Out with the old (No. 28), in with the new (No. 25)
Mark Twain once said this of humans: “Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.”
I think back to childhood and remember picking scabs. You’d cut yourself, watch the blood coagulate into a rough piece of skin, then rip the protective layer away with your finger. Why’d we do it? And why do so many people continue to interrupt the body’s natural healing process?
For me, there was something oddly satisfying about the slight rush of pain and the “resetting” of the biological clock. I marveled at my skin’s ability to heal itself time and time again, but as I grew up, I grew out of the habit — or so I thought.
I root for the Minnesota Vikings. Watching the team is like watching a scab form, only to have it ripped off in cruel and unexpected ways. Picking scabs is no longer amusing — it’s painful. That’s why in his later years—and at his hefty price tag—I never understood why fans so desired Adrian Peterson back in Minnesota.
He’s left wounds of the football variety that have yet to heal; another year with the Vikings would only dig deeper into the scabs that never had time to form. So, like a band-aid, Minnesota’s front office signed Latavius Murray and allowed the fan base a few years to recover.
Fortunately, the Vikings didn’t just acquire a temporary fix at running back; Murray is a better fit than Peterson in Pat Shurmur’s new-look offense in almost every way.
The Vikings signed Murray to a three-year, $15 million contract with the intention of making Oakland’s former feature back the early-down ball carrier in Minnesota. While the deal may run for three seasons, Murray’s contract can be voided after the first year, making his 2017 run more of an audition than a feature act. He’s surely an upgrade over Peterson, but it’s likely Murray splits time with Jerick McKinnon as the Vikings try to establish a running game identity this season.
Over the course of his four-year career, Murray’s been an effective option out of the backfield. As a runner behind Oakland’s top-tier offensive line, he’s gained 2,278 yards, scored 20 touchdowns, and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. Catching the football, he’s better than advertised; though he’s only caught 91 passes for 639 yards, Murray’s straight-line speed make him a threat to turn a five-yard pass into a 30-yard gain.
Last season, he split time with a pair of rookies in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richardson, outgaining the duo 788 to 467 and 491, respectively. Murray averaged just four yards per carry, though, and often came off the field in third-down situations for the smaller, more shifty backs. With McKinnon occupying a similar role in Minnesota, it won’t be a surprise to see Murray replaced in passing or hurry-up situations this season.
The Raiders did, however, rely on Murray in short-yardage situations, where he thrived. As a goal-to-go back, Murray rushed the ball 17 times and scored ten touchdowns, using his long arms and lengthy frame to stretch the football over the pylon more often than not. Unlike Matt Asiata or even Zach Line, Murray gives the Vikings a proven third or fourth-and-one back whose turned such opportunities in the past into touchdowns.
Murray is the “lead dog,” so to speak, but what’s he walking into when he sets foot in Winter Park? Immediately, he’ll find Minnesota’s offensive line is a shell of the unit he ran behind in Oakland. The Raiders fielded one of, if not the best offensive lines in all of the NFL; a group built primarily through free agency that landed fourth on Pro Football Focus’s season-ending rankings.
The Vikings, on the other hand, enter 2017 improved but searching for consistency up front. Outside of Alex Boone (left guard) and Joe Berger (center), the line is chock full of new faces. Recently-acquired tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers are immediate upgrades over any of the team’s 2016 bookends and instantly elevate the pedigree of the unit. But as a collective, cohesive group, the jury is out on how they’ll mesh under offensive line coach Tony Sparano.
Speaking of Sparano, his philosophy relies on power and man-blocking principles. Last season, the Vikings used man-blocking concepts on 28 percent of their running plays, compared to 20.7 percent for inside zone, 15.2 percent for outside zone, and 12.8 percent for power concepts. The disparity between man-blocking and Sparano’s preferred power blocking likely comes from Minnesota’s use of the shotgun; a staple of Shurmur’s west coast offense that supplements quick-hitting run plays with screens and three-step passing packages.
