The Boiler Room: Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah — The Difficulty of Judging Football Speed

Nebraska runner Ameer Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown vs. Illinois offers a sound example of the difficulties of judging speed without a stopwatch, but why it's still as important as the 40-time. Photo by MGoBlog.
Nebraska runner Ameer Abdullah’s 43-yard touchdown vs. Illinois offers a sound example of the difficulties of judging speed without a stopwatch, but why it’s still as important as the 40-time. Photo by MGoBlog.

A common refrain among experienced coaches, scouts, and personnel managers is that football players rarely run untouched in a straight line for 40 yards. I’m not knocking the 40-yard dash as a combine activity — only attempting to place a proper frame around the evaluation tool when the media and fans magnify its importance.

Whether using a stopwatch for game film, judging football speed can be a difficult endeavor. Beyond the likes of Deion Sanders, Randy Moss, Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Chris Johnson, and Dri Archer, most football players  lack blazing speed by NFL standards. Some players don’t have great speed beyond a shorter area of the field, but the precision of their technique for their position combined with a fast mind for processing decisions makes them faster than their peers who don’t possess the same conceptual and technical acumen for the game.

When it comes to evaluating speed on the field, sometimes fans and analysts pass judgment on a player without examining the proper context of the play they’re watching.  Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is a good example. I’m studying the Nebraska senior’s game to kick off another season of my Futures column at Football Outsiders (read it here) as well as continue my research for the 2015 RSP.  Although I don’t know how others have judged Abdullah’s speed within the canon of running backs in the 2015 draft class (Abdullah’s speed is not the point of this article), the play I’m sharing today illustrates how people can get speed wrong because they don’t account for context.

The “He Benefits From Good Line Play, Play Design, and Poor Defense”   Analysis

Abdullah’s 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of a 2013 contest against Illinois raises the question: Is Abdullah fast or is it the nature of the play?

This is a an option play from a 20 personnel pistol set. Abdullah flanks the quarterback’s left side and the ball is on the left hash. The Illini defense has 3-3-5 personnel on the field and the majority of defenders creating “the box” of players in the first and second level near the line of scrimmage are shifted more to the right side of the offensive line.

As we watch this play unfold, there’s already a potential debate point about Abduallah’s speed. Although the box is weighted towards the right side (advantage defense and potential point in favor of Abdullah having good speed), the triangle of defenders at the edge of the line all get drawn in by the quarterback rather than at least one of them accounting for the runner. You’ll see this on the replay of the highlight below.

As a result, an analyst might discount the fact that Abdullah exhibits nice timing with his burst to avoid the defender diving for him at the edge of the line of scrimmage.

“The defender would have caught Abdullah if he contained the edge like he was supposed to,” says the hypothetical analyst focused purely on X and O’s strategy and the cause and reaction of football’s inner chess game. This may be true, but does a defender’s technique or lack thereof it change your perception of a ball carrier’s speed?

I think the answer is sometimes. No my friends, there are few, if any, absolutes. I know it’s disquieting, but sometimes the opponents’ lack of technique is more telling about another player’s skills, but it’s all context. On this play, Abdullah is fast enough to avoid the defender. Would he be fast enough to avoid Lance Briggs in this situation? Maybe not. Of course, Briggs–a veteran professional–is more apt to account for the edge as the play dictates. Even so, does it mean Abdullah wouldn’t be capable of timing his burst to bait the Bears linebacker?

We don’t know.

The burst earns Abdullah 10 yards to the sideline. The rest of the play is predicated on a cutback that earns Abdullah another 33 yards.

When watching the cutback, it’s clear that Abdullah sees the location of the secondary defenders and the receivers blocking near the sideline, anticipates his linemen getting down field to seal the outside, and executes a fine jab step and cut back to get to the middle of the field. Whether Abdullah has dangerous speed as a breakaway threat is still a question mark if looking solely at this play.  The blocking down field is excellent, which is another sticking point that some analysts will have when they study run plays.

However what is apparent is stamina. Not counting the 10 yards he gains from the line of scrimmage, Abdullah runs 30 yards to reach the right sideline before his cutback. Then the runner travels almost another 30 yards to the left hash before reaching the end zone. This 43-yard run covers nearly 103 yards of space.

Watch the replay and note the location of cornerback (jersey No.2 ) at the beginning of the play (right flat) who “catches” Abdullah at the end of the play.

One argument is that Abdullah got caught from behind at the end of the play. Despite the fact that the runner scored before he was wrapped and dropped, there can be a nit-picky mentality that Abdullah didn’t show breakaway speed because he was wrapped and tackle.

Another argument is to look at the point where the cornerback’s pursuit of the runner begins.


This is where No.2 spots Abdullah, turns, and gives unimpeded chase. No.2 is actually five yards ahead of Abdullah, which should give him enough room to close early. Further, No.2 was in a back-pedal taking on a blocker for much of the play’s beginning.  One might argue that Abdullah had more momentum at this point than the corner. At the same time, the corner hasn’t been running as hard as Abdullah. It’s also notable that Abdullah has to make a strong change of direction at this point of the run, which slows him down.


Looking at the a second later, the corner and Abdullah are further down field and the end zone-to-end zone gap is only four yards between the corner and ball carrier. Watch the replay again, and you should note that the corner bends his angle inside a little too early and this gives the ball carrier another few yards of room to run unfettered from contact. This is is the difference between a touchdown and a tackle inside the five yard line.

Once again, this pursuit raises questions: Is the corner’s angle bad or did he underestimate the runner’s speed in the open field? What is the corner’s speed?

My take? Abdullah covered nearly twice the amount of space on this play as the corner and still managed to beat the defender’s angle. The Nebraska back may not have blazing speed, but he’s fast enough to do work in an NFL offense.

This answer will not satisfy some fans and draftniks. However, this is only one play of many to watch when it comes to Abdullah’s speed. The film is also only one important layer of analysis.

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.

You can begin placing orders for the 2015 RSP in January. 

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