In this week’s RSP Running Back Room, J. Moyer compares the footwork efficiency and scheme awareness of four young NFL running backs—Dalvin Cook, David Montgomery, Peyton Barber, and Kalen Ballage.
Follow J on Twitter @JMoyerFB and his YouTube channel, Skill Films.
The Importance of Footwork Efficiency
Explosive runs are rare in the NFL. Defensive schemes are designed to take away run gaps. Offenses devote more time to developing the passing game. And most importantly, defenders in the NFL are highly skilled and extremely fast.
Typically, runners who consistently create long runs come in one of two archetypes. First, you have the generational athletes, like Barry Sanders and Saquon Barkley. These players eschew efficient paths of attack and run with a spectacular style built on frequent explosive jump cuts. The agility, acceleration and top-end speed are out of this world, and good enough to win, even against the best defenders.
Needless to say, these athletes are exceedingly rare.
The second archetype is not so reliant on unparalleled athletic talent. It is the brutally efficient back. Think of players like Jamaal Charles, who make their money with refined cognitive and physical technique. The hallmark traits of these backs are rapid processing, elite anticipation and a linear, attacking run style. Dalvin Cook falls squarely into this category, as I illustrate in this breakdown of his 75-yard touchdown run from week 2.
When players do not possess otherworldly athletic gifts, attacking efficiently is the only way to consistently defeat pursuit defenders. Runners who lack truly elite burst and acceleration, yet employ inefficient footwork, limit their potential to pick up chunk yardage. David Montgomery possesses remarkable balance and agility but is a slow linear accelerator who happens to rely on explosive yet inefficient lateral jump cuts, as seen on this run from week 2.
Until Montgomery can improve his anticipation and footwork efficiency, expect gains to be capped and yardage left on the field. Meanwhile, count on more big runs from Cook.
Scheme Awareness and the Runner-Offensive Line Ecosystem
Many of the misconceptions concerning whether running backs matter are caused by the inherent difficulty in separating the play of the back from his offensive line. The line and the runner are an ecosystem, both relying on the other to function. The foundation of this ecosystem is the scheme. Blockers must know where to move their defenders, and the back must hold up his end of the bargain by reading his keys, understanding leverage, and manipulating defenders to make blocks easier. In this way, running backs have a profound role in maximizing the yardage available on any given play.
Here, Peyton Barber and Kalen Ballage provide an example and counter-example of scheme execution while operating the same play during their Week 2 contests.
Barber, a below-average athlete who plays with refined cognitive and conceptual skill, consistently gains yardage more effectively than Ballage, an all-world athlete who has gained 2 or fewer yards on 22 of his 45 NFL carries. Scheme discipline is a big reason ‘why’.
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