Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Nov 2013
by Matt Waldman
There’s no position I enjoy watching more than running back. One of the reasons I love studying the position is that relative to other roles on the field, there’s a tremendous amount of diversity among players that can excel at the job.
No other position in football has such a wide range of acceptable physical dimensions. There was a time when Brandon Jacobs weighed 87 pounds more than Warrick Dunn. Both players sport multiple 1000-yard seasons. Adrian Peterson is almost a half-foot taller than Frank Gore, but they are about same weight and inspire similar frustration among opposing defenders.
Watch Peterson, Herschel Walker, and Bo Jackson and they seem chiseled from ebony. By comparison, Jerome Bettis and Craig "Ironhead: Heyward were amorphous lumps of clay. None were a joy to tackle.
Cleveland’s 6-foot-2, 232-pound fullback Jim Brown and Chicago’s 5-foot-10, 200-pound Walter Payton are far apart on the dimension spectrum of running backs, but is there any separation between them when it came to dying hard on every play? For that matter, is there anyone else even close?
The range of differences among runners extends to their style of play and fit within a scheme. When it comes to height and weight, Ray Rice and Brian Westbrook weren’t much different from the when they entered the league. Rice has been a bell-cow back in a physical running game. Westbrook was a fantastic hybrid player in a pass-heavy offense. Although Rice has the receiving chops to approximate Westbrook’s old role, it’s tough to imagine Westbrook -– a smart, shifty inside runner who lacks Rice’s balance after contact -– filling Rice’s shoes in Baltimore.
There are even esoteric differences with a runner’s gait. Robert Smith was a straight-line speedster, and Marshall Faulk was among the best ever at weaving through traffic, but both possessed a smooth-as-silk quality to their style. There are some runs where they’re so still with their upper bodies that I imagine them balancing plates on each shoulder pad and helmet and reaching the end zone with all three intact.
Then there are the runners with a wiggle. It’s a vague term. Some call it shake; others call it electricity. The most inclusive -– and vanilla -– term is intensity. Earnest Byner and Ahmad Bradshaw had it. Each moves through the line of scrimmage like an unmanned fire hose as opposing defenses frantically search for the hydrant to shut them down.
Marshawn Lynch runs like he’s a wind-up toy with a clockwork motor. It’s as if there’s a series of frenetic, pulsating vibrations Lynch emits from his body for as long as he’s upright and moving with the ball. Ryan Riddle once told me that facing Lynch was like trying to tackle the ocean’s waves.
To me, Adrian Peterson tearing through a defense with his head nodding in rhythm to those pistons for legs is like a cross between a Union Pacific 844 Highball moving at 75 miles an hour and the animated Soul Train complete with steam pouring from the smokestack and just enough swag to make every kid with a football want to pretend he’s the Vikings running back.
A soon-to-be pro prospect with that wiggle, shake, and juice is Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk. His creativity gives him the potential for a gifted pro career, but there’s a lot more to playing the position than splash plays. Seastrunk may earn a premium opportunity in April to join a team, but he won’t see the field enough to make that impact if he can’t pass protect, break more tackles, improve his ball security, and accept that when it comes to short-area quickness in the NFL he’s no longer the exception, but the rule.
In the college game, Seastrunk’s acceleration and shiftiness leaps off the film. Despite the fact 300-pound linemen are quick enough to run him down behind the line of scrimmage, Seastrunk’s quickness can make a difference on a select range of plays in the NFL because he combines that swiftness with good movement to eliminate a defender’s angle to make a play.
This run against Texas up the sideline is open due to good blocking on the perimeter. However, the final three yards Seastrunk gains up the sideline reveals some of this burst. It’s not much in terms of yardage, but this is evidence of an extra gear that in a different situation gets a running back the edge of a defense and into the second level on runs up the middle. It will become more apparent to the eye with other plays in this analysis.
There’s more to this run than the blocking and acceleration. The little dip near numbers of the flat just before Seastrunk reaches the line of scrimmage is also worth noting. It doesn’t have a huge impact on this play, but it holds safety Kenny Vaccaro to the inside a split-second longer and this helps his teammate hold the block on the perimeter just long enough for Seastrunk to work outside.
Here is a fourth-quarter play in the same game that is a more obvious display of Seastrunk’s slippery style. Baylor is deep in its own territory and runs a zone play where the outside linebacker does a fine job of timing his run blitz.
Seastrunk is quick enough to the line of scrimmage to avoid the blitz and still dip outside his blocks to attack the open crease. Although this is a large crease by NFL standards, I like that Seastrunk can make the cutback and beat the linebacker to the hole.
Where Seastrunk excels is once he reaches the second level of the defense. Once he’s five yards downfield, he’s surrounded by three Longhorns within a two-yard radius and still manages to gain another six yards. His shiftiness helps him defeat angles that would result in direct hits and less yardage from many straight-line runners.
