Game Changers – Week 8
There are plays in every football game that impacts who wins and who loses. They can occur on offense, defense or special teams. Sometimes it’s a play everyone sees, like a long touchdown run or pass, a sack, or turnover. Other times it’s a play that goes unnoticed. It could be a key block on offense or a defender who doesn’t make the tackle himself but executes his assignment, allowing a teammate to make the play.
The Ravens lost to the Panthers 36-21 this past Sunday at Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, NC, despite the fact that many online sports betting sites listed the Ravens as 2 1/2 point favorites. Frankly, it was difficult to find many positive game changing performances from that game, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any.
I think Michael Pierce played well on the defensive line and wanted to show the big man some love. But I also think Alex Collins played well, so I decided to take a deep dive into his 14-yard TD run in the first quarter. Why just one play? Because I think there are several elements to unpack in terms of the success of that play. But I also think it’s illustrative of what the future of the Ravens’ run game might look like and reminds us of some things that made Collins so effective last year.
Primarily due to the Ravens falling behind in the 2nd quarter, Collins only carried the ball 12 times for 49 yards, averaging 4.45 yards per carry (YPC) with one TD. He also had two catches (on two targets) for 14 yards. But for a fumble and 11-yard loss on a play where he was hit in the backfield, a step after receiving the hand-off, Collins’ limited opportunities may have looked even better.
Collins 14-yard TD run
Q3, 7:57, 2nd & 10 at CAR14
Here’s a play diagram (courtesy of www.firstdownplaybook.com) to give you an ideal of what the zone read concept looks like draw up. Some differences between the diagram and the Ravens’ play include: Collins aligned directly behind Jackson, TE Hayden Hurst motioning across the formation (he’s the Y in the diagram) to arc block for Jackson, and the Panthers defensive secondary personnel (nickel) and alignment are different.
Lamar Jackson is at QB and the Ravens are in a 2×2 pistol formation (Collins is three yards directly behind Jackson). Collins does a nice job breaking tackles on this run but I wanted to show this pre-snap still shot of the offensive and defensive formations to illustrate a schematic point.
Notice how many Panthers defenders are in the “box”? I count six: four defensive linemen and two linebackers. The box is an area that essentially spans from the right to left tackle (could also encompass a TE aligned on the LoS) in width and extending about 3-5 yards away (towards the defense) from the LoS in depth.
Collins 14yd TD Q1 7_75 all22 pic.twitter.com/9xNl80wCHt
— michael crawford (@abukari) November 1, 2018
At this point you may be thinking, ‘but the Ravens only have five offensive linemen to block the Panthers’ six box defenders, that doesn’t favor the offense.’ But here’s where having Jackson at QB creates a schematic advantage for the Ravens. Jackson is executing a zone read concept, i.e. reading an unblocked defensive end (DE) to determine whether to ‘give’ the ball to a RB or ‘keep’ the ball and run it himself. The Ravens choose to read DE Julius Peppers (90).
By choosing to read Peppers, the play design has reduced the Panthers’ 6:5 box advantage to an even 5:5 matchup. Because Peppers has to determine if Jackson will give the ball to Collins or keep it himself, the momentary indecision and resulting hesitation those options create, effectively ‘blocks’ Peppers, without actually having to assign a player to physically block him. This is also an example of how Jackson can still be a threat in the run game without actually running the ball, subjecting himself to more hits.
Additionally, at the snap, WR Willie Snead flares out towards the right sideline, pulling SCB Captain Munnerlyn (41) with him. This makes it more difficult for Munnerlyn to fold back into the box area and provide support vs a run to his side of the field.
Collins 14yd TD Q1 7_75 replay pic.twitter.com/qQ4sFbuDmQ
— michael crawford (@abukari) November 1, 2018
Because RT Orlando Brown Jr didn’t have to block Peppers, he was able to immediately climb to the 2nd level and position himself to block LB Luke Kuechly (59). Since the “zone” in zone read is typically an inside zone run (as it is on this play), zone blocking rules apply. In this case that means Skura is ‘uncovered’ (no defensive player aligned over him playside) and able to climb to the 2nd level and block LB Thomas Davis (58) while Yanda blocks the shaded NT Dontari Poe (95).
Now let’s focus on Collins. After Jackson ‘gives’ him the ball, Collins works towards his left, behind Yanda’s block on Poe. Take a moment to appreciate how far Yanda drives Poe from where he was initially aligned. As Collins crosses the LoS, he faces an unblocked 2nd level defender, SS Eric Reid (25). Because this blocking scheme doesn’t assign a blocker to Reid, Collins is responsible for beating him. Collins plants his left foot in the ground and cuts away from Reid. But credit Reid for continuing to pursue, closing space and getting in position to wrap Collins. Somehow, Collins is able to spin through Reid’s wrap, while also lowering his shoulder to absorb contact from and bounce off LB Davis who was able to defeat Skura’s block. Collins’ finishes the run by planting a stiff-arm in SCB Munnerlyn’s (41) face, creating the space he needed to outrun Munnerlyn to the end zone.
This play demonstrates some of the traits that made Collins such a revelation in the 2017 season. The agility/quickness to elude defenders in tight spaces coupled with the play strength/balance to run through contact and finish runs. Awesome right? So why is he only averaging 3.65 yards per carry through the first 8 games of this season? In my opinion, there are a number of factors to consider:
— changes along the OL,
— facing different opponent defenses,
— teams having an opportunity to study the Ravens run schemes over the off-season,
— perhaps Collins pressing a little at times, trying to make the big play, and
According to Wikipedia (yes, i know there are probably better sources to define regression, don’t judge me), “In statistics, regression toward (or to) the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.”
Through the first eight games of 2017, Collins carried the ball 80 times for 478 yards at a YPC of 5.98. Is 5.98 YPC on that number of carries, over that number of games extreme? Yes, it is. Historically extreme. Since the merger in 1970, only 6 other RBs averaged 5.98 YPC or better on at least 80 carries during the first 8 games of a season. 5.98 YPC was nearly a full 2 yards more than the average YPC in 2017 (4.1) and is also 1.68 yards higher than the average YPC so far through 2018 (4.3).
Some regression was inevitable. Did it hit a little harder than we expected? Yeah, it probably did. So where does that leave us on Collins? Tuesday, the Ravens signed former Green Bay Packers WR turned RB Ty Montgomery. We’ve also seen several Ravens RBs get opportunities to carry the ball so far this season including: Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon (who could return this season), Gus Edwards and Delance Turner.
Oh and before I forget, Collins was listed as a limited participant in practice Wednesday with a foot injury.
Is Collins a one-year wonder? Will his history of fumbling (three fumbles this season) become a more persistent issue? Is it time to shake things up in the backfield? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I’ll say this: I’m believer in Collins’ talent.
I’ll also say that I think you have to look at his results so far this year with some context in order to evaluate his performance fairly.