Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio examines the pass protection of running back Darwin Thompson, a compelling rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs.
If you’re a regular at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, you’ve known about Darwin Thompson as far back as last February. A short running back whose game resembles Brian Westbrook or Dion Lewis “with thump,” Thompson has earned consideration as an early-season contributor thanks to his steady performances throughout the spring and summer.
As long as a rookie runner isn’t transitioning to a new blocking scheme—or he’s sound enough with the blocking schemes he ran in the college game that the elevated skills of NFL defenses don’t expose his conceptual and technical weaknesses—the most important thing I want to see is how well he handles pass protection assignments. A 5’8″, 201-pound runner, Thompson’s dimensions don’t reflect his strength.
As described in the 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication, Thompson’s former high school coach Dub Maddox says that Thompson has the strength to become an Olympic Powerlifter. Here’s Thompson front squatting 515 pounds for 7 reps.
515 for 7.. video misses the first rep pic.twitter.com/fYhiWgUdFR
— DARWIN THOMPSON (@DTRAINN5) February 9, 2017
Thompson’s strength translates to the playing field. He bounces off hits and runs through wraps well. He will never be a classic power runner but he is a powerful runner who will combine his traits in ways to create yardage after contact.
One of those ways is leveraging his low center of gravity and this also applies to his pass protection. Watch this blitz pickup of the Steelers’ linebacker from the I-formation. At 5-8, Thompson uses what I would call “his height advantage” to get lower than the linebacker and still maintain a balanced position.
Yes, there are times in athletic endeavors where being shorter can be advantageous. When working against an oncoming opponent and hoping to knock him down, the lower you can get and drive through contact from a position of power, the better.
Few football players will get as low as Thompson and still be able to maintain a balanced position to generate strength. This is what Thompson does as he works across the hips and thighs of the linebacker and implodes the defender upon contact.
RB Darwin Thompson folds Steelers Lb blitz like cheap card table.
This is what I am here for…I know he can run. pic.twitter.com/b7Jv390Z6N
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) August 18, 2019
Thompson is at a physical disadvantage against a defensive tackle in the stand-up phase of pass protection. Still, it’s important that a runner can help his linemen or he’s useless in an important part of offensive football.
Thompson is not only willing to get chest-to-chest with a defender, but he also knows how to use his height to his advantage when landing a blow to slow the opponent’s path.
More pass pro from Darwin Thompson: Helping his guard on the DT. pic.twitter.com/Wc6GWPBogW
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) August 18, 2019
It’s not the ideal technique, but Thompson closes the gap, works across the chest of the defender and drops his right shoulder into the chest of the tackle while exploding upward through the contact. At first, I worried about Thompson dropping his head into contact until seeing that he’s dropping his head and pads and working across the body rather than directly into the body. It’s like a high cut block in terms of the attack with the upper body.
It’s an inventive solution for a player dealing with a size mismatch and it gets the job done.
Here’s a cut block from the week before. Once again, watch how Thompson gets low but always finishes across the frame of the defender and making contact, upward through the body of his opponent. It’s a consistent theme with all three blocks.
It is never too late to tweet Darwin Thompson obliterating a 290-pound defensive end in his first NFL game. pic.twitter.com/N98uwzalos
— Kali Mahomes (@ClayWendler) August 11, 2019
This is the perfect angle of approach and once again, notice that when Thompson upends a defender, the defender has not shot of propelling himself forward through the contact. The angle of approach sets up where the defender will go after contact and many runners lacking pass protection skills give opponents second chances because they don’t take the correct approach.
Thompson will see playing time this year as long as he can continue playing mistake-free football and be an asset on passing downs. When you’re studying running backs in this phase of the game, it’s important to consider these factors:
- Can they take the correct angle of approach?
- Do they get low and work across the body of the defender as cut blockers?
- Do they shoot through the body of the opponent when they make contact? Think of the strike as punching through the target.
- Do they strike with an upward trajectory to slow the momentum of an opponent in stand-up?
- Are they striking from a position of power and leverage?
- When they are at a physical disadvantage, can they create solutions that generate leverage, power, and maintain position on the opponent?
These are important questions that go well beyond, ‘are they willing?’
And they should. Otherwise, you’re giving credit to willing but incompetent pass protectors.
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