: Falcons RB Devonta Freeman


Freemancover

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman has “Slippery Power.” Find out what this means and why “Phone Booth Quicks” are necessary. 

Ahmad Bradshaw is one of my favorite running backs of the past 10 years. It has nothing to do with his physical talent — there are dozens of runners with significantly better physiques and athleticism to carry a football. Bradshaw is a good physical talent with near-excellent integration of what he sees and what he can execute.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about this integration of eyes-mind-feet and used Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy as examples. These two studs are great physical talents with excellent integration of mental-physical skills. Charles and McCoy are breathtaking to watch, but there’s a part of me that enjoys watching Bradshaw more.

Charles and McCoy make moves that look like they have a cheat code. Bradshaw often looks a runner facing defenders that they have the cheat code, but he somehow finds a way to earn positive yards.   I identify with fighting the good fight and Bradshaw’s underdog-made-good career makes him a favorite of mine. Because of his feel for the game, I also believe a healthier Bradshaw would have earned more acclaim despite his smaller than average build for a lead back.

It’s why it got my attention when I heard somewhere that the Falcons thought Devonta Freeman’s player comp was Bradshaw. It turned out that comp might have been one from my colleague Josh Norris at Rotoworld, but it’s still one worth exploring. My comp for Freeman was a mix of Andre Ellington and Tyrell Sutton.

When I think about Ellington and Sutton’s agility, their receiving skills, Ellington’s quickness, and Sutton’s rugged intensity for his size, I think that’s a more detailed description of a player like Bradshaw. Today’s post won’t be a treatise on all the ways that Freeman shares a similar style to Bradshaw, but there are two plays from the Florida State-Clemson contest in 2013 that reminds me of the veteran change of pace back ending his career with the Colts.

 

Slippery Power

This is a phrase I often used to describe Bradshaw’s running style. I define Slippery Power as a combination of quickness, agility, knowledge of angles, and intensity that breaks tackles or extends plays after contact. This one-yard gain on 1st and 10 with 14:28 in the first quarter is a good example.

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The Seminoles use a 3×1 receiver alignment, but the inside slot receiver is a fullback/H-back that shifts to the wing against Clemson’s 4-3 look with both safeties high. The shift and personnel grouping allows FSU to adjust in a manner where the 10 personnel set has more of a 20 personnel or 11 personnel feel once the quarterback reads the location of the safeties.

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Much like all the writing we saw in recent years devoted to Bill Belichick’s defense that is both a 4-3/3-4 depending on the play, personnel, and alignments, offensive formations engage in the same blending of alignments as convenient to the play. Fullbacks may be a dying breed in the NFL, but I prefer to say that many of them have evolved into H-Backs.

Florida State runs a stretch play (an outside zone run. opposite the tight trips/twins-with-a-wingback set. The wingback leads Freeman to the right side as the runner presses the play towards the right tackle. Clemson defends the stretch play rather well because three of the linemen get penetration up field and with their helmets to the outside shoulders of the FSU offensive line. While the right guard has a good bead on the outside linebacker in the right flat, the middle linebacker is unblocked and has the makings of a strong crease that he can shoot through to the backfield and stop Freeman cold.

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I doubt Freeman — or 99 percent of the runners who’ve ever played–could tell you immediately after the play that he saw four defenders with a position advantage as he took the exchange in this photo above. However, the flash of vision he did get was the position of the orange helmets flowing to the right in combination with a lack of open space where the play is primarily designed to lead him.

Freeman’s knowledge of this play helps him determine that this configuration of the field ahead should equate to open field on the backside. The runner makes a quick decision and a strong cut within a step of receiving the exchange.

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This is the kind of timing, footwork, and read-reaction you want to see from a runner. Even so, the backside hole is not as open as it appears from the angle bove. The reason is the backside linebacker (look at the red arrow and his helmet is just below it in the preceding photo) who is maintaining enough backside discipline to slide behind the backside blockers and meet Freeman behind the line of scrimmage.

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Freeman reads the angle of the linebacker just fast enough that he maintains a path to the defender’s inside shoulder rather than facing the linebacker square. Freeman knows that he will have to try to squeeze between his backside blocker and the defender. The only other option is a wild, McCoy-like bounce outside and very few runners in football have this kind of ability.

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Freeman doesn’t have the time to attack the defender the way we saw from Jamaal Charles’ run against Oklahoma where he lowers the pads and spins off the linebacker to turn an eight-yard gain into a breakaway touchdown. However, Freeman’s approach is similar. The photo below shows Freeman getting into as much of a crouch he can in the given time frame and “making himself small.” It’s not an attack of the defender, the act of narrowing his surface area sets up a more effective spin to the inside.

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This smaller surface area works in Freeman’s favor, because the linebacker misses his angle on the runner. The reason is the confidence the linebacker had in his downhill angle and Freeman’s slight adjustment before the contact to take his angle to the inside shoulder.

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By the time the linebacker realizes that his angle wasn’t good enough,  he’s reaching for air. Freeman finishes the run with good pad level, slipping under two defenders to turn this potential loss of three into a gain of a yard. Nothing exciting in the box score, but there’s more flexibility for play-calling a 2nd and nine versus a 2nd and 12. Here’s the play in its entirety:

Phone Booth Quicks

I always loved this phrase. I often imagine Cadillac Williams at Auburn when I imagine it. In fact, Williams is the perfect example of this descriptive phrase, because it was Williams that showed me “Phone Booth Quicks” is also a prerequisite for Slipper Power. His 24-personnel I-formation run off left tackle and through two defenders for a touchdown is a great example.

The real-time portion of the play looks as if Freeman slid off the wrap of the lineman in the back field at the entrance of the hole and then works to the edge. It could easily look like product of poor tackling.

But watch the replay shot from the opposite angle and you’ll see Freeman attack the defender with a stiff arm. Although the runner has to use his outside arm and work across his body to deliver the stiff arm, the fact that Freeman is the aggressor makes all the difference with this collision.

The stiff arm wasn’t a strong one, but it was well-placed, and the first contact between Freeman and the defender. This is another example why a major factor behind professional-caliber football is preparation, quick-thinking, and anticipation. Ahmad Bradshaw has made a living turning peril into production despite a good, but not great physical instrument that has its share of dents and dings. Freeman is healthier and flashes the skills to become an asset in the pro-style offense that calls for its lead back to win as a cutback runner and receiver rather than a banger.

If Freeman can demonstrate the same skill to avoid direct hits on routinely in the NFL, he could have a productive 3-5 years as the figurehead of Altanta’s ground game after Steven Jackson’s days come to an end.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

 

Categories: 2014 NFL Draft, Players, Reads Listens Views, Running BackTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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