"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
02 Apr 2014
by Matt Waldman
This week’s Futures contains excerpts from the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, my 1284-page scouting report on 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions, which is available for download now. The RSP donates 10 percent of each purchase to Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization devoted to preventing sexual abuse through the training of individuals, communities, and organizations on its dynamics.
The draft community is split on Washington running back Bishop Sankey. Some consider him a top-five back. Others see a committee guy, but never a featured starter. I side more with the latter viewpoint, but I do see how Sankey can develop into a full-time starter.
The reason for this split is scheme fit. When Sankey is reading the defenders directly in front of him he can be decisive, get downhill fast, and get his pads low enough to split the defense. When he focuses on his blocks, he can press and cut back to aid his lineman’s effort.
But ask Sankey to read linebackers, corners, or safeties a level behind the immediate blocks happening at the line of scrimmage and he struggles. He gets confused or hesitant and his reactions are tentative and slow. The speedy back with quick cuts and momentum to carry a defender for 2-3 yards is gone.
I think these lapses are often more conceptual than physical. Certain blocking schemes are easier for him to see the field than others. When Sankey gets confused, you can see it with his footwork. He’ll stutter rather than cut and he winds up exposed to the defense.
I believe Sankey’s best chance to develop into a starter depends on him going to a team that runs a lot of gap-style plays. This includes traps, power, counter plays, and sweeps -- run designs where linemen pull and the runner has one option and doesn't have to do much reading of the defense pre-snap. It’s the running back’s equivalent of an exam with true/false questions.
In contrast, zone blocking is like multiple choice: it requires a runner has the skill to anticipate what the defense will do on a play. Sankey has the athleticism to create, but when given two-to-three options he doesn’t read the line fast enough to succeed on a consistent basis.
He’ll often bounce runs in directions where there’s little chance to gain yards on a play where he had a clear opportunity to diagnose it differently. Sankey also misses some downhill opportunities that require a decisive, aggressive mindset.
Maybe this improves, but right now Sankey is better in a gap-style offense that places tigher boundaries on his creative options. When this happens, he displays greater shiftiness, layers of moves to make defenders miss, and burst from his cuts.
Still, today’s Futures is not a balanced illustration of Sankey’s good and bad plays. It’s focused solely on difficult plays that often mark the difference between a future NFL starter and a future backup.
And despite Sankey having a better match with one scheme fit, his decision making and skill at seeing the second level needs refinement regardless of scheme.
This is a first-and-10 with 13:53 in the first quarter against Stanford. Sankey is at the right of the quarterback in an 11-personnel pistol. The ball is at the right hash of the Washington 30 and the defense is sporting a 3-3-5 look. The outside linebacker is over the tight end at the right end.
The line slants left and the left guard and left tackle double-team the defensive end. Sankey takes the exchange with this double team ahead of him and works towards the left tackle. The left guard has worked beyond this initial double team to the outside linebacker at the second level of the defense.
Sankey bounces the play to the outside shoulder of the left tackle. As he reaches the edge of the formation a yard behind the line of scrimmage, he slows his gait as he spots the outside linebacker working outside the left guard. Sankey bounces outside the slot receiver in an attempt to reach the line, sees the safety coming downhill and tries to dip inside. He spins through some of the safety’s wrap, but he’s hit by two more players and dropped after a gain of two yards.
If you stop the video at the 14-second mark, you’ll see the point where Sankey makes the decision to bounce the play outside. The guard is approaching the outside linebacker, but the linebacker’s helmet is well outside the guard’s pads. In a sense, Sankey’s decision to bounce the play seems sensible. However, there is a decent argument that Sankey had the blocks to cut the run inside the left guard, especially when reading the wide receiver and the safety.
Look at the position of the safety relative to the slot receiver and the position of the left guard and it supports the idea that an aggressive cut down hill earns Sankey as many yards as a bounce outside while reducing the chance of losing yards. I could go one step further and argue that if Sankey made a hard cut down hill and delayed his burst a beat, he’d have room for the outside linebacker to overrun his angle and burst behind the defender for a larger gain.
