by Matt Waldman
Does the offensive line make the running back or is it the other way around? Some view the topic as an either/or answer. I don’t think the world is that simple.
I do think there are observational methods to tell us whether a college running back has NFL-caliber skill regardless of his current offensive line. I gave NFL starter grades in these linked reports to Ahmad Bradshaw, Matt Forte, and Joseph Addai in past Rookie Scouting Portfolio publications based on performances against top-tier defensive competition that limited these running backs to less than three yards per carry.
In each of their cases, the skills they exhibited despite their offensive lines getting dominated at the point of attack transcended the final outcome of the play, the game, and the box score.
However, a strong offensive line can also mask a running back’s deficiencies. I think a good example of a situation where the line made the back was former Alabama and (briefly) San Francisco 49ers back Glen Coffee, who I graded as a low-end reserve when I watched him years ago. Athleticism aside, good running backs must possess a consistent understanding of how to assess and act on situational risk-reward on every play. In English, that’s the decision-making aspect of vision.
When it comes to weak offensive lines, Alabama running back Eddie Lacy has no such problem. The Crimson Tide’s front five is considered among the best units in college football. However, even the best blockers have moments where the running back has to bail them out and do the tough sledding alone. The 6-feet-even, 220-pound Lacy had 12 carries for 55 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout against the Arkansas Razorbacks two weeks ago, but there were plenty of worthwhile moments to contribute towards an overall evaluation of Lacy’s skill as a runner.
"Skill" almost seems like a neutral term for a player like Lacy. The Alabama running back is definitely closer to the spectrum of Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram than he is to Glenn Coffee. Some of his most impressive moments in this game came on carries that netted less than four yards. There’s a lot more to see with Lacy that will determine if he has the goods to become as good of a prospect as Richardson and Ingram, but judging him solely on his ball carrying, there’s a lot to like.
Big Back Strength, Small Back Feet
Lacy's first attempt results in a two-yard gain on first-and-10 with 13:32 in the first quarter from a 21-personnel strong-side I formation with receivers 1x1. Arkansas plays a 4-3 alignment with the free safety in the box. The Crimson Tide will run power to the strong side. The right guard is supposed to pull across the center.
However, on this snap the Arkansas middle linebacker gets a good read on the play and penetrates the gap where the right guard is supposed to pull. Worse yet, the right guard doesn’t get to this gap because the Arkansas defensive end over the Crimson Tide’s tight end does a great of crossing the face of his opponent and creating a traffic jam in the middle of the line. It disrupted the right guard’s pull.
This play by the defensive end leaves Lacey in a one-on-one situation at the line of scrimmage with the middle linebacker. In most cases the defense will consider this a victory because the worst-case scenario of this play should be the middle linebacker slowing Lacy enough for help to arrive and stop the runner for no gain. But Lacy proves that there are no givens with a player of his strength and agility. The Alabama runner plants his outside foot after receiving the exchange from the quarterback, cuts inside the linebacker’s angle, and transforms this direct hit into a glancing blow.
This move wasn’t the impressive part of the play. Most running backs on an NFL roster should be able to change a defender’s angle with a step of space to operate. But Lacy strings together a spin move inside the defensive tackle as soon as he clears the middle linebacker that demonstrates the level of agility to layer moves in succession. This is what separates the potential starters from the rest of the pack.
When a bigger back like Lacy can make these moves in succession in tight spaces and squeeze a three-yard gain from a potential loss, he’s exhibiting some of the same skills I saw from Bradshaw, Forte, Addai and other recent NFL starters.
Lacy's second carry is an even more explicit display of his big-back strength and small-back feet. This is a first-and-10 run with 9:40 in the first quarter from a 22-personnel offset-I formation. The fullback is offset to the weak side of an unbalanced formation. Arkansas has 11 defenders in the box.
This run will be a zone play. The offensive line will slant right and Lacy begins the play pressing the run towards right guard. As the play develops, Lacy sees a cutback lane outside left guard.
The Crimson Tide back executes a jump cut to this lane. Although there are a lot of people who are quick to criticize backs for making jump cuts, they take issue with the decision-making process behind the execution and not the physical skill required to make them. In this case, Lacy has the room and the agility to make the move and still hit the cutback lane with room to spare. What remains to be seen is how often Lacy will try a move like this against an NFL defense. If he attempts to rely on it as a staple of his running style, the odds are against his success with it. If he uses it more sparingly like Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Adrian Peterson, and Trent Richardson –- big backs with good feet -– then it is a nice change-up.
