Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines why Seattle’s powerful running back Chris Carson is so effective in a scheme where he’s often working sidesaddle to Russ Wilson.
Sometimes the most dramatic actions are the quietest. The best performers have mastered the application of these techniques. Running backs are no different.
One of the best settings to delve into this quiet end of a running back’s performance range is with an alignment that I generally dislike seeing paired with powerful and agile runners from pistol or shotgun sets: sidesaddle to the quarterback.
When the defense earns penetration into the backfield during the runner’s exchange with the quarterback, the disruption often eliminates an escape route—a path that the runner would otherwise have if he was working downhill towards the quarterback to the exchange point rather running east-west toward a sideline.
A situation where I don’t mind this kind of running is when the offense has a true rushing threat at quarterback. Baker Mayfield is not one of them, which is why the Browns’ current use of the alignment annoys me.
However, the Seahawks and Russell Wilson are a different story. Even if I dream of Carson running downhill from the 49ers or Patriots I formation whenever I watch him play, Wilson’s legs are enough of a threat that I understand the schematic choice.
This setup requires backs to have excellent agility, which is a skill many fans and coaches misunderstand. When I write or say “agility,” I’ve learned that many people envision dramatic movements like jump cuts, jump stops, spin moves, and elaborate fakes.
It’s the same mentality of music fans who think of eardrum-splitting volume as dramatic. It can be, but not if that’s the only volume used. Whether it’s a musical or athletic performance, drama works best when you also have it paired well with efficiency.
Efficient footwork that creates tight changes of direction and supports rapid reacceleration—if the runner slowed down much at all—is usually far more important than bombastic movement. I’ve shown different applications of this idea with examples from backs like Arian Foster and Chris Johnson. Both backs show the value of a single step over a jump-stop or jump-cut.
However, if you’re going to use the jump-stop or jump-cut, Chris Carson’s work from Sunday’s showdown with the Baltimore Ravens is a great example of light feet from a heavyweight runner. Think of his work as a musician who knows how to play loud and soft.
Note how light-footed Chris Carson is with this jump-stop. Not a lot of time needed to transition from 🛑 to start when looking at knees here.
A lot of backs jump stop in this situation and the body movement is too dramatic to restart efficiently. pic.twitter.com/SqQGF6eLQp
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 21, 2019
While fundamentally important to run on the balls of one’s feet, this is not the differentiating factor between Carson and backs who aren’t as efficient. The control of how much Carson bends his knees and the force of his jump stop are two reasons why he’s efficient.
Younger backs with impressive agility often lack the refinement to control the range and force of the movement. They’re like boxers with great right hooks but lack the efficient, close-quarter punches that can be even deadlier for their ability to reach the soft spots of an opponent’s body that will yield knockouts with much less force required.
Carson’s deft touch with his footwork generates an efficient solution. Carson has it, Frank Gore has it, and Johnson and Foster had it. They know how to adjust the volume to enhance the effect of good decisions.
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