This film review will be slightly different. Instead of focusing on the entire game, we'll look exclusively at the performance of Bishop Sankey. I think we may have something special in Sankey, though I know that opinion isn't universally shared among Titans fans. And, when you look at his general statistics, it's not hard to understand why some fans might be lukewarm.
50 Carries. 211 Yards. 4.2 YPC. 1 TD.
These stats are fine, but they certainly don't jump off the page. Context, though. It always matters. What is Sankey being asked to do? What's working, and what is not? We'll look at that in more detail in this post.
Playing to Strengths
It's always interesting to me when the discussion of adapting an offense to personnel comes up with fans, many take the stance that the player in discussion must be limited. Fans want all players to be all things, yet it rarely works this way. Like most personnel related things, players have strengths that should be highlighted and weaknesses that should be avoided. Now, of course, as the player becomes increasingly limited, then the discussion changes. For the purpose of this conversation, I don't think that applies. Sankey does just fine at baseline ball carrying duties, and thrives in some areas.
This leads to the topic of strength specific play calling, which is just another way of saying we should call plays that highlight the things we're best at, and eliminate the areas in which we struggle. It's certainly not a trend setting idea. For most fans, it's intuitive. Sometimes, though, I think coaches get lost in dogma, or philosophy, and miss what's working. To me, this seems to be happening in the running game with Sankey. With that in mind, I charted Sankey's runs from this past game.
The numbers jived with what the film was telling me. When you can create space by removing defenders, Sankey can be electric. He's decisive with his cuts, and has no problems attacking even small creases. Alternatively, as more blockers are added, it allows more defenders to get involved without consequence (they have to match the gaps, after all). Our blocking isn't strong enough to be begging defenders to get into a dog fight, nor is Sankey the type of back that's meant to push the pile.
Be mindful that this is a small sample size. It's not mean to be extrapolated to a season, or anything of that sort. It just helps tell the story.
This was the first thing that jumped out at me. Sankey appears to just run better out of the gun. Some of this is due to a short area burst. He's going to be quicker in and out of his initial cuts than the pursuing linebackers. Alternatively, runs from under center buy defenders time to read keys and react before Sankey has an opportunity to make cuts. It's also worth noting here that all shotgun runs came out of 11 personnel, which spreads the field more.
The second thing I noticed was that Sankey (and really all the Titans backs) tend to run better on zone runs. I don't think the technique is there with pulls. We're not blowing guys off blocks consistently when blocking down, and our pulling linemen continually appear to struggle. Still, this line has some athleticism to it that can shine at times when working laterally in the zone game. As it relates to Sankey, the zone game gives him the leeway to use his vision and ability to change direction, both of which are strengths. Instead of attacking a predetermined hole, often times of which is not correctly blocked, the zone game affords him the potential to cut things back with the playside blocking breaks down.
Not surprisingly, if we combine the zone runs with a shotgun look, the numbers get even better. Of course, a 22 yard play helps this small sample size. Really, though it's also meant to show the improvement in the under center runs as well. 2.67 YPC may not seem like much, but consider that on the other 5 runs from under center we totaled -1 yards. The only non-zone rushing play that went for more than 1 yard came out of 11 personnel.
Then, there's this chart which includes all runs - zone and gap. In a linear fashion, YPC gets incrementally worse as more blockers are added. Note that I've included Chris Spencer as a tight end in these numbers when he lined up off the tackle. Also worth noting that I think bringing Chris Spencer in only as a blocker for 7 snaps shows an almost tragic disconnect between what Whiz would like to run, and what we should be running.
All of this is a long winded way of saying that we need to do our best create an environment for Sankey to find space on his own. Insistence on being reliant on well executed blocking in a specific gap will continue to be an uphill battle. Inviting extra defenders into the blocking surface, even with matched numbers, is also a recipe for continued frustration.
Instead, we'd be wise to understand our flaws. We're inconsistent with leverage, and struggle getting people off the ball at times. Still, we are athletic and have no problem with movement. This is the exact reason you run zone in the first place. If the blockers excel at point of attack, great. Press the hole. But, if they don't, the back still has options. For Sankey, he's shown the ability to correctly identify those options decisively.
I think the Titans found a good back in Sankey. At times, he's flashing special talent, but you've got to put him in the environment that puts that on display. As the Titans press on, I hope to see more of Sankey running in a zone scheme in space. If the Titans make that a focal point of this offense, a lot of other things could begin to fall in line.