Who says the running back position has been devalued? That certainly is not the opinion of most playoff participants. Take a close look at the keys to their offensive production: Of the 12 teams in the postseason, eight feature 1,000-yard rushers, including five of the six teams starting first- or second-year quarterbacks.
Coaches have always suggested that a strong running game is a quarterback's best friend; that is certainly evident when looking at the surprising success of the young quarterbacks, particularly Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Both rookies have benefitted from playing alongside standout running backs in Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch, respectively. The presence of a legitimate workhorse in the backfield has allowed Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll to build their offensive game plans around the combination of a power running game and a dynamic play-action pass attack.
Morris, a rookie out Florida Atlantic, has been one of the NFL's biggest surprises. The sixth-round pick rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns, despite the fact that he was viewed primarily as a backup at the beginning of the preseason. However, Morris put together a string of impressive performances during the preseason that prompted Shanahan to start the rookie on opening day and abandon the platoon system he typically favors.
Lynch, a sixth-year pro acquired in a 2010 trade with the Buffalo Bills, has re-emerged as one of the top runners in pro football. Lynch posted his second 1,000-yard season with the Seahawks (and fourth of his career), rushing for 1,590 yards. He finished the season with 10 100-yard games, including four straight heading into the playoffs.
Given the significant impact Morris and Lynch have on the success of their respective squads, I decided to dig into the tape to determine who the superior player is heading into their NFC wild-card matchup:
For all of the traits that an NFL running back must possess to succeed, the ability to read and anticipate holes is most important. Great runners spot creases that ordinary running backs fail to see, which is routinely the difference between a negative run and a positive gain when lanes are clogged at the point of attack. Morris has shown surprising vision and instincts for a first-year player. He routinely hits the proper hole on the front side, but is also adept at finding the open alley on the cutback. In the Redskins' zone-based scheme, Morris' patience and anticipation allow him to consistently gain positive yards, despite the various tactics opponents utilize to slow down Washington's potent attack.
Lynch hasn't received nearly enough credit throughout his career for his remarkable skills as a runner. It's time to recognize him as one of the top running backs in the NFL. As a powerful cutback runner, Lynch utilizes his extraordinary visions, instincts and awareness to churn out yards against defenses designed to stop him with eight- and nine-man fronts. Lynch patiently slithers his way through traffic as he approaches the line before bursting through the slightest crack in the defense. His ability to feel the flow of the pursuit and attack the back-side crease with urgency is a testament to his outstanding vision and overall awareness. With Lynch averaging a robust 5.0 yards per carry, it is hard to find a runner with better instincts and vision.
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To be a an effective runner in the NFL, a back must display the capacity to run through contact consistently. Top runners are expected to break one or two tackles on every play because NFL coaches understand the challenges of blocking world-class athletes on the perimeter. In fact, coaches will routinely leave a defender unblocked in the secondary (safety or corner) and put the onus on the runner to find a way to get past him in the hole. Morris and Lynch have the capacity to do so with finesse, but both prefer to run through or over opponents at the second level.
Morris is best described as a head knocker between the tackles. He runs with low leverage and a forward body lean that leaves defenders with little surface area to target. While he will make a few nifty cuts to avoid runs at the line, he is at his best when he ducks his head and buries his shoulders into the chest of defenders attempting to take him on squarely. The toil of tackling a big, physical runner for four quarters wears down most opponents and leaves them vulnerable to big gains late in contests when fatigue prompts cowardice.
Lynch has been lauded for his relentless running style since he put on an epic display in the Seahawks' last playoff win against the New Orleans Saints. He runs with an intensity and physicality that intimidates opponents. Defenders at the second level, particularly cornerbacks and safeties, avoid hitting him high because he routinely runs through those shots and continues to churn out yards. Lynch complements his reckless style with a punishing stiff arm that sends opponents to their knees. It isn't uncommon to see him attack a pursuing defender with a forearm shiver that enables him to pick up a few extra yards at the end of a run.