In Oakland, the Raiders most frequently ran the inside zone, followed closely by man-blocking concepts. Murray’s comfort as an inside-zone back—attacking the guard’s outside shoulder and reading the defense for a crease—is evident in the tape below. He should have no issue adjusting to an offense in Minnesota where the shotgun and the inside zone are already cornerstones of a still-developing run game. His biggest hurdle will come in the form of his actual blockers; can they open running lanes as the Raiders did for Murray in 2015 and 2016?
Murray is likely the early-down back for the Vikings, but head coach Mike Zimmer sees his new bell cow as a do-it-all option for the Vikings. When asked to describe Murray’s greatest strengths last week, Zimmer took no issue subtly comparing him to the departed Peterson.
“Not having to substitute him out on third down, that’s good,” Zimmer said. “We want to get him breaking tackles, getting long runs.”
Zimmer is spot-on; unlike his predecessor, Murray is skilled enough to stay on the field in passing situations, even if McKinnon’s spent the past two seasons carving that role out for himself. Peterson is one of the game’s greatest pure “runners,” but he’ll never get to Canton on the merits of his hands. Neither will Murray, for that matter, but Minnesota’s new workhorse back was often on the successful receiving end of screens, dump-offs, and designed passes from Derek Carr in Oakland.
At 6’3″ and 225 pounds, he’s also a strong pass blocker who can chip inside, pick up blitzes, and handle defensive ends on his own if needed. More broadly, as Rand Ball wrote, Murray’s five years younger than Peterson, fumbles the ball less, and creates fewer negative plays on first and second down.
Where Murray absolutely outshines Peterson, though, is running out of the shotgun.
As mentioned earlier, the Vikings primarily operated out of the shotgun in 2016, running 654 of a total 1,007 plays (65 percent) from the formation. Of those plays, Shurmur called 121 designed runs, which averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. And of those, Peterson carried the ball eight times for 17 yards, finishing the season with a measly 2.1 yards per carry.
Murray, on the other hand, took 86 handoffs from the shotgun for 366 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry in an offense similarly built around the shotgun. The Raiders ran 66 percent of their plays from the formation last season and, as a team, averaged five yards per carry.
Clearly, Oakland fielded the better of the two offensive lines, but blocking aside, Murray is simply a more fluid, patient, and decisive running back when starting from out of the “gun.” Even as the single back in under-center formations, Murray hasn’t been all that far off Peterson’s past performances. Comparing their impressive 2015 seasons, Murray averaged 4.1 yards per carry under center while Peterson, in a league-leading year, averaged 4.9 yards per attempt.
Courtesy of NFL Game Pass (all clips from 2016 regular season)
The “Inside” Track
Much of Murray’s 2016 success came as a result of his line’s fantastic inside zone blocking, but the team also added another wrinkle to the playbook — the opposite zone. As Ted Nguyen notes at Inside the Pylon, the opposite zone is simply inside zone with flipped first movement from the running back.
Instead of opening with the flow of the line—in this case, to the left—Murray opens to the right, creating better angles for his blockers to reach double teams and move to the second level. He makes the same read of the play side guard’s outside shoulder, finding a crease as determined by the positioning of the blocked defenders.
Murray presses on his primary path before cutting through the A-gap and juking the safety in the alley. Like Peterson, Murray can make defenders miss in one-on-one situations, and when that defender is the last line of defense, a sudden juke or stutter step is the key to scoring touchdowns.
This example is traditional inside zone; a concept, if you remember, the Vikings used 20 percent of the time in 2016. Here, Murray opens to the right with his offensive line, who step in unison to make a path for their running back. Murray again reads the outside shoulder of the play side guard (No. 66); if he sees the guard’s backside, he cuts upfield, and if the defensive tackle crosses the guard’s face, Murray tries to bounce outside or looks backside for a cutback lane.
The guard seals the A-gap, giving Murray another defined lane to attack. Before Murray cuts upfield, though, he makes sure to press outside until the very last moment, forcing the defense to flow further and further out of position to their left. Once he reaches the guard, Murray makes a single jump-cut, propels himself upfield, and breaks two tackles before gaining 14 yards.
