You can look at the running game as having three components:
- running back
A good scheme is one step ahead of the opponent and attacks the weakness of the defense, taking advantage of mismatches. It's the coaches putting the players in position to succeed, as they like to say.
Blocking is execution of play by all the other players on the offense, winning their matchups and creating the open lanes for the RB to find.
The individual skill and repertoire and execution of the running back, whether he has the vision to see the hole and the burst to get through it and the power or elusiveness to break or avoid tackles, determines how much is made out of the opportunity presented by the scheme and the blocking.
If you get none of the above, the defense knows what you're going to do, you whiff on your blocks, and the RB can't escape the penetration, it's a TFL.
If you get one right, maybe the back can use his skill to get past to the line of scrimmage despite an otherwise broken play. Or you can block it up for a short gain despite the defense knowing what's coming and the back can get what's blocked. A short gain.
If you get two of them right, you can get a nice gain.
But if you get all three right, that's a big play. You attack the defense's weakness and take advantage of mismatches, the players make all their blocks, and the RB takes advantage of the opening to rip off a long gain.
So the thing is, you're going to have a mix of all of these in every game. Every team. Even the best rushing teams have lots of very short gains and some negative plays.
Running the ball is a matter of chances. The more chances you have, the more likely you are for all three aspects to succeed and to hit the big play.
Now, Felix Jones is a superior talent at running back.
His overall production has been limited due to low number of carries per game, and injuries that kept his out of games. But what if we ask what if? What if he gets a regular load of 15-20 carries per game, and what if he stays healthy and keep up that production through the season?
Look at his big play production. The NFL stats break down plays by 20+ and 40+ yards. 40+ yards = "explosive" and "home run threat" and "take it to the house from anywhere on the field" as they say.
But how many carries did they get?
Johnson had 358 carries to get seven 40+ plays. One 40+ per 51 carries.
Charles had 190 carries to get five 40+ plays. One 40+ per 38 carries.
Gore had 229 carries to get four 40+ plays. One 40+ per 57 carries.
Felix Jones had 116 carries to get four 40+ plays. One 40+ per 29 carries.
39 other RBs in the NFL had more carries than Felix Jones and didn't get four 40+ plays.
In this last game, we saw our first glimpse this season of Felix Jones as a feature back. He got 15 carries. And he got 109 yards. That's a whopping 7.3 yard average. Johnson had 131 yards on 19 carries for 6.9 ypc, which is also huge (and embarrassing for our D, but they do have one of the best running games in the league), so Johnson got more yards in the game, but Felix was actually the more effective back per carry. And the Titans have a good run defense.
Johnson and Jones both got stoppered up by bad scheme or blocking at times and had a lot of 1 and 2 and 3 yard runs, and both had a few of those 6-13 yard runs. But both broke through when the scheme and blocking worked especially well and presented the opportunity. Johnson had plays of 42 and 29 yards, while Jones had plays of 34 and 20 yards.
Now a must read is Bob Sturm's Decoding Garrett for this game, where he breaks down a few plays good and bad and shows what's working and not working in the offense, with video (thanks to DC Fanatic). The first two plays he analyzes from this game are Felix's 20- and 34-yard runs. Well, it turns out they were actually the same play.
The scheme is good. 21 personnel with 2 backs and a TE and 2 WRs. Both WRs are wide right forcing the secondary to shift to that side, but with the FB offset left and TE on the left side setting up a power run to that side.
And the blockers execute. On the first play (Felix's first carry of the game), Free and newly reacquired TE Scott Chandler playing in the FB spot both make great blocks and a pulling Bigg actually takes out two defenders at once (a great play despite his otherwise awful game). On the second play, the 34-yard run, Chandler and Free make their blocks again and this time Holland pulls and makes a solid block.
The scheme is good, and the blockers make their plays. But what Sturm says here and I think he's right... "I think this is a 7-8 yard gain if Marion is running it." MB3 has his strengths and his usefulness. But he is not a superior talent like Felix Jones. This is a big play because the back has the talent to make the most of the convergence of great scheme and execution.
It doesn't happen very often. Running the ball is a matter of chances. The more chances you give a superior talent, the more likely he is get a good scheme and good blocking to take advantage of and make the big play.
The more often Felix has the ball in his hands, the greater odds you have for 20, 30 and 40+ plays. Marion isn't going to make those plays.
We saw it at the end of last season in the two Eagles games, when Felix got 15 carries for 91 yards (6.1 ypc) with a 49 yard TD, and 16 carries for 148 yards (9.3 ypc) with a 73 yard TD. Then we saw again it in this game when he finally got 15 carries (compared to 8, 7 and 7 in the first three games).
Overshadowed by the loss was Felix's first career regular season 100-yard game, and hopefully the start of a trend that will see Felix getting a lot more chances from here on out, and more regular big plays from our running game.
And one thing that bodes well for more of Felix is his performance on plays when he didn't have the ball in his hands. Marion is known for his excellent pass protection, which may be one reason why they have been slow to give Felix more work. You can't just give it to Felix every time he's in the game, and to carry a feature role he has to be a complete back including his pass protection. But Felix made some very nice plays blocking in this game. Watch Felix in this play that Sturm also highlights. Better yet, listen to this play, and you'll hear him absolutely blast the DE, lifting him up off the ground and knocking him back, and then going in for a nice second hit as soon as he recovers. Plays like this give Garrett the confidence to put Felix in more often in more situations.
Of course none of that matters if the team is giving the game away through an accumulation of mental errors (aka stupid mistakes).
But now that we're half-way through the week and focused more on the next game and the rest of the season than the bitterness of the last loss (hey, we could still go 13-3 lol), we can try to take some silver linings from the loss.
The good news is that we can see what Felix can mean to this offense, and the huge potential he has to be a feature back and make big plays... if only given the chances.