Analyzing the NFL is like doing a crossword on a roller-coaster.
Plays on the field come too quickly and drag you in too many different directions for you to take in everything that you are experiencing. If you focus on figuring out the mental challenges on the paper, you will not enjoy the physical thrills of the ride. If you sit back to enjoy the ride, you won’t be able to finish the crossword.
Fortunately, most of us realize that the crossword can wait until the ride has finished, even if some of us still look to forge on with a stuttering pen guided by a shaking hand and a bouncing brain. When we rush to that judgment, we often mislabel accurate answers by forcing others to fit together.
The statistical output of BenJarvus Green-Ellis during the 2012 regular season caused some roller-coaster riders to rush their cross-word answers and come out with their own forced answers.
Green-Ellis signed for the Cincinnati Bengals to be their feature back after leaving the New England Patriots as a free agent. In New England, he wasn’t missed as his main contribution came as a short-yardage back. Every other aspect of his play was easily replaced with a larger role for Stevan Ridley.
In his first season with the Bengals, Green-Ellis ran for 1,094 yards and six touchdowns. Decent numbers, but a relatively underwhelming 3.9 yards per carry. In order to understand the limitations of Green-Ellis, and why he must be replaced this off-season, it is best to analyze his biggest plays from this past season.
Cincinnati Bengals 34-10 Oakland Raiders.
After the Bengals forced the Raiders to punt on their first drive, Andy Dalton’s offense took over at the CIN 42. One quick pass to Mohamed Sanu and a three yard run for Green-Ellis set the team up close to midfield.
The Bengals lined up with one wide receiver split wide left, AJ Green, two tight ends to the right-hand-side and a fullback lined up directly in front of Green-Ellis in the backfield.
The Raiders countered with a formation that is heavily altered by the presence of Green. Green is an elite receiver who is arguably the best in the league. Leaving him in single coverage is a death sentence for 90 percent of defensive backs in the NFL. Although he may not have a reputation as a burner, he is exceptionally adept at beating defenders deep for big gains.
With Green’s deep threat on the outside, and this being a prime play-action situation for the Bengals because of the down, distance, formation and spot on the field, Matt Giordano, the Raiders’ deep safety, is set to Green’s side of the field and playing very deep off the ball.
Because Giordano is that deep, the Raiders have nine defenders in the box to counter the Bengals’ eight blockers plus Green-Ellis. However, with the Bengals having two tight ends on the far side of their formation, the Raiders have pushed two of their defensive backs to the bottom of the formation. This is a matchup problem for the Bengals because while they have two eligible receivers at the bottom of their formation, one is a Dennis Roland, an offensive tackle who checked in as an eligible receiver.
After the snap, Roland and fullback Chris Pressley are able to double down on the Raiders’ interior defensive lineman. Roland was initially beaten to the inside at the snap, but Pressley arrived from the inside to help seal the hole. If the outside Raiders’ player(blue line designating) had been tighter within the formation, Roland would have been forced to leave Pressley and the fullback would have been overmatched against a defensive tackle.
Because Roland stays in, he and Pressley give Green-Ellis a simple decision through a wide hole in the defense.
Green-Ellis has a relatively large hole to run through, because of the excellent blocking from Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith crashing down inside. Because the defender who initially lined up wide of Roland has come through the hole underneath rather than drift across the formation, Green-Ellis has nobody between him and the endzone ahead or to the right-hand-side.
Without breaking a single tackle attempt or making any kind of difficult adjustment or read, Green-Ellis has been sprung into the secondary untouched.
This position is what every running-back desires.
Green-Ellis is in the clear, with just green field and him between the endzone. However, his lack of aggression means that he is already doubting himself and looking at Matt Giordano, who is in a position to catch him, but needs to catch up to cover the angle. Instead of putting his head down and sprinting to the pylon, Green-Ellis hesitates and doesn’t power through the end of his run.
After 40 yards or so, on a run that went through the B gap on third and one, Green-Ellis is first touched by a defender at this point. Giordano hits him at the four yard line before he stretches forward to reach the pylon. Green-Ellis is originally given a touchdown, but on review he was knocked out of bounds short.
The Bengals did score a touchdown with Green-Ellis two plays later, but his lack of speed and aggression was exposed on his longest run of the season. He was not made to work hard for his statistical gain, it was handed to him on a platter and he still only nibbled at the main course rather than devouring it with dessert.
On a just order of merit for this 48 yard gain, the play-design, AJ Green, the offensive line and the Raiders’ defense would all line up for their reward ahead of Green-Ellis. However, in the instant analysis world we live in, Green-Ellis is assigned with the representation in the box score.
Cincinnati Bengals 20-13 San Diego Chargers
Andy Dalton had just thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter. The score was tied at 7-7 and the Bengals faced a second and three thanks to a Mohamed Sanu 7 yard reception.
At their own 24 yard line, on second and three, the Bengals come out with two receivers and a tight end to the right and AJ Green alone at the bottom of the formation. The Chargers are crowding the line of scrimmage by dropping their strong safety, Eric Weddle, over the Bengals’ left tackle. He motioned there just ahead of the snap, which would incline that he is set to blitz.
