I’d like to believe that last weekend will be the beginning of a long and fruitful career as an NFL starter for Bobby Rainey, but I’m not naive. The one position in the NFL where there is no shortage of talent is running back. There may be teams that lack a good eye for matching running back talent with its roster, but there are backs training at home with the ability to produce as an NFL starter if called upon.
Still, Rainey’s production is worth a look within the context of a season where Indianapolis traded its first round pick for Trent Richardson to pair him with a run scheme that is supposed to be his best match. Richardson has been far less productive than Donald Brown, a back playing well enough that it would be understandable if Colts fans are angry with Brown for taking so long (and costing so much in additional running back talent added to the roster) to finally begin looking like a quality NFL runner.
As fan, I’d remain patient with Richardson. However, the fact that he is not performing to expectation and needs more time to gel with his offensive line is a red flag similar to the one his teammate Brown first earned years prior. At the same time, the Cleveland Browns cut Rainey after giving him 14 carries in 6 weeks.
Two weeks later in Tampa Bay, and Rainey looks like the underrated back that I thought he was when he was prospect at Western Kentucky. Why is Rainey a fit with the Buccaneers but the Ravens and Browns gave up on him?
Especially the Ravens. Rainey’s game is stylistically comparable to Ray Rice – right down to the stamina that comes from being a 212-pound “short, but not small” back.
My contention? There’s a disconnect between the scouts and front office that bring in a player as a potential contributor and the coaching staff who decides whether to use him – if even give him a true shot. The counter argument is that Rainey would have never earned a shot in Tampa Bay if Doug Martin, Michael Smith (preseason), and Mike James hadn’t gotten hurt. The Buccaneers were desperate for a complement to Brian Leonard, saw Rainey flash against Miami, and rode the hot hand once he continued to maximize his chances a week later against Atlanta.
This is true, but ask yourself this question: Do you think Chris Ogbonnaya could have matched Rainey’s output if he was in the Buccaneers’ backfield last Sunday? Ogbonnaya runs hard, but I have never thought the Browns’ current lead back is the same quality player as Rainey.
The Browns disagreed with this notion. Yet, Cleveland and its offensive line – considered more talented from tackle to tackle than the Buccaneers – hasn’t helped Ogbonnaya gain as many yards on the ground in 10 games as Rainey has gained in two with the Buccaneers.
And what about Willis McGahee? The veteran has 275 yards on 106 carries this year. Rainey has 208 yards on 38 carries in six quarters of work.
You don’t think Rainey – an undrafted free agent cut by the Ravens – was too expensive for the Browns, do you? Perhaps McGahee and Ogbonnaya were too expensive to let go. Or more likely, the Browns didn’t know what it had in Rainey, judged him on his height and draft status, and didn’t give him a chance. By the way, Baltimore shouldn’t get away scot-free from criticism; Bernard Pierce has 279 yards on 103 carries and 2 touchdowns for Baltimore this year.
Of course, Rainey’s next six quarters could be bad enough that he’ll be nothing but a blip in the memories of football fans. While he has the NFL’s attention, let’s look at what Rainey has done thus far that is consistent with his performance as a college prospect.
Rainey is adept at both gap and zone plays because of his college offense because he runs with his eyes. Rainey is a patient player whose feet work in conjunction with his eyes. The overall blocking by the Buccaneers line on this play is spotty, but Rainey’s skills make this play worthwhile.
The Buccaneers pull its tackle behind the guard as the rest of the line slants to the left with the hope of two linemen reaching the linebackers to give Rainey a hole. But as Rainey approaches the exchange point with Mike Glennon, the middle of the line is a logjam. Note the Buccaneers’ No.75 who is pushing the Falcons’ tackle who has his helmet positioned at an angle where he’s poised to penetrate the backfield just as Rainey takes the football.
If Rainey continues downhill along the trajectory of the exchange point, he collides with the penetration inside No.75. But the undrafted free agent runner pulls off a stutter move that former NFL offensive lineman Ben Muth suggests that top-10 draft pick Trent Richardson should be using more often.
Rainey doesn’t stop and cut, but he changes his stride just enough to make a slight brake in his pace, allow his teammate to push the penetration to the left, and then continue his course to the hole.
This is a fine display of footwork and agility integrated with what he sees ahead. Even so, there’s another obstacle ahead. Check out the defender coming inside the tight end (No.81) at the line of scrimmage and it’s clear that Tampa has done a good job reaching the second level of the Atlanta defense, but not a good job of opening creases at the first. Fortunately, a good runner makes his offensive line look better than it is and Rainey is used to performing well against major college defenses that outplayed his offensive line.
Rainey makes the decision to work tight to his guard and bend the run outside the oncoming penetration inside the tight end. This is a subtle move but it’s the difference between a two-yard gain and a much more productive run.
When Rainey reaches the line of scrimmage, he delivers a stiff arm to the defender working inside the tight end. Remember, Rainey is three pounds lighter than Frank Gore’s listed weight. He’s short, not small; and this stiff arm is something you’ll begin to realize is a regular part of his arsenal.
Because Rainey has the patience, footwork, agility, and power to clear two obstacles before he crosses the line of scrimmage, he’s now able to benefit from the quality blocking at the second level. By design this is backwards for the ideal ground game. While there have been questions about Doug Martin’s struggles and Mike James’ success, this is the type of play where a one-cut, downhill runner like James wouldn’t be as successful.
Rainey comes from a similar style of running as Martin. Although they both might err on the side of trying too hard to break a big run when the line isn’t playing well, they possess the big-play ability to create space that isn’t there.
Rainey accelerates to the edge and turns the corner on the linebacker for the first down and earning another four yards after crossing the marker.
Here’s a more straight-forward run where the line does its job upfront and Rainey’s job is to win some match-ups in the second and third level of the defense. This is a 1×1 receiver, 21 personnel, I-formation set on 2nd-and-five where the Buccaneers run a zone play with the line slanting left to set up a cutback to right end.
This time around, the Tampa line does a good job sealing the Falcons’ line to the left side.
As with any zone play, Rainey has multiple options. One of them is to follow his lead blocker inside left tackle and as you’ll see in the next two frames, it’s something Rainey is considering as he reaches the exchange point with Glennon.
Once Rainey receives the ball from his quarterback, it becomes apparent to the runner that there’s not much of a gap inside left tackle. However, he does see the Atlanta defense flowing to the left and this makes the cutback a viable option.
Rainey covers another two yards along the same trajectory as his fullback before planting his outside leg and cutting back. As you can see below, there’s a nice seal of the right side by No.69 and No.84.
This is now about burst, quickness, and the line continuing to hold up its end of the bargain.
Rainey works towards the edge, and just like the first play, bends the run tight enough around his seal (No.69) that he has room to address the cornerback working under the wide receiver in the right flat. There are several runs in this game where Rainey does an excellent job bending around lead blocks to set up creases to avoid a defender ahead of him. In fact, Rainey’s first carry in the game is a good example.
This was a run to right end behind a pulling guard and his fullback. As he reaches the flat, Rainey picks up a block by the fullback and makes a concerted effort to bend tight to that block to clear the block from No.76 ahead.
As he bends this run ahead of the fullback’s block, the blocked defender manages to wrap Rainey, who runs through the tackle and gains another nine yards up the sideline for the first down.
Back to this I-formation run with the cutback to right end. Rainey bends his run tight to the edge of his linemen to eliminate as much of the angle of the oncoming defensive back as he can.
This gives Rainey a nice crease up the right hash for the first down and momentum to finish the play strong.
Rainey lowers the pads to split the linebacker and safety. It’s this pad level combined with his low center of gravity that repels the safety’s contact.
The safety slides off Rainey and it’s the linebacker who is forced to wrap and drop the running back two yards later.
One of my favorite runs in this game incorporates his tight-cornering concept in traffic. It happens with 5:06 in the third quarter on a 2nd-and-10 from a 22 personnel I-formation run versus a Falcons defense playing the run with nine defenders in the box.
This is a gap-style play where the left guard pulls across center to the right side but as you’ll see, Atlanta’s defense anticipates the trap and forces Rainey to improvise.
At first, it’s all systems go. The guard pulls across, the fullback approaches the line, and there’s a slight push from the right side of the Buccaneers’ line.
Just after Rainey takes the exchange, you’ll begin to see the left side of the Falcon’s line penetrate across the face of its blockers and create a logjam at the point where the trap block occurs.
Rainey sees the standstill behind the trap block, reads No.91 working across the face of the backside guard, and the runner takes a more creative alternative: He stops, plants, and cuts to the backside tackle. This is a great display of agility, and peripheral vision.
Rainey executes the cut back and from the vantage point of this frame, it seems unlikely that a runner would exploit a hole between the tight end and the left tackle up the left hash. But this is what happens as you’ll see below.
Rainey executes this move with another tight bend around the first linemen and this gives him a shot at getting inside the tight end, who manages to bring the linebacker to one knee.
Rainey makes an even harder lateral cut than the first to exploit this smaller crease and burst up the hash.
Five yards later, Rainey clears the tight end’s block and has his pads down hill and in position to finish this run strong, falling forward and gaining eight yards on a play that could have easily been a loss of two.
Leverage and Balance
It’s not just moves at the line of scrimmage that make Rainey a nice surprise for the Buccaneers. This 2nd-and-10 run should have been foiled in the backfield, but Rainey displays a comfort with physical play that is Ray Rice-like.
The line slants right to begin this run and the defensive tackle over left tackle does a good job crossing the face of the lineman and reaching the backfield.
By the time Rainey takes the exchange, the tackle is making a beeline for the back and it appears there will be an imminent collision 3-4 yards in the backfield.
Rainey is too quick for the tackle, dipping outside the penetration towards his teammates who are sealing the left side of the line to the inside.
As Rainey reaches the line of scrimmage, the defensive end works through the tight end and now has an head-on angle with the runner.
Rainey once again displays the stiff arm and pad level to work past a man much bigger.
The key to a good stiff arm is being the first to make contact and delivering the contact with good leverage – and an angle where there’s a chance to work past it.
Rainey gets the corner, keeps his pads downhill, and gains nearly five yards on a run where two defensive linemen had him dead to rights for a loss.
Notice that I haven’t shown the long touchdown run? It was a well-blocked play at every level with nice decision-making at the second and third level from Rainey. It was fun to watch, but not nearly as impressive an individual effort as some of these shorter runs.
While I believe Rainey can earn a share of a committee with a team over the next 2-3 seasons and become a lead back if an organization gives him a true opportunity to compete for the job, I’m more skeptical of how the NFL works. Rainey is already 26 and it’s only his second season in the NFL. In contrast, Marshawn Lynch is just a year older than Rainey and is already an eight-year veteran. This is another round peg to Rainey’s resume that doesn’t fit the league’s square holes.
Even so, Rainey should be proud of this game. Because even if he never earns an extended opportunity to compete as a starting running back, no NFL fan, player, coach, scout, or front office employee can ever say that Rainey is not an NFL-caliber running back without appearing ignorant. That’s more than most prospects at this position can claim.
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