Bonus Examples (Inside/Opposite Zone)
Murray is more of a “glider” than “punisher,” but his size makes him difficult to bring down. Watch as he immediately finds the cutback lane, plants his right foot in the ground, and delivers a blow to the inside linebacker. The linebacker is clearly waiting for Murray, but Murray’s second effort carries the defender three yards before he’s finally brought to the ground.
He’s a big back, but Murray’s also a burner with big-play ability. Here, he follows his fullback to the B-gap, feels his guard losing the battle up front, and plants his right foot to sneak through the small running lane created by the overaggressive defensive tackle. Once he’s free, Murray’s hard to catch; he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at his Pro Day in 2013.
Again, Murray makes use of the jump cut to find the cutback lane and beat linebackers to the point of contact. Notice how, like the other clips, it takes multiple defenders to tackle Murray and bring him to the ground. He doesn’t necessarily deliver the contact like Peterson, but Murray isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and churn his legs for a few extra yards.
Nothings into Somethings
For all their success as a unit, the Raiders’ offensive line wasn’t without its faults. At times, Murray needed to create plays on his own and turn broken assignments into positive gains. His footwork, balance, and speed made it possible for Murray to do just that when defenders broke through the line at the snap.
Look familiar? Yes, it’s another opposite zone, only this time, the blocking doesn’t hold up long enough for Murray to read his blocks. The defensive end crosses the face of the tight end on the left of the line, forcing Murray to bounce his run outside immediately. He times his jump cut with the blitz, creating just enough hesitation from the force defender to allow for some running room toward the sideline.
Murray’s too big to take down head on and packs a powerful stiff arm. He beats the cornerback to the edge with a right jab to the face and nearly scores following a similar move on the closing safety. Although not as explosive as Peterson, Murray strings together his jukes and cuts smoothly, keeping his balance as he accelerates from a stop to a start.
It’s deja vu all over again for the Raiders and Broncos. In a snap almost identical to the first example in this section, Murray bounces the play outside because of missed assignments up front. The extra tackle on the left misses the blitzing safety, which nearly brings Murray down in the backfield.
Murray, who identifies the blitz pre-snap, makes one jump cut to the outside and finds himself in another one-on-one situation with the force defender. He recognizes the corner’s hesitation and sprints outside, beating him to the sideline for an easy first down.
Bonus Examples (Murray the creator)
Murray is clearly a fan of the jump cut, especially to his left. Notice here, though, how smoothly he strings together the successive jukes; first to the outside and back inside to avoid the force defender’s low tackle.
Here’s one of Sparano’s favorite concepts — Power. The left guard and backside H-Back pull to the right, creating lead blocks for Murray. The rest of the offensive line blocks down (to the left), but the right guard loses leverage and is beaten inside.
Murray’s balance is on full display as he sidesteps the blitzer in the backfield, bounces off the defensive tackle, and remains square to the line of scrimmage. He hardly loses any speed as he rounds the edge, brushing off the linebacker’s tackle en route to the sideline.
Throw him the ball
Like his backfield jukes and cuts, Murray seems to have no issue catching the football and making defenders miss. He ran plenty of crossers, quick outs, and swing patterns in 2016 with the Raiders.
Austin’s Favorite Play
All of Murray’s strengths as a runner in one play: cutback ability, balance, speed, and power. He finds the cutback lane, has the wherewithal to put his hand on the ground a la Darren Sproles, accelerates seamlessly out of the near fall, and finishes the play by lunging forward with a safety wrapped around his legs.
If Adrian Peterson is the wound that just won’t seem to heal, Latavius Murray is the band-aid for your pain. He may stick around all three years or fall by the wayside after a season. But his fit in Pat Shurmur’s offense, his comfort running the inside zone, and his abilities as a runner and receiver make him a worthwhile investment for the Minnesota Vikings.
Right now, he’s the best fit for the purple and gold.