Most NFL coaches would define explosiveness as stop-start quickness in the midst of traffic. Elite runners have the capacity to quickly redirect and change speeds when surrounded by multiple defenders in the hole. This allows them to turn potential negative runs into positive gains or big plays throughout the game.
Morris is a powerful, one-cut runner with deceptive quickness. He makes decisive cuts at the point of attack and rarely strings together a series of moves in succession to avoid tacklers. Part of that is by design (the Redskins encourage their running backs to be decisive with ball by strictly adhering to a rule that allows runners to make only one cut behind the line of scrimmage before hitting the hole), but Morris' running style and speed (4.7 in the 40) isn't conducive to him making a variety of cuts in traffic. However, he does flash the burst and quickness to blow through holes at the point of attack. While he lacks the top-end speed to run away from defenders down the field, Morris' ability to pop 10-yard runs makes him tough to defend.
Lynch has certainly slowed down over the years, but he remains an explosive back in the hole. He displays some of the best footwork and lateral quickness that you can find at the position. From nifty jump cuts in traffic to sudden stop-start moves to avoid defenders in the open field, Lynch makes his living slithering through multiple defenders between the tackles. Although he has lost some of the speed that he displayed when he arrived as the 12th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, he continues to pop big runs due to his combination of burst and quickness. As a result, Lynch has amassed nine runs of 20-plus yards, including a pair of runs at 40-plus.
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Most NFL offensive coordinators preach the importance of generating big plays in the running game. While every play caller would love to see his feature runner break off home runs routinely, the 10-yard run is viewed as a big play in most meeting rooms. These runs keep the chains moving and set the table for other parts of the game plan, including the play-action pass.
Morris should be considered an outstanding big-play runner under that premise. He ranks second in the NFL with 55 runs of 10-plus yards, which is the third-highest single-season total since 2001. Most importantly, he has accounted for 83 first downs on the ground. This is important to note because it has allowed the Redskins to field a potent offense without having to employ high-risk tactics that routinely result in turnovers. In addition, it has forced defensive coordinators to overplay the run, leading to big plays off play action.
Lynch also shines as a big-play weapon. He excels at moving the chains on spectacular runs; he is known for sequencing his moves to avoid multiple defenders in the hole on the way to picking up first downs. Although his 68 first downs fall short of Morris' mark, the fact that he consistently churns out positive yards gives the Seahawks' offense stability while Wilson grows from game manager to playmaker at quarterback. In addition, Lynch's stellar play as a feature back sets the table for Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin to feast on the one-on-one coverage that accompanies the eight-man fronts used to slow down Lynch.
The changing nature of offensive football in the NFL makes it imperative to have a running back with the capacity to stay on the field in every situation. Teams love to incorporate running backs into the passing game, particularly when young quarterbacks are in place, because it gives the QB a safety valve to target against blanket coverage.
Morris is not a big part of the Redskins' passing game. He finished the regular season with only 11 receptions, and the team rarely uses him beyond check-downs or screens on early downs. When Morris has received a look in the passing game, he hasn't shown special skills in the open field. He simply snags his pass, heads upfield and finishes with a positive gain.
Lynch, on the other hand, flashes dynamic skills in the passing game. He is a capable route runner on swings, flares and angles, while also excelling in the screen game. The Seahawks haven't fully capitalized on his receiving skills to this point, but have recently shown a willingness to use him in the red zone. Lynch snagged a 9-yard touchdown pass on an angle route against the San Francisco 49ers that showcased his receiving skills and strong hands. The route takes patience and superb footwork; Lynch executed it well despite his big frame. With Lynch providing the Seahawks with a viable option to turn to in the passing game, Wilson has started to send more passes in his direction in key moments.
The comparison between Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch is about as close as you can find in the NFL. Each is a big, physical running back with outstanding vision and instincts. When given the opportunity to carry 20-plus times against any defense, Morris and Lynch have the capacity to single-handedly dominate the game. In the end, I give the nod to Lynch due to his overall consistency and versatility as a runner/receiver. While Morris is right with Lynch as a playmaker, the Seattle back's steady production and occasional splash plays tip the scales in his favor.