Even though some sections of the fanbase were pleading for the arrival of another run-first quarterback, it still wasn’t exactly a surprise when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in the fifth round of the NFL draft.
Robinson can be somewhat of a polarising figure. Many will say that he was only a fifth round pick, why should we care. Others will rightfully point out that he doesn’t even have a real position or that he is just an athlete who took advantage of lesser athletes in college, something that shouldn’t work in the NFL. Even though all of those things are projected as negatives by many, they are reasons why I am fascinated by the young offensive piece.
There is no doubting that Robinson is a project, he hasn’t shown himself well as a receiver, didn’t really work out as a running-back, is too small to be a tight end and proved in college that he can’t be an NFL caliber quarterback. But today’s NFL is full of players who rely on their athleticism over their football IQ or technique to be stars. At least, they relied on their athleticism to get them to the league before they developed those aspects of the game.
At best, Robinson may only be a third down back, but the term third down back isn’t really accurate anymore. Third down backs were so named because they came in on third downs as part of the passing game. Because there are many, many more pass oriented offenses in today’s NFL, the prominence and importance of the position is much greater than just as a situational contributor. Players such as Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead are no longer afterthoughts for defensive coordinators creating gameplans.
Because the league has been spread out so much, players who excel in space are now a major commodity. Ideally you can find players who excel in space but also have all the other aspects of an all-around player. When you don’t have the luxury of finding one of those players, you have to get creative to put those players in space and use their athleticism to get down the field.
There are many ways to do this, but here are three examples from Doug Martin’s rookie season last year.
On this play, the Buccaneers have come out with two tight ends and a fullback to block for Doug Martin. With their offensive linemen, that means that there are eight blockers in position to pave a way for Martin. The Panthers have responded to this tight formation with nine men in the box, but one of those players is much further outside of the tackle box than the others.
This creates a large gap between defenders 1 and 4 in the defense, while there are only two defensive linemen to the left of the center. With those four primary defenders in that area, the Buccaneers are looking to create a running lane with their center, left guard, left tackle, left tight end and fullback. Each player is in position to get good leverage on their assignment.
There is a lot happening here, but the ultimate goal is to get Martin on the edge. If the Buccaneers execute effectively and act quick enough, every player who initially lined up to the right of the center will be taken out of the play.
Ted Larson, the center, immediately sprints past the defensive tackle lined up over him to locate Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker on the second level. Left guard Jeremy Zuttah drops back and pulls outside of left tackle so that he is running in front of his running back. This means that left tackle Donald Penn must crash inside to take the defensive tackle out of the play, the defensive tackle is trapped and has no chance of getting around Penn from this position. Tight end Nate Byham is responsible for the right defensive end, but has leverage from the start because of his lineup at the snap.
Zuttah(76) and fullback Erik Lorig(41) locate their assignments in the open field and engage them. Zuttah has his assignment under control, but Lorig is yet to meet his. That combined with Byham struggling to anchor the larger defensive end forces Martin to hesitate for a split second. Martin is a very smart runner and understands that he needs Lorig’s block to create the space he needs to come free on the edge.
Although Byham does a good job to maintain his block, he needs Martin’s speed to quickly alter the angle that takes the defensive end completely out of the play. Martin is able to get skinny and uses his very nimble feet to find his way through the narrow avenue to the sideline.
With Zuttah and Lorig making excellent blocks, Martin is in the clear with no defender in his way immediately. Thomas Davis is coming free at the top of the image however.
Davis comes off of his block down the field as you would expect him to against an offensive lineman in space and he has the perfect angle to make the tackle on Martin. This is where Martin’s acceleration and elusiveness comes into play. He is able to take away the angle advantage that Davis has by shimmying to the side before sprinting down the sideline.
Davis doesn’t tackle Martin, but he was the difference between a long run and touchdown run. By the time Martin gets past him and down the sideline, defenders have caught up to him and closed the space to the sideline. Martin is stopped from taking it to the endzone, but he still has a relatively easy 20 yard gain for a first down because of he let his blocking develop before showing off his speed and elusiveness in the open field.
Translating this play to the Jaguars and Dennard Robinson isn’t difficult to do. Robinson may need to be taught how to allow runs to develop, but if he can understand that aspect of the game, he could easily have turned this exact play into a touchdown run because he is potentially more elusive and faster in the open field than Martin.
Later in the same game as Play One, the Buccaneers come out with a similar formation except this time Dallas Clark, one of the tight ends, motions across the formation and settles in a wide receiver stance just outside of the left tackle.
The Buccaneers still have the same overall shape as Play One, while the defense still has nine men in the box. This means that the Buccaneers are still one man short when it comes to blocking to create a running lane for Martin.
Freeman gives Martin the football over his right shoulder, as he’s facing his own endzone, so it appears that Martin is going to run straight between the left guard and center with his fullback leading the way. When Martin is getting the football, there is a huge gap in that area(the red circle).
However, there are also three defenders in that gap with only fullback Erik Lorig there to clean up. It appears initially that the Panthers have played this run perfectly, but the as soon as Lorig gets near the line of scrimmage, he breaks off towards the right sideline where center Ted Larson is already leading the way. Martin is some distance behind those two, because he has to sell the fake more than them in order to make the defense shift to that side of the field.
The two defenders who are marked with 1s over their heads have given up all of their leverage because of the initial fake to the left side of the offense. Both Buccaneers’ players blocking them are able to wall them off because they overcommitted to one side. The defender with a 2 next to him has beaten the center and he is in a perfect position to disrupt the play.
However, Martin is quick enough and fast enough to glide past the defensive tackle before turning upfield into what is a monumentally large running lane. While the play design and timing of the play call was perfect, the execution wasn’t from the offensive line. Right guard Jamon Meredith didn’t get underneath his assignment enough to prevent him from penetrating into the backfield, but he did have the right angle to wall him off once Martin made him miss in the backfield.
Martin is a special talent with the ball in his hands. That is the exact same description you can put on Denard Robinson. Putting him in these situations is how he will be able to craft out an NFL career as a running-back.
When the Jaguars drafted Robinson to be a running-back, my first thought was that he would be terrifying to defend in the screen game. Much like a CJ Spiller or Darren Sproles, Robinson’s threat as a receiver coming out of the backfield will be something defenses will always have to prepare for. He may not be a refined receiving talent yet, but the chances of a linebacker or safety stopping him in the open field with the ball are very low.
Space is the key to successfully using Robinson on screen plays. It’s not a simple matter of running blockers out and throwing him the ball with a cavalry of big bodies taking defenders out of his way. That is only a necessity for players who can’t make defenders miss in the open field. Instead, the Jaguars should use Robinson on screen plays with fewer blockers as a way to create more space for him. On this Doug Martin touchdown reception, the Buccaneers ran exactly the type of play the Jaguars should be looking to this year.
At the point when Martin catches the ball, he has just two blockers further down the field than him, with two immediate defenders to worry about.
By the time Martin has turned around and advanced downfield, his first blocker has completely missed the linebacker in space and the defensive lineman is gaining ground. This is the point when Martin turns on his after-burners however and uses his acceleration to free himself down the field. There is so much space on the field that Martin doesn’t need to make a read or wait for his blocking to develop, he simply relies on his physical tools to carry him deeper into the second level.
With a little help from his second blocker coming across the field, Martin is able to make a big play.
Although the second block sprung him further down the field, it didn’t put him in the clear. Again, Martin needed to rely on his ability in space to evade two more defenders before sprinting past the safety coming across the field. The end result from a relatively simple looking screen play?
A clear run to the endzone.
Special talents don’t need space, but when you can give it to them, they will inevitably put points on the board. If Robinson is the special talent his reputation says he is, then the Jaguars will be looking for him to make plays like this on a relatively regular basis at the NFL level. He may not be a refined player of any position at the professional level, but he is never going to lose that ability to make plays in space or beat defenders with the ball in his hands. That is not something that is coached into or out of a player.
Robinson may not be Doug Martin as a rookie, in fact the odds are firmly stacked against him being anywhere close, but if he can bring the same level of explosion that they can sprinkle into their offense, then he will have been worth the fifth round pick they spent on him.
Having Maurice Jones-Drew and Robinson in the backfield together may not be the same as having Chris Johnson and LenDale White or Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, it is still a very intriguing addition for the Jaguars this year.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf