RSP contributor J. Moyer explores “the Chad O’Shea Effect” on Miami Dolphins running backs Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage in 2019.
Coaching changes can have a profound impact on the production profiles of NFL offenses. Never was this more apparent than when Sean McVay took over the Rams in 2016.
Building his offense around a wide zone run scheme, McVay transformed Todd Gurley from a 278-carry, 885-yard season under Jeff Fisher that had analysts wondering if Gurley was a bust, to a focal point of a Rams offense that complemented Gurley’s strengths and led the runner to first-team All-Pro honors.
As we head into the 2019 season, I am taking a deep dive into NFL backfields with intriguing coaching changes. We began last week with David Johnson. We continue the series with Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage.
Murky in Miami: Kenyan Drake, Kalen Ballage and the Patriot Way
Former Patriots’ lifer Brian Flores moved on from his de facto defensive coordinator role in New England to replace Adam Gase as the Dolphins’ head coach. He brings former Patriot wide receiver coach and red zone coordinator Chad O’Shea with him to call offensive plays. O’Shea is tasked with constructing a functional offense around wholly unproven skill players – Josh Rosen to DeVante Parker isn’t a pitch-and-catch combo exactly keeping defensive coordinators up at night.
Even more concerning is the offensive line. The unit never recovered after losing Josh Sitton in 2018, and there are no major additions for 2019’s unit. Nevertheless, the Miami backfield offers an intriguing battle for the lead role in a gap-based run-heavy scheme between two exciting and polarizing talents in Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage.
Let’s get this out of the way: Kenyan Drake is a superior talent to Kalen Ballage, and it is not particularly close. Tantalizing due to his impressive size/speed numbers (226 lbs, 4.46 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine), Ballage struggles mightily to integrate scheme, vision, and footwork.
While working inside, Ballage often takes long, bounding strides that get him off-balance and inhibit his ability to react and adjust when the post-snap picture changes. As a result, Ballage is often unable to access holes that are standard for most NFL backs
His skill for defeating tacklers is well below average. In my charting, I found he was tackled by the first defender on 43 of his 45 touches last year.
He does not translate his size/speed gifts to power, struggles to keep his balance, and often stops his feet or jumps backward during contact. As a result, he rarely wins collisions and often lands on his back, an awkward position that carries increased injury risk.
While Ballage catches the ball comfortably, he must significantly improve his route running and scheme awareness before he can be trusted as anything more than a check-down option. Conversely, Kenyan Drake shows intuitive ability in the passing game. He runs natural routes, adjusts well to the ball, and catches comfortably even when moving towards the ball with collisions imminent.
He routinely makes the nearest defender miss even when faced with these disadvantageous situations.
As a runner, Drake shares some of Ballage’s difficulties with vision, processing, and footwork while operating within inside run schemes. However, he has improved his footwork discipline over his career.
Here’s a play where Drake demonstrates a lethal controlled jump cut in 2018 that forces penetrating defenders to miss while avoiding overreactions that result in negative plays.
Drake makes his money in space. As seen above, he is extremely agile, with excellent contact balance and an intuitive ability to manipulate collisions in his favor through subtle movements, such as reducing the angle of his shoulder.
Most impressive is his ability to accelerate through dramatic changes in direction and take away tackling angles by the opposition.
Drake’s inability to beat out Frank Gore in 2018 has taken away a bit of his pre-2018 luster. It shouldn’t.
Adam Gase ran an inside zone-heavy run scheme in 2018, and these runs are designed to create a lane in a general area, wherever the defense loses discipline on an individual play. The best runners of this scheme have advanced processing skills, like Gore, who has rapid footwork and cat-like balance.
Tied to this system, Adam Gase forced Drake into a zone-heavy scheme, with 74 percent of his rushes coming on zone concepts in six games I charted. Drake averaged 3.9 yards per carry on these zone runs, as his shortcomings detailed above were not well-suited to the scheme.
Gap concepts are the other major run scheme in the NFL. Gap concepts utilize favorable blocking angles and pulling blockers to create a lane in a specific gap, and are thus much less reliant on vision and footwork.
Drake is the type of runner who fits great in a gap scheme because of his excellent contact balance, explosive acceleration, and ability to win in the open field. In the games I charted, Drake averaged 6.0 yards per carry on his (infrequent) gap runs.
Under Josh McDaniels, Chad O’Shea helped oversee a 2018 New England offense with a diverse array of gap runs. These runs were employed to capitalize on Sony Michel’s strengths as a runner, a hallmark of the New England offense in recent years (deploying players in a manner consistent with their strengths).
Lastly, New England has long been at the forefront of efficient use of running backs in the passing game. As detailed at the RSP site recently, James White functions as a primary receiving threat, running varied routes as much more than a check-down option.
Drake is the most obvious fit to take on this role, given his natural feel in the passing game illustrated above.
Outlook: Expect Drake’s talent to beat out Ballage during training camp, earning a large role both in the run and pass games. The excellent scheme fit offers Drake elite upside if O’Shea is not married to a forced committee.
Follow J Moyer on Twitter @JMoyerFB
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