Moreover, his quickness is good enough against quality talent to change direction as his eyes guide him. Bradshaw and Bengals rookie Giovani Bernard possess these skills. Seastrunk has the potential to match them in them NFL, but at this point both Bradshaw and Bernard have sturdier builds and possess a more proven track record for decisiveness within the smaller NFL-sized creases between the tackles. Seastrunk flashes some of this talent, but he will have to prove that he can consistently exploit the smaller holes despite the temptation that exists for most speedy-agile runners to bounce plays outside.
Note that Seastrunk carries the ball under his right arm on this play. He also keeps the ball high to his body, maintaining his grip despite an attempt from a trailing defender to rip the ball away at the end of the run. This is a factor in finishing strong that I’ll address in greater detail later.
I also appreciate that Seastrunk has multiple types of moves. He’s not a runner with one staple move and a changeup. Seastrunk employs a variety of moves with his head, shoulders, and hips and he can integrate these moves at every level of a run.
This touchdown against UCLA isn’t a showcase of all his moves, but note what he does at each layer of the defense. Also check out the skill Seastrunk has to lean and corner, using his hips to bend runs while moving at a good clip. This movement enhances everything he does. Seastrunk’s runs in this game compare well to many of Bernard’s highlights against Miami Thursday night; there’s a striking similarity to their gates.
Seastrunk begins with a nice jab step at the line of scrimmage to set up his burst through the crease. I like that he tempers that burst with a slight stutter to allow his blocks to take root. This is another run that, by NFL standards, is a large opening up the middle.
When Seastrunk reaches the secondary, he kills the safety’s angle with a jab step near the first-down marker and then accelerates towards the left hash. The safety is nearly 10 yards away, but when he bites on the fake it costs him a step in his pursuit of Seastrunk. That one move was all it took, and for many backs, this kind of jab step causes them to slow their pace or stumble.
When executed as well as Seastrunk does it, this move is as good as breaking a tackle –- often better, because he doesn’t have to encounter any contact. Baylor’s runner splits the two defenders up the hash and then gives the slightest dip of the shoulder to avoid the reach of the pursuit at the 12 while veering away from No. 22 a step later.
Another example of strong acceleration comes on this play against West Virginia. Seastrunk is far from the fastest back I’ve ever seen. He’ll get caught from behind in the open field on his share of runs, but his initial burst and second gear is good enough to pose a threat to score on any play. Bradshaw is probably slower than Seastrunk, but he has earned his share of long touchdowns based on his initial quickness and skill at defeating angles downfield.
The one difference that makes Bradshaw a better back at the same stage of his career as Seastrunk is the Colts runner’s skill after contact. Although Bradshaw was a seventh-round draft pick from Marshall, his drop in the NFL’s April selection process had to do with off-field issues. Otherwise, Bradshaw would have been picked no later than the top of the fourth round.
A lot of runners succeed at the college level with straight-line speed and determination. But relative to the number of players producing in the college ranks, it’s the norm for NFL players to possess more uncommon skills. Seastrunk’s ability to integrate his eyes, feet, and balance to execute moves like this cut in the second level of UCLA’s defense is uncommon.
In addition to the cut, I also like his decision to split the smaller crease to his right. I don’t think he had much of a choice to do anything different, but I’ve seen runners run to the open green area even if it means running towards the opposition.
The crease Seastrunk chooses isn’t small by NFL standards, but it is a smaller than the average hole most college running backs encounter on a successful play.
Once again, note the ball carriage. This time the security is looser when Seastrunk changes direction. This is common when required to flash some agility, but it is a positive that the ball’s location is still tighter to his body after a sharp cut than what I see from most backs attempting this kind of move.
Another good example of a back layering moves in succession is this run in the opening quarter against West Virginia. One large cut is impressive to most people watching a game on their couch on Saturdy afternoon. It always catches my eye. But what separates a truly agile back from an average pro is his ability to execute multiple moves like stop-starts, cuts, dips or spins within a short span of the other.
Seastrunk sees that the three Mountaineers defensive linemen near the line of scrimmage all have inside leverage –- their helmets are all pointing towards his original destination. He makes a good stop-start move to his left to bounce this run outside and within two steps, dips away from the pursuit of two more defenders coming from opposite directions. Barely more than a step after the dip, Seastrunk has to hop away from a shot to the legs by one of these defenders.
Retrace each move for a moment. Within the span of five yards, Seastrunk has to stop-start, dip left, and then pull his inside leg away from an oncoming shot while still working east-west to the left hash. He makes it look easy enough that only after watching the succession of moves a few times does one understand the difficulty of the footwork and balance required to do it all and remain upright.
When Seastrunk reaches the flat he spins away from the pursuing defender’s wrap for another five yards. That’s a tremendous amount of movement in one run.
Note that Seastrunk carries the ball under his right arm as he heads to the left side of the field. Generally this is frowned upon when grading for technique, however it’s not the case on this play. Watch the run again and its clear Seastrunk’s intention is to run through the middle of the defense, but he has to bounce the play outside. While avoiding three defenders while working to the flat, there was no time to switch the ball to the outside arm and not put the ball in harm’s way. Although the ball isn’t as tight to his body as it could be, he continues to carry the ball high even while executing some difficult maneuvers of agility.
Seastrunk’s agility and skill to run with his eyes gives the Baylor runner all of the physical skills to master press and cut techniques at the line of scrimmage. But the same was said of Reggie Bush when he left USC and it took him a lot longer than expected, so keep that in mind. However, there are some promising exhibits of Seastrunk making mature -– and even advanced decisions -– despite Baylor’s spread offense generally giving him canyon-sized holes to run through.
Here is a sweep versus Texas where Seastrunk flashes some of this skill. He presses the outside shoulder of his pulling center who leads Seastrunk to the edge. Once the runner reaches the edge he cuts inside the lead blocker and works past the inside seal of the pulling left guard.
It’s not a flashy run, but every offense at any level of football will take a first-down gain of six-to-seven yards. From the standpoint of ball protection, Seastrunk’s technique remains high and tight. Also note the ball is under his left arm while running to the left side. The fact he can carry the ball under either arm is important. Defenders can’t key on one side.
This next play is one of my favorite runs I’ve seen in college football this year. It is the type of play I hope to see from most running backs that I study. But the reason isn’t what’s obvious to most. It’s not that Seastrunk scores or breaks a long run; it’s the decision making to set up and hit a small crease and get through it despite the presence of seemingly larger creases available.
On this play, Baylor executes a pair of double teams on the Mountaineer’s defensive line. Seastrunk’s read of the linebackers on the play is paramount. Freeze this run at the 37-second mark and you’ll see him approaching the line of scrimmage with large gaps to the side of each double team.
He doesn’t try to use his speed to beat either linebacker to the gap. He presses the run to the outside shoulder of his right guard, draws the linebacker to that side, and then makes a swift cut back between the double teams. Then there’s the smallest of outside-in dips in the crease to maneuver through it. This is some fantastic running on a conceptual-intuitive level.
When he clears the crease, Seastrunk then matches his savvy with some great athleticism. He wards off the second linebacker with his left arm and executes a sharp dip to the right side. After this impressive series of moves to clear the line of scrimmage, a linebacker, and a safety, it’s now about speed and some downfield blocks to finish the run in the end zone. A beautiful and difficult play that was very Reggie Bush-like. I don’t think anyone would be shocked if Seastrunk didn’t cite Bush as an influence –- he’s even wearing Bush’s pro number.
Watch the beginning of this play again and I think many college runners would have tried dipping to the right of the line of scrimmage only to get strung out by the defense and lost yards. Seastrunk knew that in order to reach that right flat he had to clear the middle first, and by taking the middle, he limited his worst-case scenario to a short gain.
If Seastrunk can make these kinds of decisions in the pros, he’ll be able to move the chains and occasionally break big plays. NFL teams want big plays, but its just as important that they have players who know how to be efficient.
Seastrunk struggles as a pass protector. In the right pro offense, he might not be asked to pass protect if he can prove he’s a smart route runner and consistent receiver. If the team that drafts Seastrunk expects its backs to pass protect, however, then the Baylor runner could struggle to see the field as a rookie if he doesn’t show massive improvement during his transition from college to pro football.
Although the outcome isn’t a sack, Seastrunk misdiagnoses the angle on this edge rusher. He’s no help his teammate and the defender nearly gets his hand on the quarterback. Watch what Cameron Wake did against Andy Dalton on Thursday night to strip the ball in the first half of the Dolphins-Bengals game and then look at this play again. You can extrapolate what will happen in the pros if Seastrunk doesn’t set the correct angle on this play.
Here’s another poor diagnosis of a blitz. The general rule is to work inside-out at the line of scrimmage because the shortest distance between two points (defender and quarterback) is a straight line and these inside rushes are mostly downhill path rather than looping ones
Seastrunk works to the edge and by the time he spots the blitzing defender with his peripheral vision it’s too late for the runner to set an angle to stop his opponent. The quarterback gets the ball off and completes a long pass on this third-down play, but good evaluation is often about studying the process and not the outcome, because the difference in skill at the NFL will more often than not elicit a different outcome if the correct techniques are lacking.
Not only do Seastrunk’s diagnostic skills require work, but his technique is also lacking as a stand-up blocker. Watch him address pressure up the middle on this first-down play against Texas.
