Former Texas running back Joe Bergeron has size and strength, but these two qualities alone do not make a powerful NFL runner — see Andre Williams
Joe Bergeron is 6-1, 232 pounds with thighs that resemble Earl Campbell’s. The big back scored 25 touchdowns in three years with the Longhorns, earning 1592 career yards from scrimmage and 5.4 yards per touch. He’s a powerful college back, but there is a difference between “college power” and “NFL power.”
As I’ve mentioned over the past 8-10 months, Giants running back Andre Williams isn’t as powerful as his size and strength suggests. Give Williams a downhill start where he can generate 5-7 yards of unfettered momentum and he’ll run through a defensive back or a bad angle from a linebacker.
He’ll even generate a loud collision of pads that gets the broadcast booth excited. And because the television analysts don’t have the luxury to study every play, they’re not always noticing that a back like Williams may elicit a loud pop when he comes down hill on a safety, but with little gained after contact. All too often, the defender succeeds in limiting Williams to minimal yardage after this bombastic confrontation.
It doesn’t mean Williams can’t succeed in the NFL, but he’s not a creative back and his power doesn’t routinely come to the fore unless his offensive line supplies that downhill ramp between the tackles or a wide berth on an edge run. Former Giants runner Ahmad Bradshaw is a much smaller runner, but in tight spaces he’s pound-for-pound a more powerful runner.
The reason is short area explosion. Lack this quality as an NFL runner and it limits the range of situations where the runner can contribute effectively.
If I were asked to supply a highlight tape of Bergeron’s cut-ups to reveal what’s vital for an NFL team to know about the former Longhorn’s game, there are four plays from his years at Texas that are must-see TV. This exercise of distilling the most telling aspects of a player’s game into a minimum number of plays is the hallmark of my Boiler Room Series.
Bergeron, now at Texas A&M-Commerce after the Longhorns dismissed the senior running back from the team, is the type of player that would have excited me when I was a young fan of the game. I always loved watching big runners who were capable of carrying other defenders on their back and tough to knock off their feet with a hit.
I still enjoyed watching Bergeron this weekend when I checked out his 2012 performance against Wyoming. However, there’s a difference between appreciating a player’s game and projecting how much his game translates to the professional level.
The Classic I-Back Bully
This 3rd and 1 with 7:56 in the third quarter is a Wildcat play with Bergeron as the quarterback running a keeper from the shotgun, but the alignment of the runner on this play differs little from an I-formation run. Both formations feature the runner heading down hill with a running start.
Watch enough of Bergeron’s tape and (as I’ll make clearer with the examples below) it’s apparent that the big back falters when he has to choose an alternate crease or he’s not allowed to generate momentum early in his approach to the line of scrimmage. The Texas offensive staff understands this and this Wildcat play provides a structure that is optimal for Bergeron: send a quicker running back across the formation to force the defense to account for an east-west possibility while pulling a guard behind a lead fullback to plow the road for the big fella.
One thing I love about Bergeron is his flexibility for a big runner. Watch this play again and the replay from the end zone angle and Bergeron displays the fluid hips to bend runs through smaller creases or around trash. He shows this flexibility as he works around his trapping guard at the line of scrimmage.
It’s a quality that also aids his balance, which is also NFL-caliber. Note how Bergeron bounces off a hard hit from the safety that lands square to the back’s hip as he clears the hole. Bergeron absorbs the contact and nimbly spins off the collision to the outside and shakes off the hitter while maintaining his footing.
The strength of Bergeron’s thighs and his pads-over-knees gait coming off the contact also allows him to run through the wrap of No.4 and drag a third defender to the 30. Watch this play in a vacuum and No.24 evokes memories of Campbell and Ricky Williams — both runners with monstrous legs and flexible hips.
However, Bergeron needs a strong, unencumbered beginning to his runs because he lacks the short area explosion to shed hits and wraps from good angles. This 1st and 10 with 6:41 in the third quarter is a 21 personnel weak side stacked twin receiver alignment. Wyoming has nine defenders in the box on this pitch to right end with a pulling guard leading Bergeron to the edge.
Wyoming contains the outside edge but there’s enough room at the numbers for Bergeron to get down hill and earn at least 2-3 yards if he can turn the corner. However, the safety (No.5) crashes through the outside shoulder of the fullback (No.3o) and brings down Bergeron with one arm wrapped around the back’s waist.