My criticisms of Sankey’s decision on this play are debatable, but it sets the stage for a pattern of more questionable decisions. Here’s a first-and-10 with 8:12 in the first quarter from a 1x3 receiver 10-personnel shotgun set with the ball at the left hash versus a nickel look. The offensive line slants left with the center and left guard double-teaming the defensive tackle, but the opposite splits the double team so early that Sankey should have seen the helmets of the defensive tackle and defensive end crashing inside as he’s taking the exchange from the quarterback.
The better prospects in this class would read this cutback opportunity to the right where there’s an open gap. With a 4-flat 20-yard shuttle and a 6.75-second, three-cone drill, Sankey has demonstrated on and off the field that he has the burst and quick change of direction to cut to his right and exploit the backside gap. Instead, Sankey plants and cuts to the left side.
As Sankey reaches the edge, the left tackle has fallen to the ground. Sankey is now in damage control mode as he faces down an unblocked defensive end and the penetration up the middle. He lowers the pads into the defensive tackle, but he’s dropped for a three-yard loss.
Restart the video to the one minute-mark and pause it. Sankey could have read the alignment before the snap and anticipated the penetration inside. The defensive tackle right of center has his helmet over the inside shoulder of the right guard. The defensive tackle left of center is set up between the center and left guard.
Sankey knows his linemen will be slanting left, which means the third defender he should have noted is the defensive end outside the right tackle. The position of the end should have been enough for Sankey to anticipate a huge gap between the right guard and right tackle.
The best running back prospects read the field a level beyond their current path. Not many do this well. However, good prospects read and react to defenders within a radius of 5-10 yards of their path when in open space. There are two plays within five minutes of each other where Sankey’s vision comes into question.
The first wouldn’t be a question if I didn’t see the second play minutes later. It’s a 31-personnel pistol with Sankey as the tailback on a second-and-8 with 4:27 in the first quarter. The back to Sankey’s right shifts outside the left tackle before the snap. When the play begins, the left guard pulls to the left edge as the rest of the line slants right. Sankey works up the left hash and through a crease at the line of scrimmage between the outside linebacker and safety.
The cornerback ends this run with a great hit and wrap of Sankey for a minimal gain. After watching this play numerous times, I don’t think Sankey sees the cornerback until it’s too late for him to do anything but lower his pads into a hard hit that will get under Sankey’s pads regardless.
There was a split-second of indecision from Sankey where he seemed unsure about either colliding or avoiding the corner, and it costs him the position to make contact with balance. Like I said, I’m not sure I would have noticed the above play if not for this first-and-10 run with 14:06 in the half. The defense is in a 3-3-5 look with two safeties split 15 yards deep against this read-option play.
The line slants left and the center works to the second level. Sankey sees the cutback opportunity behind the right tackle and executes a hard plant with his inside foot to cut behind the right tackle to the line of scrimmage. This is a good decision.
However, he’s slow to address the middle linebacker at the next level. He telegraphs this cut inside to the Stanford defender who approaches over the top from the right hash.
The linebacker hammers Sankey for no gain. Like the previous play, this is a difficult situation for any running back prospect. Only the best prospects would spot the linebacker fast enough to address the angle successfully. A runner like Adrian Peterson would be capable of lowering the pads and trucking the defender or making a second cut outside and using a stiff arm.
LeSean McCoy would have also been successful making that second cut to the right flat. Ryan Mathews is also skilled enough to make this second cut -- and Mathews may never fulfill his potential as a top-tier NFL runner. There are 30-40 runners in the league with the skills to address defenders in the ways Sankey failed to do in this game.
There’s no shame in Sankey not addressing these plays better. However, its plays like these that are the difference between an NFL contributor and an NFL starter --especially in run schemes that require an additional layer of creativity and the vision to locate second-level defenders early enough to defeat them.
Sankey has the potential to help a team as a contributor and grow into a lead back if he can learn to read the field wtih greater consistency. However, plays like these that I find in every game combined with Sankey's difficulty breaking tackles that starters in the NFL handle as a matter of routine make me skeptical about that upside.
Limit Sankey's choices and encourage more aggressive, reactive behavior and Sankey will have a fighting chance. The question is whether most NFL teams are this patient with running backs in a day and age where they can find a quality talent in the middle to late rounds that doesn't require this type of development.