In this installment of J. Moyer’s RSP Running Back Room, Moyer examines NFL running backs Josh Jacobs and Brian Hill.
Most mainstream running back analysis is a rotating carousel of physical-dominance buzzwords:
Players who do not possess these surface-level athletic traits are written off as never-will-bees or past their prime. The players who have these traits, but never achieve on-field success are provided contextual excuse after excuse.
Even physically-inferior backs who achieve on-field success are randomly assigned elite physical traits in an effort to explain what is happening. Unfortunately, most analysis discounts the technical aspects of running back play, and the vocabulary to describe skilled execution is not in common parlance.
Josh Jacobs Makes His Living In Tight Spaces
Josh Jacobs is a case study in this phenomenon.
A part-time rusher at Alabama with decent size and poor athletic measurables, Jacobs somehow crept into the draft’s first round. As a rookie he’s performed at a Pro-Bowl level, leaving onlookers confused at his success.
Jacobs is a technically-advanced back who grasps the cognitive-perceptual aspects of running the ball. His best trait is an elite ability to process leverage, a skill that allows all football players to play with anticipation.
Think of this in the same way we watch quarterbacks throwing receivers open. Instead, the back is attacking a hole before it opens.
Sensitivity to leverage generates a remarkable ability to navigate creases that would turn most backs away—a crucial skill for NFL holes that are smaller and close even faster than those in the NCAA. Because he attacks these tight spaces so proficiently, Jacobs puts immense stress on defenses to play consistently sound assignment football.
Brian Hill Learning to Slowing Down
Other than the elite processors like Josh Jacobs, many young NFL runners experience sensory overload when faced with the astounding speed of NFL play. As the back tries and fails to take calm drinks from the fire hose, panic ensues.
When this happens, they play too fast, when slowing down a step or two will solve the problem. Brian Hill started for Atlanta in Week 11, and struggled.
For the most part, he rushed his reads and footwork, getting too close to his blockers’ points of attack, and taking himself out of position to act on his tardy reads.
Initial struggles do not mean indefinite ineffectiveness. Hill showed some progress as the game wore on, a promising sign going forward. It’s why many will be writing him off too soon.
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