When you think about a short yardage running back, what comes to mind?
For most, it would be images of Jerome Bettis, Marshawn Lynch or other former greats driving through tacklers in snowy weather. Over the last half-century of football, where loaded boxes and clouds of dust were the norm, fans developed a fond appreciation for big, bruising running backs and their abilities in short yardage. In a game of inches, size at the running back position can certainly be an advantage. A running back’s size in and of itself, however, means very little if he doesn’t play with proper leverage, vision and balance. And all of this completely ignores the impact that the offensive line has on the result as well.
The Philadelphia Eagles signing of LeGarrette Blount was an obvious, no-brainer signing. Blount fills a gaping hole in the Eagles backfield and getting a player of his caliber this late in the off-season is an obvious win. Including the playoffs, Blount scored 19 touchdowns last season for the New England Patriots. Many of those touchdowns came in short yardage situations down near the goal line. This, in addition to general appreciation many have for oversize runners, has given Philadelphia fans hope that a long-standing area of weakness can be turned into a strength.
I must admit that I was skeptical of Blount’s ability to do this by himself. He has size and size does matter, but the level of success he’s had in short yardage success cannot be achieved with size alone. Additionally, as is always mentioned, players departing from New England in the free agent market have a history of underperforming on their next teams. Lastly, two years ago, seemingly every take on the Eagles offense included DeMarco Murray gaining four yards a clip just by falling forward and we all know how that turned out.
Alas, as is often the case, my skepticism turned to curiosity and I decided to evaluate all 19 of Blount’s touchdowns from the 2016 season, particularly those coming from goal line carries. To be completely transparent, going into this I fully expected a good number of them to be walk-ins as success on many running plays are often a result of good offensive line play or any other number of factors. I came to find out, however, that I was completely wrong. On almost every play, Blount had a clear and significant impact. The most interesting thing I noted, however, was that while Blount certainly uses his size to his advantage, he has many other traits that play a large part in his success.
Power, Leverage & Leg Drive
This is the obvious one for Blount. Raw power for a running back may not be the only way to convert short yardage but it certainly has its advantages. The blocking up front will not always be perfect. Having the ability to absorb contact from a defender and continue the push for the goal line is critical and is the one thing that many smaller backs do not bring to the table. Blount’s raw power is quite evident and it is generated not just from his size but from his acceleration through contact and constant leg drive.
The first play below versus the Cardinals is technically not a goal line carry but it was a great example of the specific traits needed in short yardage situations. One thing to point out about this play was that it was run out of shotgun alignment and didn’t have a fullback, something the Eagles will often do.
Blount takes the handoff, shows good patience allowing tight end Martellus Bennett to get across the formation on the split flow play, then accelerates from a standstill and explodes into the tackler and carries five defenders into the endzone from four yards out. Effort like this would be applauded in any town but can get you statue in Philadelphia.
If you enjoyed the first play above, this next one versus Seattle will make you salivate. Watch the effort here as Blount gets stood up at the goal line but is able to keep driving his legs and working to space. This play, that seemingly lasts for 20 seconds, again results in six points for the eventual Super Bowl champs.
On this next play against the Bengals, Blount, seeing a wall of Bengal defenders, take a different approach. He follows his fullback and attempts to dive across the goal line but is stood up. Watch the second effort though as he is able to re-establish leverage on the ground with his feet and makes one final lunge into the endzone just before his body falls to the ground.
Vision & Foot Quickness
I mentioned earlier that Blount uses much more than his size to create success in short yardage. The next few plays are examples of how quickly he can diagnose the blocking angles of his offensive line and the leverage of defenders to find space. In addition, Blount shows very good foot quickness for a player of his size which allows him to capitalize on that vision.
In the first play versus the Browns, the Patriots run a zone lead play down at the goal line. Watch as Blount follows his fullback right up to the hole, forcing Cleveland’s overhang safety and pursuing linebacker to both fill into the inside gap. Once they’ve committed and the edge is opened up, Blount bounces it outside for an easy touchdown.
