Monday, June 9, 2008

A How to Guide to Running Backs

The running back is one of the most glamorous positions on the football field, playing an integral role in both the passing and running attack. A well-rounded running back is a requirement for success on any level. What skill sets are required for a strong runner? How do running backs fit into different systems? Here are the answers.

Running backs have different requirements based on their scheme.

As with just about every position, there are many ways to play running back based on the skills of the player, the blocking schemes and the offensive system.

Obviously, running backs have different requirements based on their system. For starters, some variations of offenses require a running back to make one cut and run upfield without dilly-dallying behind the line. This tends to require good vision to find the hole immediately, and some of the more intelligent runners make this look easy. Guys like Steven Jackson, Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee are perfect examples of guys who stick with and have success with the "one cut and run down field" form of running.

Meanwhile, other systems, like in Indianapolis, require the running back to run out of "stretch" plays. These types of running plays create several potential lane openings as the entire offensive line block in a diagonal path. Ideally, this leaves several gaps and a potential outside cut open to the runner. A stretch play requires the runner to have perfect control over their feet: knowing when to put on the juice, when to cut upfield, whether to cut back the other way, or to sprint diagonally toward the sideline if nothing is happening. It's a skill set not many have: that perfect balance and foot control.

These are just two different types of requirements for a runner depending on scheme. There are so many that listing them would be futile.

Tomlinson combines speed and power, making him lethal.

Power runners

When envisioning a power runner, most would think of skill sets similar to Cowboys running back Marion Barber. However, there are many kinds of power running backs, each with different sets of abilities used in a variety of ways. The term power running back is actually quite vague and leaves a lot of gray areas.

If you were referring to a running back as a power runner of any kind, there are a few features generally associated with a "power running back." They are:
  • Extreme leg drive. Able to push piles and constantly push forward despite being impacted of wrapped up. Jamal Lewis is one of the best at this.
  • Gets a low pad level. Able to drop their shoulders and bend their knees lower than the average tackler, giving them enough leverage to explode into and thus trample over a would be tackler. An exciting move even when it fails. Marion Barber is amazing at this.
  • Hard to bring down. Able to keep their momentum moving forward using every ounce of their will power. Larry Johnson is top notch at this.
  • Stiff arming. Able to extend their arm with enough force to throw a tackler off balance. Just being able to do it often isn't enough, it's about placement and timing as well. Laurence Maroney is excellent at doing this.
Evasive runners

To offset the power runners, there are also running back considered "evasive runners". These running backs avoid contact with quick, agile movements. Depending on scheme and depth at the position, as well as judgment on how tough the evasive runner is, they are as backups. Often times, they are used in the perceived "scat back" or "third-down back" role, which I will explain later. But like power runners, the term elusive runner is also quite vague.

Skill sets usually associated with elusive running backs are:
  • Speed. While speed is generally overrated (specifically 40 times) at the position, it is also associated with an elusive runner. However, there are cases where speedy runners don't necessarily have any other feature associated with an elusive RB.
  • Hip swivel. The ability to play with your upper body basically as free as a bobblehead's big head bouncing around and swaying from side to side. This makes an elusive runner hard to grab a hold of, especially when they have a speed advantage. Brian Westbrook is arguably the best at this.
  • Good change of direction. The ability to instantly change direction with quick foot work and a good plant of the opposite leg. A runner good at this makes cut back running look easy, and often makes entire defenses look foolish. Devin Hester, though not a running back, has this skill at the top of his arsenal.
  • General evasiveness. The innate, natural ability and instincts of a slippery runner. Be it by juking, spinning, cutting back or even leap frogging a low padded tackler. Some of the features here can be shared by both a power and elusive runner, but it's generally associated with the elusive types. LaDainian Tomlinson is probably the most naturally evasive runners with the best tackle slipping instincts.
Necessary skills for all running backs

There are features that both types of running backs share or need to have to even be successful:
  • Vision. The ability to see or find a hole and know exactly when to hit it. Often times, poor vision runners will cut to the outside often because they are failing to find the crease, often resulting in tackles for loss or no gain.
  • Field awareness. Knowing where you are on the field at all times, knowing where the boundary and the first down marker are, sensing the goal line and defenders. Knowing when to dive forward, run out of bounds or when to give up on the run and settle for what you've gotten.
  • Pass protection/blitz pick-up. The ability to follow the rush and support the protection of the quarterback. If even for an extra split second, it helps more so than if there were nothing else impeding the rushers progress toward the quarterback.
  • Receiving ability. This is more of a luxury, but in many offenses it's vital that the running back is able to catch and turn upfield. They not only need to be able to catch and hold onto the football, but run the routes in the right timing for the quarterback to make the proper throw to the runner.
And as always, there are variations to how good one back is at any one skill. There are also running backs with skill sets from both types of runners, and not surprisingly, it's often those runners who are the more flashy numbers producers and highlight-reelers.

The luxury-backs

Everyone understands what a starting RB is, but there are what I call luxury-backs. Luxury-backs are the types of runners who play in the roles of a third-down running back or scat back.

The idea of a third-down back is to change the pace and style of the runner in an attempt to catch the defense off their guard. They usually come in on third down because, generally speaking, they have more speed than the starter, can catch out of the backfield better, making them more of a threat for that down and distance. They might also be a better pass protector.

The idea behind a "scat back" (I hate the term, I'm calling them "weapon backs" from here on) is to use a good athlete in several areas of the field rather than just as a running back. Generally, they are better outside runners and a big threat for home run touchdowns. They usually can be found lining up in a receiver position and are a weapon in the passing game as much as they are the run game. They are always quite versatile and have impacts in more than the rushing game.

The concept is to basically supplement the pure running ability of a more natural running back with a runner who is a threat to do more than run the ball. There is no coming out in a dime package on 3rd and long with a guy like that on the field.

A luxury-back's offensive role varies from team to team. For the most part, they all share traits of an elusive back and, as I've said, can generally be found coming in on 3rd down and playing positions other than the lead RB role. Though there are cases, like Brian Westbrook, of a weapon-back that does indeed also play the lead role.

Brian Westbrook is the exception and a major offensive weapon.

In conclusion, the running back position if full of variety. From catching the ball to avoid the tackler to picking up pass-rusher, the running back has many responsibilities on the football field. No wonder they are such a barometer of success.


About the Undrafted Free Agent

Ron Crimson was the only player on the high school roster to not get in a game. He couldn't argue with the decision, because he sucked. Needless to say, yet stated anyway, when he entered the NBA draft following his sophomore season in college, he went undrafted. Now, Ron Crimson is the Undrafted Free Agent.

Contact the Undrafted Free Agent

Interested in informing the Undrafted Free Agent of his mistakes, advertisement opportunities, or a scoop on the latest sports scandal? (You can guess which is more likely.) Well, email him at undraftedfreeagent [at]

Look at This!

There's nothing here; I just needed to fill some space. Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! I also needed to balance it out a bit.

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