Seastrunk "catches" the oncoming defender, which means he holds his hands towards the defender. But instead of initiating the collision, he waits for the defender to hit him. In the NFL, this passive type of blocking will often lead to Seastrunk getting canned and his quarterback creamed.
On this play, Seastrunk forces the defender to the left of the quarterback, but because he’s passive he cannot sustain the block or maintain any advantageous position to follow up. Moreover, Seastrunk lowers his head into the defender. This is dangerous to his health and he cannot see who he’s blocking. Seastrunk has no chance to control his opponent this way.
As a cut blocker, Seastrunk does a little better against this safety blitz from
He enters the hole, sets a good angle square to the safety and then shoots for the hips of the defender. His head isn’t as high as it should be and based on the nature of the contact, it’s clear that Seastrunk doesn’t try to cut through the defender. A good cut is a like a good punch; you punch "through" the target and not "to" the target. Otherwise there’s no real force generated to knock a defender over. This cut stops the safety, but the safety never loses his footing and keeps him alive to make a play if needed.
Here’s another example of a cut attempt that helps his quarterback, but remains poor execution of the technique.
Seastrunk reads linebacker Anthony Barr twisting inside and slides outside-inside to address the blitz. It’s a good diagnosis, but again he doesn’t hit with his helmet up or shoot through the target. Because his helmet is down, he misses most of the target and does nothing more than shield the defender to the outside.
These techniques have to get better -- or he better hope that the pro team drafting him has plans to use Seastrunk heavily in the passing game as a receiver, but with no intention to use the Baylor back as a pass protector in any situation.
Seastrunk has fine balance when changing direction, but downhill power running will never be a strong suit of his game unless he gains significant weight to his core. Ray Rice did this and thrived, but I don’t think Seastrunk has this kind of frame.
There are multiple times during these broadcasts where I’ve heard the color analyst say that Seastrunk has excellent power. I can only assume they are saying Seastrunk’s power is excellent relative to other college runners. Even if this assumption is true, I disagree. This is perhaps the only time I’ve seen Seastrunk push a defender backwards.
The pad level on this run is excellent and I like that Seastrunk keeps his legs moving. Even so, he only manages to push the defender a yard downfield. What I care about more than the push is the pad level to get under hits. If he can develop this timing while lowering his pads as an interior runner in the NFL, he’ll finish more runs for positive gains and expose less of the football to his opponents.
Here’s another example where good pad level helps him bounce off a hit and earn the first down.
Although we’re watching a running back bounce off a safety and not a linebacker, the defender has a running start. The pad level makes all the difference. It even helps Seastrunk avoid the wrap from behind just long enough to work past the first-down marker. It’s about leverage, not strength.
Even if Seastrunk doesn’t become a small tank like Rice, most skill players transitioning from college to the NFL will add weight through better nutrition and strength training. Seastrunk will likely be among them. This should help him break arm tackles that he struggles to beat as a collegian.
There are a lot of runs where defenders drop Seastrunk with a wrap below the knee. When he gets stronger. I think he’ll increase his chances to rip free. Even so, Seastrunk’s style for changing direction causes him to slow down or vary his burst to the point that he’s not always maximizing his explosion. This allows opponents to wrap him easier on some plays where straight-line runners who hit the hole harder can run through. As Seastrunk gains more experience and matures as a decision-maker I think he could improve his tackle breaking in these situations.
I’ve noted Seastrunk’s ball security throughout this analysis, because I think it’s important to illustrate what he’s doing right. However, as a running back who creates and keeps plays alive longer than his peers, he’s more prone to exposing the ball to hits that will knock it loose. I’ve shown that he keeps the ball high, but he can do a better job tightening the grip to his body. The play below is a good example.
The plays I showed earlier where defenders ripped at the ball unsuccessfully were examples where Seastrunk felt the defender’s touch and tightened his grip in response. However, there’s a difference between a rip, a punch, and a hit. In the NFL Seastrunk will experience more punches and hits on the ball. Once this happens, he can’t tighten his grip, because the force of impact is too sudden and the outcome inevitable.
If he’s not holding the ball tight to his chest, it’s going to fly loose. In today’s NFL, where coaches use running back committees and over-discipline their runners for fumbles, Seastrunk will have to address this technique flaw -- and the sooner the better. As talented a runner as he is, his deficiencies protecting the passer make Seastrunk an incomplete player.
That’s already one strike against him in some systems. If he fumbles, then we’re looking at a prospect with a similar trajectory as Ronnie Hillman -– a quick, fast, agile, runner with vision and receiving skills, but lacking in pass protection. Hillman has now fumbled way off the active roster, ceding time to late-round pick C.J. Anderson –- a talented runner his own right.
As dazzling as Seastrunk is -– and I see the potential for him to dazzle in the NFL –- what he’ll need to do to earn those opportunities are the boring things that make his game efficient as well as productive.
3 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2015, 11:14pm by avelin