Once Lacy bursts through the line of scrimmage he does a great job of lowering his pads to split both safeties at the three. He runs over the strong safety and drags the free safety across the goal line.
This is a nice demonstration of power and burst. Although Lacy earns a huge lane to generate the speed necessary to punish the duo of Arkansas defensive backs, the fact that the runner could generate this momentum after a jump cut on this angle is also uncommon. I still have more to watch with Lacy when it comes to gauging his explosiveness, but this play offers a promising impression. It’s even more promising when one learns that Lacy is dealing with an ankle injury this season that limits him in practice.
There is an 11-yard gain with 10:42 in the first half where Lacy clears a huge hole inside left guard, gains four yards towards the left hash untouched, knifes through the backside linebacker’s pursuit wrap like a shark fin through water, and then bounces off two defensive backs eight yards down field. It’s a punishing run, but one any runner of his size should make with the momentum to pick up speed through a large hole. It’s a two-yard run on Lacy’s first carry of the second half that is a far more impressive feat of strength, balance, and agility.
This play begins from an 11-personnel set with receivers 1x2, and the run is an off tackle play to the right side.
The Arkansas defensive line penetrates into the backfield and Lacy runs through one wrap attempt to his outside leg just before the Razorbacks’ defensive tackle hits him high and wraps tight.
Lacy is strong enough to keep his legs moving towards the sideline, which is ho-hum for most 220-pound running backs. But the way Lacy hops over the fallen defender at knee level, with a 300-pound defender wrapped around him -- and still manages to stay upright -- is a true feat of impressive athleticism. The defensive tackle manages to hang on to Lacy until they reach the sideline.
The fact that the defensive tackle couldn't force a loss in a situation that would have resulted in negative yards for 90 percent of the backs he’ll face all year frustrates him, and it takes all his effort to throw Lacy to the ground after they are out of bounds. This is an inconsequential play for the team, but a "wow" play for the running back.
Lacy will have to demonstrate a strong stand-up game as a pass protector and in this game his opportunities weren’t conclusive enough to make a fair evaluation. What I saw with his stand-up was a tendency to be late to diagnose the correct angle and an inclination to "catch blockers" rather than deliver a strong, two-handed punch.
Lacy did demonstrate a nice cut block, and that is an area where many good NFL prospects at the running back position struggle. The play occurs on a second-and-7 pass from the shotgun.
The defensive end works off the right side and Lacy makes the correct diagnosis and delivers a cut block where the running back aims his shoulders for the inside leg as he throws his body across the legs of the defender.
This is the aspect of cut blocking that many backs in pass protection fail to do. They either shoot straight ahead or for the incorrect leg. As a result, the runner’s body does not fly across the legs and hips of the opponent, and this makes it easier for the defender to elude the block and make a play on the quarterback. Although Lacy drops his head just a split-second sooner than he should, the fact that he displayed the correct aiming point and "drove through" the defender rather than "at" him sends the defensive end head over heels and clears a path for the quarterback to deliver the football into the flat.
I believe Lacy has the kind of skills to develop into an NFL starter. Although he has small-back feet, he runs with a big-back attitude. He is often the aggressor in a collision with a defender, and he knows how to attack with his pads or forearms to deliver a shot that wins the battle.
When I look at Lacy’s size, punishing style, and footwork, he reminds of what I saw from Mississippi State running back and current 49ers reserve Anthony Dixon. The difference is that Dixon played in a gap-blocking style of offense where he had one hole to hit and worked off counter action on a large percentage of his plays. He's struggled to make decisive plays behind the 49ers line. Although I think Dixon still has the talent to produce, his approach to the game has always been a question mark. If Lacy has a more proven work ethic, I don’t think the transition to the NFL will be as much of a problem.
Lacy’s style also resembles Rashard Mendenhall, but he’s not as much of a one-note spinner like the Steelers back. It also appears he lacks Mendenhall’s long speed. Of course, the thought process behind a stylistic comparison is another subject deserving of an essay.