Weddle does indeed blitz off the edge, but the Bengals have the perfect play-call that takes him out of the play. Green-Ellis is running a counter that goes through the Bengals’ C gap between the right tackle and the tight end. Excellent blocking from Jermaine Gresham has sealed the outside edge of that lane, but Andre Smith needs to time his help on the Chargers’ nose tackle before getting out to block Takeo Spikes in the hole.
Spikes is the only linebacker capable of getting to Green-Ellis before he comes through the hole because of Gresham’s excellent block and the tie up on the interior.
Smith executes his block perfectly to take Spikes out of the play, while Gresham sustains his and even pushes Shaun Philips further off balance. Green-Ellis is left with two options. He either attacks the inside shoulder of Smith, or pushes past his outside shoulder. With Andrew Hawkins coming into position to block a defensive back downfield(far left of screen shot) and Spikes being pushed inside by Smith, it’s an easy choice.
With Hawkins clearing his lane, only safety Corey Lynch has a chance to make a play on Green-Ellis. Lynch is a below-par safety who wouldn’t start for most teams in the NFL…
…and as such, it is easy for Green-Ellis, the much more physical back, to brush him aside with a good stiff-arm.
However, once Green-Ellis breaks to the sideline, his lack of explosion shows up again. Not only is he knocked out of bounds after 40 yards after being in a perfect scoring position, he is pushed out by Weddle. Weddle was the safety who initially blitzed off the edge and was taken out of the play by its design. He should never have caught up to a running-back from that position when in the open field.
Once again, this run asks very little of Green-Ellis individually and shows off his lack of explosion. Outside of a relatively simple decision at the line of scrimmage, Green-Ellis only had to fend off a weak tackle attempt from a smaller safety to get all he possibly could out of the run.
Cincinnat Bengals 20-19 Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys had lost Josh Brent and Jerry Brown this weekend after the Brown tragedy that involved Brent. Without Brent’s involvement in the rotation, the Cowboys took a hit, while the Bengals were able to move the ball on a regular basis regardless throughout the game.
Much like his run against the Oakland Raiders, AJ Green is alone at the top of the formation and drawing a safety, Gerald Sensabough, to his side of the field. Unlike that scenario however, this play occurs on first and 10, not third and one, and there is a wide receiver, Mohamed Sanu, no the field instead of an eligible tackle.
This means that the Cowboys are deeper off the ball than the Raiders were, therefore they are less susceptible to one good lane leading to a huge gain. The Cowboys have nine defenders in the box and are set up well to stop the play called by Bengals’ offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
Once again, Green-Ellis doesn’t need to improvise with the protection he is afforded. A gaping hole is developing in front of him that he can easily slide through. He is not explosive enough to be tempted to kick it outside often, so it would be an incredibly bad decision for him to ignore that hole.
Kyle Cook is maintaining the nose tackle’s attention on the inside, while Andre Smith has sealed the other side of the lane. Kevin Zeitler has moved onto the second level and will have pushed the linebacker out of the play by the time Green-Ellis hits the hole. That leaves him with just Mike Jenkins to beat on the second level.
Jenkins is a notoriously week tackler as a cornerback, when he got trapped into this safety position, he had no chance against Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis shed his tackle attempt, before breaking into the open field. Gerald Sensabough was not in position to make an immediate impact on the play because of AJ Green’s presence drawing him to the other side of the field.
Sensabough being so far away puts Green-Ellis in scoring position again. However, Green-Ellis’ lack of pace means that Sensabough wins the angle almost instantly. Green-Ellis is already ceding ground and drifting towards the sideline to inevitably tackled, opposed to accelerating onto his second gear and sprinting down the sideline for a touchdown.
This kind of position is a sure touchdown for players such as Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Doug Martin and Jamaal Charles. Even less celebrated backs such as Stevan Ridley, Reggie Bush, Matt Forte, Daryl Richardson and Frank Gore would get more out of the run than Green-Ellis, while a bigger back like Steven Jackson even eclipses his explosion in the open field.
Inevitably, Green-Ellis is taken down after a 39 yard gain when a slightly better back would have doubled his net gain.
Of course, Green-Ellis has shown the awareness to get there on these plays, but it must be remembered that these are his longest runs from the whole season. This is his ceiling. Despite playing in the same situation all season long, he only managed seven runs longer than 20 yards and two longer than 40 yards in 278 attempts.
That is not the kind of production that warrants being a feature back in the NFL today.
Today’s NFL is a passing league. As such, Green-Ellis’ style of play isn’t beneficial for offenses. Offenses look for the backs who can break off big gains and be a dynamic presence in the passing game today, opposed to thick backs who can consistently run between the tackles to wear down the opposition.
With this year’s draft class being full of explosive and talented running-backs, the Bengals are very likely to replace Green-Ellis and would be smart to. However, these highlights also show just how important Andre Smith is to the unit, so re-signing him should be a priority also over the coming weeks.
The history records will show that Green-Ellis had a good, but not great season. However, if you wait to finish your crossword puzzle on the park bench rather than on the roller-coaster, you will realize that he severely underperformed considering his surroundings.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf