At the recent league meetings Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock both spoke about the running back a being a position of need. Gruden said he wanted a running back who can block, catch, and run the ball, stating that those kinds of backs are “hard to find.”
Shortly after the league meetings Isaiah Crowell was signed by the Raiders. The 5-year veteran was a former highly touted recruit out of high school who was eventually dismissed from the University of Georgia football team for disciplinary issues including a weapons arrest. Crowell got his life back in order at Alabama State University before eventually going undrafted in 2014 and signing with the Browns.
The background on Isaiah Crowell is important because if not for the off field problems at Georgia — a school that has churned out first round RB talent like Knowshon Moreno, Todd Gurley, and Sony Michel in recent years — Crowell would likely have been a high draft pick.
et’s take a look at Crowell’s game and see if he is the feature back Gruden is looking for.
Grinding out tough yards
Crowell is the type of back who falls forward after contact. On this outside run he delivers a blow to the safety, sending two would-be-tacklers to the ground. He manages to stay on his feet after this collision to get a few extra yards at the end of this run.
If Marshawn Lynch doesn’t return to the Raiders, the offense will be in need of a back who can finish runs like this.
A 51-game starter in his career, Crowell isn’t just a power back, he has some finesse in his game as well. His offensive line doesn’t do him many favors on this run but he changes directions multiple times to evade tacklers before beating Von Miller around the corner to get 7 yards on what could have been a run for a loss.
This type of run doesn’t happen every game for Crowell who prefers to put his foot in the ground and accelerate to the second level without the extra moves. With improved run blocking in front of him he shouldn’t have to dance like this in order to get yardage.
When Crowell gets a lane, he can do damage. Wide zone to the right, he puts his foot in the ground and barrels in between the guard and tackle. He shrugs off an arm-tackle before beating two defensive backs in a race to the endzone.
Crowell shows he can really scoot if given the chance. Making this play on a zone run play should be encouraging to Raiders fans who will get another year for Tom Cable to prove his zone blocking scheme is really the best thing for the Raiders.
This run play against Denver is called “Duo.” Like a zone play, the offensive linemen will double the defensive linemen in front of them. But unlike a zone play, neither will come off this block instead resetting the line of scrimmage and allowing the RB to account for the unblocked linebacker. Crowell reads aggressive fits from the defense and bounces the play outside. His ability to put his foot in the ground and change direction while maintaining full speed is fun to watch and ends up sending two Broncos to the turf on this TD run.
These long runs weren’t an aberration for Crowell who’s had his share of big plays in his career. Crowell posted long of 77 yards in 2018 and a long of 85 yards in 2016. A back isn’t making plays like that in the NFL without legit speed.
Against Jacksonville, Crowell had to help his rookie QB stay alive in the face of a fearsome pass rush. The 5-11, 225-pound back does a great job recognizing the blitzing linebacker up the middle even though the defense showed pressure off the edge. His technique however is lacking. He has a tendency to stop his feet and “catch” blitzers instead of delivering a blow. He also ducks his head on the play above.
That tendency to catch blitzers rears its ugly head on this rep against the Vikings. Watch how Crowell gathers his feet and braces for impact while the defender is still 3 yards away. Crowell ends up getting tossed backwards and his man gets credit for the sack. The best backs in pass protection attack the rusher and meet him as soon as they can, giving the QB some extra room to work with.
Crowell is not a reliable pass protector. For this reason fellow Jets RB Bilal Powell saw many of the 3rd down reps and was on the field in obvious passing situations.
Catching the ball out of the backfield
Catching the ball is the least developed part of Crowell’s game. This is a simple concentration drop that happens when a player is thinking about making his next move instead of securing the catch. Part of the reason for Crowell’s sparse usage in the pass game is his limited route tree. He was asked to run this “chute route” off play-action the most in 2018. He also ran a few crossing patterns and swing routes as well but that’s about it.
The premier running backs in today’s NFL (Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, Le’Veon Bell, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey) all run routes downfield. They have the ability to attack defense down the seam despite starting their route in the backfield. This is not in Crowell’s game and Richard or a rookie RB likely will get that responsibility.
That being said, Crowell can be called upon occasionally as a pass catcher. He is better with the ball in his hands and is a tough man to take down 1-on-1 in the open field.
Crowell is not a complete feature back in today’s NFL. He does not have the skill set to stay on the field for all 3 downs on a consistent basis. His pass blocking is the first area that needs to improve. If he can’t keep the QB upright, Gruden will pull him from the game quickly.
On early downs Crowell can be an explosive back who can produce in a variety of blocking schemes. He can churn out tough yards one play and break off a long run on another, showing why he was such a prized recruit out of high school. He would be at his best grinding out a game in the fourth quarter to keep a lead and drain the clock. Unfortunately he has never been on a winning team spending the first four seasons of his career in Cleveland and last year with the 4-12 Jets. If things change this season in Oakland he could be in for a career season.