A few highly drafted offensive linemen have been stellar all season for their teams on the inside, and Chris Tripodi returns to give Browns guard Joel Bitonio and Cowboys guard Zack Martin their due. As usual, a few skill players have seen their opportunities increase over the past few weeks as well, and two came through with their best games of the season in Week 12.
Isaiah Crowell (RB-Cle)
With last week’s release of veteran running back Ben Tate, who entered the season as the Browns’ starter, extra playing time opened up for rookie third-round pick Terrance West (profiled here after Week 2) and the undrafted Isaiah Crowell. While West handled 15 touches to Crowell’s 12, the latter played 16 more snaps by a count of 47-31 after starting the game and was easily the more effective back. That’s not a knock on West, who ran well, but Crowell’s talent pops off the screen every time you watch him play. His 12 carries went for 88 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 12 win over Atlanta, compared to 62 yards on 14 carries for West.
Crowell got off to a slow start early, as his first three runs went for zero yards, but an 11-yard touchdown late in the first quarter got his day going nicely. Backfield penetration from the Falcons’ defensive line threatened to shut down a run to the right, but Crowell’s quick feet allowed him to quickly cut away from the lineman towards an open hole on the left side. Spotting a Miles Austin seal block on the edge, Crowell cut upfield and showed elite burst and acceleration to get through the hole before it closed on his way to the end zone. His hip flexibility is also top-notch, which allows him to cut laterally with ease and get skinny through tight creases.
The former Alabama State star was stopped for no gain on his next run, but most NFL running backs would have lost yardage. Crowell used his aforementioned flexibility and quick feet to get away from a defensive lineman in the backfield before quickly cutting upfield to get back to the line of scrimmage. The rookie then ripped off 25 yards on his next four carries, continuing to show impressive burst and acceleration and hitting the hole like a back 30 pounds lighter than his 225-pound frame. Crowell just plays at a different speed and it’s easy to see on the field, especially in comparison to West.
Crowell’s second touchdown of the game combined everything he does well into one 26-yard run. A play that started right was going nowhere, and Crowell quickly reversed field to the left, again showing the flexibility to make cuts parallel to the line of scrimmage without losing much speed. After cutting upfield, he froze a defender with a stutter step before stiff arming him on his way back to the right side of the field. Crowell stiff armed a second defensive back before turning on his speed, beating the rest of the defense to the pylon for the score. On the Browns’ next possession, Crowell turned a toss play into 18 yards by again showing good speed to turn the corner, and he exhibited impressive patience on a seven-yard carry where small stutter steps allowed his blockers to finish their assignments before he exploded past them.
Undrafted due to the off-the-field issues that led to him getting kicked out of the University of Georgia and finishing his college career at Alabama State, Crowell’s talent was never the issue. If he can keep his nose clean and stay out of trouble, Crowell is the most talented running back in this year’s rookie class and it’s not really close. With the quickness of a scatback and good downhill power, Crowell is the complete package as an NFL running back. With Tate out of his way and West a plodder in comparison, Crowell will be featured again heading into Week 13 and has a chance to build on the best game of his career against a solid Bills defense.
Jarvis Landry (WR-Mia)
Despite being drafted in the second round after a great college career at LSU, Jarvis Landry has been overlooked from the start. His college teammate, Odell Beckham Jr., was the third receiver drafted in May, while Landry was the 12th. His Dolphins teammate, Mike Wallace, headed into the season with hopes for a bounce-back year after busting in year one of his big contract. Through it all, Landry has gone from fourth on the depth chart behind Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson to second over the past few weeks, passing both Hartline and Gibson to become Ryan Tannehill’s most trusted short and intermediate target. While Beckham’s one-handed catch this weekend made all the highlight reels, Landry had a great game himself in Miami’s loss to Denver, with seven receptions for 50 yards and two touchdowns.
Six of Landry’s seven catches went for nine yards or fewer, and the longest one came on a short pass as well. Lined up in the slot, Landry came inside to chip the defensive end before quickly cutting out to the sideline and creating separation between him and the slot corner. Showing strong hands to reach out and grab the pass in front of him in tight coverage, Landry also showed the strength to slip the tackle and stay on his feet, picking up extra yardage down the sideline for a 20-yard gain. It was the rookie’s lone catch of the first half, but there was more to come later in the game.
Landry’s third-quarter touchdown reception came from five yards out, as the first-year wideout ran a slant from an outside alignment on the left side. Beating his corner to the inside, Landry reached above his head to snatch the pass with sure hands before being pushed into the end zone for the score. His sticky hands were a theme in this game, which has led to him being Tannehill’s top security blanket on short routes. Landry’s other reception in the third quarter came on a short cross for three yards, as he kept his route going towards the sideline as Tannehill was flushed out of the pocket.
The fourth quarter was where Landry made his biggest impact on this game, both positively and negatively. The rookie started out with a nine-yard reception on a banana out, slipping another tackle for extra yardage. His next target resulted in an interception, but the pass was rifled too hard on a short route in tight coverage. Landry was able to get his left hand up, but the ball deflected away into the hands of safety T.J. Ward. It was a somewhat-catchable pass, but the blame lies with both Landry and Tannehill on the play. The pair bounced back though, completing a simple in route on fourth-and-two on Miami’s final drive to move the chains while down 39-28.
Landry’s second touchdown brought the Dolphins within three points and although it only went for a yard, it was an impressive display of route-running and situational field awareness by both Landry and his quarterback. The receiver broke off the line into a curl route after angling his release to the outside. Once Landry reached the goal line, he immediately sat down in a small opening in Denver’s coverage. Tannehill was ready, firing the pass into tight quarters to Landry, who made the catch for the score. The pass was almost broken up by a nearby defender, but Landry’s understanding of where he needed to be to secure the score and stay away from the coverage made this play. If the rookie had ran his route even a half-yard deeper into the end zone, the pass likely would’ve been knocked away.
While both Beckham and Wallace make the highlight-reel plays, Landry does the dirty work to move the chains, keep drives alive and bail his quarterback out of tough situations. He did it consistently for Zach Mettenberger at LSU, and has done it consistently for Tannehill so far in his rookie season. Landry isn’t a burner, and doesn’t have the size to be a jump-ball threat, but the comparisons to Hines Ward during the draft process accurately portray the type of receiver he is; polished, reliable and trustworthy with the game on the line. Landry will never be a star, but he should enjoy a long NFL career as a chain-mover with the spatial awareness in small windows to score his share of touchdowns as well. His five scores this season have all come within his last seven games, and it’s reasonable to expect more the rest of the way.
Joel Bitonio (OG-Cle)
While Isaiah Crowell just recently got his prime opportunity for the Browns, Cleveland’s second-round pick took over at left guard in Week 1 and hasn’t looked back since. Not only has Bitonio been arguably the best rookie offensive lineman this season, he’s played like one of the best in the NFL, sitting second in Pro Football Focus’ guard rankings through 12 weeks. The site also gave Bitonio a negative grade in just one game this season, while his Week 12 performance was one of his most impressive so far.
Rated as a borderline first/second-round prospect by Draft Insider during the months leading up to the draft, Bitonio was actually viewed as a tackle by many NFL teams. He’s settled in on the interior of the Browns’ offensive line, and has been especially important considering the loss of Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to injury. A fundamentally sound lineman who plays smart football, Bitonio has consistently shown his ability to utilize angles to his advantage. On Crowell’s 18-yard run in the fourth quarter Sunday, Bitonio quickly got his feet into position off the snap to get outside. The rookie guard wasted little movement getting to the second level, cutting off linebacker Paul Worrilow’s pursuit angle and allowing Crowell to get almost 15 yards downfield before being touched by a defender.
Bitonio has shown impressive speed to the second level this season, and has also been very quick and smooth on pulls. Staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and again wasting little movement, Bitonio gets outside quickly and breaks down well before making contact with defenders. The former Nevada star fires low off the snap and gets under defensive linemen’s pads to drive them off the ball. Bitonio took his man out of the play right off the snap on Crowell’s first touchdown, which was a key to the play considering his teammates allowed penetration on the other side. Clearing out this space allowed Crowell to cut back into a huge hole for the score.
The first-year guard also displays extremely strong hands once engaged with opponents, and used this skill to clear a hole for Crowell on a seven-yard run up the middle. With the defensive lineman engaging Bitonio on his inside shoulder and the play set to cut up inside him, Bitonio redirected his opponent out of the hole and ended up with him on his outside shoulder by the time the block was complete, giving Crowell enough of a crease to hit.
Bitonio has been an excellent addition to a Browns’ offense that initially struggled to run the football when Mack got hurt. The team has since recovered, with both Bitonio and Crowell playing important roles in the revival. This first-year guard is a huge reason Cleveland is in the thick of the AFC North race heading into the season’s final stretch and, while it be somewhat surprising to see him voted into the Pro Bowl, he certainly would be deserving. In addition to his stellar run blocking, Bitonio has allowed just eight quarterback hurries, one quarterback hit and no sacks this year.
Zack Martin (OG-Dal)
With all the hype surrounding the performance of the Cowboys’ offensive line, and rightfully so, Martin has been a perfect addition in Dallas. Drafted in the first round in May out of Notre Dame, Martin was billed as an NFL-ready guard or tackle prospect, but with Tyron Smith entrenched on Tony Romo’s blindside in Dallas, Martin has settled in at right guard. Not only has he stepped smoothly into the starting lineup, but Martin has been arguably the most effective lineman in Dallas against both the pass and the run, as Pro Football Focus has him rated as the league’s fourth-best guard so far this season. Week 12 wasn’t one of Martin’s best performances this season, but he played well in a win over the Giants.
Like Bitonio, Martin shows the necessary speed to get to the second level, and uses angles well to set up blocks down the field. An early DeMarco Murray seven-yard run followed Martin right up an alley he created on the right side, and the rookie guard got to linebacker Jameel McClain quickly and handled him long enough to allow Murray to pick up nice yardage. A tenacious blocker, Martin plays with an attitude that showed through on this play, as he continued to fight McClain once engaged and kept his feet moving to drive the linebacker off his spot.
The first-year guard also moves well laterally, quickly breaking out of his stance and smoothly moving to the outside on pulls and kick-out blocks, allowing Murray to keep running without breaking stride before cutting up inside. Martin stands his ground well at the point of attack, preventing backfield penetration and showing the ability to leave his blocks once finished to seek out another defender. A smart lineman who plays angry, Martin gets the most out of his physical tools.
Also strong in pass protection, like Bitonio, the Cowboys’ rookie guard hasn’t allowed a sack this season. Romo has been hurried just five times and hit just twice on Martin’s account, and his skills in pass protection as a four-year tackle with the Fighting Irish have translated well to the inside at the NFL level. Martin may not have much room left to improve on his very polished skill set, but he’s already an impact NFL guard who will only get more recognition as he gains experience. In a similar fashion to Bitonio once again, I expect multiple Pro Bowls to be in this rookie’s future.
Chris Tripodi has been writing for Draft Insider since 2009, contributing Rookie Reports and Draft Reviews along with interviewing NFL prospects. He has worked as a regional scout for Optimum Scouting since 2013, writes Jets-related content for Pro Football Spot and previously worked on a college football project at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft, and check out his blog at http://christripodisports.blogspot.com/