One of the challenges involved with player analysis is to be succinct with delivering the goods. As the author of an annual tome, I’m often a spectacular failure in this respect. I will often study a prospect and see a play unfold that does a great job of encapsulating that player’s skills. When I witness these moments, I try to imagine if I would include this play as part of a cut-up of highlights for a draft show at a major network or if I was working for an NFL organization creating cut-ups for a personnel director. That’s the thinking behind The Boiler Room – analysis of what makes a player worth drafting by boiling down as much as I can into a single play. Unlike the No-Huddle Series, The Boiler Room is focused on prospects I expect to be drafted, and often before the fourth round.
[People] don’t like to break a player down, look at his particulars. That involves details. Most people get bored with details. Because in order to look at the details, you have to love what you’re doing, and you have to be highly motivated. I loved playing football. I relished the details.
– Jim Brown
Today’s prospect is Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who is the Cardinals’ all-time leading rusher. He’s a versatile power back and while I’m still refining my stylistic comparison, Leroy Hoard comes to mind. This 1st-and-15 screen pass for a 23-yard touchdown with 0:36 in the third quarter against USC to force a 14-14 tie is a big reason why. It’s also a play I would insert at the top of Taylor’s highlight reel for a personnel director’s viewing because there are a lot of details to mine from this single play.
This screen begins from 3×1 receiver, shotgun formation.
Taylor helps set up this screen to the right flat by approaching the right guard at the line of scrimmage as if he intends to pass protect.
As soon as the edge rusher works inside the tackle, Taylor releases inside the defender and turns to the right flat. Many running backs don’t execute the release with precision, but Taylor’s break is as sharp as a receiver skilled at running a cross in a high-traffic area. Look at Taylor’s position as he crosses the right hash and it’s easy to see he executed a sharp, tight turn to set a position where his blockers can work down field and at the same time executing this tight turn outside the right tackle to create an obstacle between himself and any backside pursuit.
Note Taylor already has his head around before the quarterback is even halfway through his release. One of the more frequent mistakes seen on screen plays is a running back who doesn’t turn his head to the quarterback and get his hands in position to catch the ball as he’s executing his break. This precision and detail is going to be something that endears him to coaches if it translates to his pro career. Odds are likely that it will.
At this point, Taylor approaches this run after the catch with similar concepts a runner uses at the line of scrimmage by pressing a hole and cutting back.
Taylor doesn’t have to work this far to the numbers, but as he turned up field two photos prior, he saw in an instant that pressing the outside and cutting back to the inside accomplishes multiple things. First it gives his right guard room to seal the outside pursuit directly ahead. The left guard at the 15 benefits from this press and cutback because it widens the defender ahead of him and gives the guard an opportunity to seal the outside while the center works to the inside. If Taylor succeeds with this press and cutback, he will create a lane where he just needs to outrun the backside pursuit through a large crease. Once again, this is a sign of a runner who understands how to use his blockers and is processing information quickly to set up a more sophisticated plan of attack.
Taylor’s press comes dangerously close to a point where he could get his legs chopped at the line of scrimmage for a minimal gain, but the runner trusts his feet to get him through trash. The next frame illustrates the kind of balance and footwork that Taylor has to make this play work. The red circles below are Taylor’s feet as he avoids the defender’s tackle attempt.
The balance to avoid the defender he left at the line of scrimmage also means Taylor can set up the blocks ahead with another press and cut back, widening the lane once again and trusting his footwork to get him through.
Check out the position of Taylor’s body as he executes this press outside and prepares for the cutback. His hips are bent so his backside is sticking out enough to provide a low center of gravity that will aid Taylor’s change of direction. The runner’s shoulders are leaning forward and his eyes are up. This is a balanced running form capable of breaking or eluding tackles. I don’t see this form in the open field as often as you’d think.
Compare the photo above with the one below and you’ll understand just how much this knee and hip flexibility and shoulder angle aids his change of direction. The photo above is taken just before Taylor plants his right foot into the turf to change direction to cut inside his left tackle’s block. The photo below is take just two steps later.
Look how tight Taylor is to the left guard. His stride and body position to make this controlled cut is the reason. It’s a sharp change of direction but with enough room and speed to lead almost a yard of space between Taylor and the backside pursuit. A lot of backs either lack the discipline or body control to make this subtle of a move – especially backs 215 pounds and up. I also like how Taylor’s pad level remains low, giving him the chance to cut through a glancing blow if necessary. Running with abandon is fun to watch, but that phrase is more about intensity and aggression. Control is still an important facet of successful ball carrying.
The only recourse the backside pursuit has at this point is to dive for Taylor’s ankles. Before analyzing this screen pass and run at this level of detail, it’s easy to imagine that Taylor nearly gets caught because he lacks speed. After viewing his form and set up of blocks, I think it’s more accurate to conclude that Taylor eliminates this defender’s best angle. Faster backs lacking Taylor’s control would have succumbed to this back side angle a couple of yards earlier.
Taylor runs through the wrap to his ankles, again his stride and low center of gravity generated partially by his stride helps, and he now has another press and cut back scenario ahead. This time he continues inside another step before breaking outside to split the blocks of his tight end and receiver to reach the end zone.
The subtlety of this play highlights the subtlety and attention to detail of Taylor’s game. If I were seeking a running back, I’d want one who understands how to create and eliminate angles as a blocker, receiver, and runner. Taylor can do all three. I think he’s one of the safer bets for a team seeking a contributor.
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