It’s a fine play by the safety, but a quicker back around the corner makes it more difficult for the defender to get an arm around the ball carrier’s waist, and not exactly for the reasons some may think. The speed factor isn’t important because it creates a more difficult angle for the defender to get his arm around the ball carrier — although that can also be a factor — as much as the speed of the runner makes it difficult to sustain that grasp and lock onto the body.
This is why a smaller back like Bradshaw or Jamaal Charles often runs through these arm tackles on edge plays. Think of it this way: Would you rather try to stop a bullet (Charles/Bradshaw) shot from a gun by reach out to grab it or a bowling ball (Bergeron/Williams) that a five-year-old pushed from between his legs down an alley?
Stick that bowling ball into a cannon and fire it (a down hill run from an I-formation with quality ramp-up space) and the bullet is more appealing. But more often than not, NFL defenses don’t afford offenses this kind of luxury. This is the reason why Andre Williams, Trent Richardson, and Steven Jackson are not earning feature back touches in their offenses.
The way the blocking unfolds on this 23 personnel I-formation set at the six of Wyoming should result in at least a gain of 4-5 yards, but Bergeron only gains 2 on the play. The line blocks inside zone and Bergeron does a fine job of pressing towards the right guard and then bending the run to the left edge.
But there’s no explosion from the bend outside and down hill, and it shows when Bergeron encounters the cornerback head-on at the five. In fact, it’s not even a true head-on collision because the corner has worked from the left flat to hit the runner’s outside shoulder.
The corner wouldn’t have stopped Bergeron’s progress alone, but it definitely slowed the runner and allowed the safety’s head-on collision to knock the runner backwards. A running back needs to have some explosion from his down hill change of direction and Bergeron is a plodding runner in this situation.
If he displayed burst in this situation, he would have at least had a stalemate with the safety after tearing through the cornerback. This would have allowed the Texas offensive line to reach Bergeron and help push the runner forward. The smaller Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska or Duke Johnson from Miami have the acceleration to initiate this kind of collision I’m talking about.
If Bergeron cannot generate this kind of explosion, he’ll have difficulty converting short-yardage opportunities in the NFL. At best, he’ll be a stronger version of LenDale White — a good example of an NFL plodder. Lions running back George Winn was a slow runner in the 40, but he has enough short-area explosion and size-strength to be an effective NFL back.
When The Runway Is Long Enough
Maybe the best analogy for big backs like Williams and Bergeron is that they’re like those giant bombers the need a long runway to take flight. This I-formation run from the Texas 9 through a huge gap up left guard is made possible because Bergeron gets a seven-yard running start through the line of scrimmage before he has to address any opposition.
As Bergeron exits the hole, the safety commits to a big hit and the runner sidesteps the angle at the 15 and continues up the hash for the first down. Sidestepped the safety at the 15 and got the first down. Freeze the play between the 3:20-3:21 mark and the safety doesn’t explode into the ball carrier. The defender leans towards the target, which tips off Bergeron.
It’s understandable that the defensive back is tentative about exploding into Bergeron’s legs — he might wake up when the game is over. Still, it’s not as much an indication of Bergeron’s agility as it is the safety’s reticence to get crushed by the B-24 Bomber taxing down the right hash.
Now at full speed, Bergeron is unable to distance himself from the corner, but his mass and steady rate of movement makes his stiff-arm of the defender seem like the cannon of a tank striking a sapling and then grinding it to pulp under its wheels, leaving nothing more than kindling in its wake.
Even when the linebacker catches Bergeron from behind at the 50, the defender needs another 13 yards to bring the big man down. The NFL will rarely allow a runner with Bergeron’s plodding gait to have this kind of running start through a crease. When it does happen, pro safeties are more skilled at addressing the situation.
If Bergeron can improve his short-area explosion, he’ll be an intriguing late-round option if his off-field activities aren’t as troublesome as a dismissal from a major college program suggests. If not, Bergeron could provide reasonable work as a short-yardage or early down back in an offense that will feature with down hill runs between the tackles.
Regardless of Bergeron’s NFL prospects, keep in mind these points about big backs as you watch them tear through college defenses and it should appropriately temper your expectations.
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.