Next, the Patriots run what looks to be a zone counter concept versus the Steelers from a singleback formation, something the Eagles also ran occasionally last season. Blount immediately sees the backside of the defense collapse with the blocks of Bennett and Julian Edelman and bounces the ball outside. When the Pittsburgh defensive back responds, Blount quickly plants his outside foot and cuts it back inside for another easy touchdown.
In their Week 12 win versus the Jets, the Patriots are again at the goal line and this time the interior of New England’s offensive line just dominates the middle of the Jets defense. What would normally be an easy touchdown for Blount, however, gets a little more difficult when Jets safety Calvin Pryor comes flying into the backfield and gets a hit on Blount. Watch how quickly Blount puts his foot in the ground and side steps Pryor, alleviating the blow and maintaining his balance before walking into the endzone.
Finally, on this last one versus Miami, Blount gets into the endzone virtually untouched on another zone lead play. What was particularly interesting about this play, however, is how quickly Blount reads the block of the fullback and the pursuit of the Dolphins safety. Blount decides where he is going with the ball before the fullback even makes his block. Or maybe he just saw that the linebacker was Kiko Alonso and decided he liked his odds (much more likely).
Balance & Body Control
The trait that Blount displayed that got me most excited was his body control and ability to fit his body into tight spaces and small windows to reach pay dirt. This is something that is typically more prevalent in smaller runners who can hide behind their offensive line and sneak into little crevices in the defense. For Blount to be so efficient in this area was extremely impressive.
The first play comes from an early season matchup versus the Texans. New England runs another zone lead play but Texans defensive end D.J. Reader breaks through the line and spills the play out wide. Blount then widens his path but before reaching the force defender outside is able to cut back inside. The only problem now is that the Texans entire defensive line is there waiting at the goal line for him. Blount is a big boy but it would be pure lunacy to take on a slew of defensive lineman head on. Instead, he takes the only available green space and dives down low for the goal line and is just barely able to sneak underneath the defensive line.
On the next play versus Seattle, Blount follows his fullback initially but then sees two Seahawk defenders closing the hole and decides to sneak in behind the Joe Thuney and Nate Solder’s double team. Before getting in, however, the Seattle nose guard grabs onto Blount’s legs essentially stopping his momentum. Blount, not giving up, then tucks his head and body down just underneath the oncoming defender looking to send him backwards and wiggles his way into the endzone.
Back to Week 12 versus the Jets, Blount again follows his fullback straight into the fray but Jet’s defensive lineman Leonard Williams breaks through the line and tries to trip him up. Blount again, maintains his balance (sensing a theme here?) and wiggles his way into a tight crevice for another touchdown. Pay close attention to his body control after Williams trips him up. He turns his body sideways and gets skinny through the hole while essentially running on one foot. If he turns his body inside and squares up the defender with only one foot to drive with, his momentum probably gets halted and he’d come up short. Another fine display of body control.
On this final play versus the Steelers in the AFC Championship, Blount looks like he wants to hit the backside of a zone play. He was forced to make other plans, however when Bennett got blown up by Bud Dupree and knocked back into Blount’s legs. Blount, as he typically does, maintains his balance, takes a quick stutter step and tucks his body just inside of guard Shaq Mason. Then, with Steeler’s hard hitting safety Mike Mitchell coming in hot, Blount tucks his head and body down to the ground just underneath Mitchell and inside the goal line.
Yes, size does matter for running backs and Blount is a prime example of why it does. Size is only one small factor in the success he enjoys in short yardage and goal line situations, though. Only time will tell us whether or not Blount can achieve similar success in Philadelphia. Without Tom Brady, maybe he doesn’t see nearly as many goal line opportunities or maybe defenses can pay more attention to him. After evaluating what makes Blount successful as a short yardage runner, however, I now have zero doubt that the Eagles made a major upgrade in this department.