Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines the footwork and processing of Patriots RB Damien Harris.
What is mental processing for a running back? A simple way of describing it is the connection between the eyes and the feet. If you can see the feet react logically to what the eyes should see on the field then that runner is not only processing the information correctly, but he’s also trained his body to respond to the speed of instinct.
Footwork that appears intuitive fools people into thinking that the running back position is about ‘natural feel.’ There are runners who possess a more natural feel for the position than others and even fewer who may have an intuitive grasp of the intricacies of footwork.
However, footwork is no different a concept than the learned lines that a guitarist might play while soloing. Listen to this guitarist improvise for at least 20-30 seconds.
While improvisation is defined as making something up on the spot, it doesn’t mean the musician or actor or athlete hasn’t spent a painstaking amount of time practicing patterns of movement in various combinations of forms and at a variety of tempos and situations.
Footwork for an athlete is no different than a musician playing over chords at a specific tempo. The musicians above are playing over a minor blues harmony at a high tempo.
Below is Damien Harris playing over the harmony “Power Left against a 4-3 front with eight defenders in the box.”
Just as the guitarist interacts with the drummer to create shapes and textures of sound, the runner’s footwork responds in this way to work in harmony with the shapes that defensive penetration, blockers, and pursuit generate.
Damien Harris delivering strong footwork variation to avoid penetration and capitalize on cutback opportunity. pic.twitter.com/5TWwlzrLET
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) August 18, 2019
Williams’ half-step through the exchange is a simple-looking device but it’s more difficult to execute than it appears. The fact that he can make this adjustment as he’s reading his block, the penetration, and taking the exchange is an underrated skill. His dramatic bend to the right side in the hole is also a nice display of efficient footwork.
The only place where Harris might have been better was the one-on-one he had with the safety in the open field. If Harris maintains an angle to the pylon rather than the goal line, he has a greater chance of gaining that extra yard on the safety.
Instead, he underestimates the angle by a step and is a yard shy of the goal line.
When you’re studying running backs, the best starting point to determine if they’ve skilled is the eyes-feet connection. Most people look at speed, quickness, and agility.
If these athletic backs don’t have the eyes-feet connection for processing then they’re guys who simply meet the ground faster than their peers when facing to competition. Start with the technical and conceptual and work your way out to the physical.
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