After the 2014 NFL Draft produced what was hailed as the best wide receiver class in NFL history, albeit one that has struggled so far this season, the 2015 NFL Draft was one of the strongest drafts in recent memory when it came to the running back position. To nobody’s surprise, each week of the NFL season has featured a breakout performer at the position. Week 1 saw Ameer Abdullah electrify before Matt Jones busted out in Week 2 and Karlos Williams got loose during Week 3.
Karlos Williams (RB-Buf)
The trend continued this week with not just one, but two rookie running backs looking to put a stranglehold on their team’s starting jobs. Chris Tripodi breaks down those two running backs, along with a couple Saints linebackers who helped their team to a much-needed win in primetime Sunday night.
Todd Gurley (RB-StL)
After sitting out the first two games of his NFL career to complete his recovery from a torn ACL suffered last November, Todd Gurley returned to the field with a six-carry, nine-yard performance in Week 3. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher vowed to get his team’s first-round pick more involved in Week 4, but after the No. 10 overall pick had just four first-half carries for two yards and found no room to run behind St. Louis’ shaky offensive line, it looked as though his second week back on the gridiron would be just another lost game on his road to recovery. Little did anybody know what Gurley had in store for the second half.
It started midway through the third quarter with the Rams leading, 10-9. Gurley took a carry to the left side and immediately cutback by design behind his pulling tight end. The rookie runner showed the speed to get around the corner before busting through the second level for 23 yards. On the next play, Gurley let his blocks develop on an off-tackle handoff to the right before showing the burst to destroy defenders’ pursuit angles and gain 12 yards. After that drive ended in a touchdown, Gurley took a first-down carry on the next drive deep in his own territory for four yards before losing his footing and fumbling. Luckily for St. Louis, tackle Rob Havenstein jumped on the ball to keep the Cardinals from getting great field position at Gurley’s expense.
Showing confidence in their burgeoning young stud, the Rams stuck with Gurley as their feature back for their first drive of the fourth quarter and it paid immediate dividends. Once again displaying the elite burst that made him a monster at Georgia, Gurley shot through a hole on the left side and beat the cornerback’s pursuit angle to reach the secondary. The Rams rookie then used a stiff arm to keep the safety at bay without losing speed, gaining an extra 35 yards to finish off an impressive 52-yard scamper to set up another St. Louis touchdown.
With the Rams nursing a two-point lead with under two minutes to play, they looked to Gurley to ice the win. Even as the Cardinals stacked the box with eight defenders to stop the run, the former Bulldogs star managed two big gains on the final drive to keep the ball out of Carson Palmer’s waiting hands. His interior blocking almost let him down on the first run, allowing immediate penetration up the middle, but Gurley spotted an opening outside and used his quick feet to redirect into the hole for a 20-yard gain. Backfield penetration ruined his next run which turned into a four-yard loss but Gurley refused to succumb to the pressure on the next play, breaking an arm tackle four yards deep in the backfield to turn a potential loss into a two-yard gain.
On the ensuing third-and-long with 1:17 to go, the Rams stuck with Gurley again and he rewarded their confidence with a 30-yard run around the left edge to seal the win. Gurley easily turned the corner with a little help from reverse-action and had a legitimate chance to score and put the game completely away. With defenders in pursuit from the opposite side of the field, however, Gurley instead chose to slow down and go to the ground just inside the 10-yard line to keep the clock moving, allowing the Rams to kneel the rest of the clock. The rookie’s situational awareness saved St. Louis an unnecessary offensive snap as they closed out the win.
Thanks to his big runs, Gurley finished with 146 yards rushing on 19 carries, running at a 9.6-yard-per-carry clip in the second half. He got stronger as the game went on and his confidence in his surgically repaired knee will only improve as the season continues. Gurley looks ready to be the Rams’ workhorse runner, and they’ll need his special skill set to overcome their deficiencies up front and run the ball effectively. The rookie’s combination of strength, quickness and vision will come in handy against the backfield penetration he’s bound to face, much like he did Sunday, and the Rams have to be excited with what they’re getting from Gurley less than 11 months after his ACL surgery.
Duke Johnson (RB-Cle)
One of the best receivers in this year’s running back class, Duke Johnson was inexplicably targeted zero times in the Browns’ first two games despite receiving 19 carries out of the backfield. The third-round pick caught six passes in Week 3 and head coach Mike Pettine promised to get him the ball in space more this week. Mission accomplished on Sunday, as Johnson led the Browns with nine receptions for 85 yards and his first career touchdown, adding eight carries for 31 yards on the ground and playing more snaps than starter Isaiah Crowell.
Johnson made an impact on his first carry of the game during the Browns’ third drive, beating backfield penetration by shaking off a Manti Te’o tackle to turn a two-yard loss into a three-yard gain, once again proving stronger than his size (5-9, 207) would imply. The young runner showed off his quickness through multiple cuts a few plays later, gaining five yards via a string of quick moves to manipulate small creases into running room. Johnson broke another tackle a few plays later on a screen pass when he was dead to rights, but still lost six yards on the play as the pursuit eventually caught up to him. On the ensuing third-and-long, Johnson showed awareness by working toward the sideline to help a scrambling Josh McCown and his soft hands helped him grab a low pass just short of the first-down marker.
The Browns rookie scored early in the second quarter on a 34-yard reception. Lined up in the slot left, Johnson dusted his man deep and showed excellent ball skills, tracking the pass over his outside shoulder before tapping both feet down in the corner of the end zone to secure the score. Johnson could have very easily been mistaken for a wide receiver on the play, and the Browns have wisely involved him heavily in the passing game over the past two weeks considering their lack of talent at the receiver position.
Johnson had several more catches in the first half, leaving Te’o in the dust multiple times with sharp route breaks and a well-executed double move to create separation. The first-year back was heavily used in Cleveland’s two-minute offense as well, acting as a nice safety valve for McCown when he couldn’t find anybody open downfield. Despite being targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage on short dumpoffs, Johnson used his quickness to get upfield and fell forward for extra yardage to finish those plays effectively.
The rookie’s usage waned in the second half, however, as the Browns gave Crowell more work, particularly on the ground. Johnson did receive several carries, showing nice burst through the hole and electric ability in space, effectively using defenders’ momentum against them with impressive stop-and-start quickness. Cleveland still utilized Johnson in the slot, something that should continue moving forward as the team looks to get their dynamic rookie more involved on offense.
After touching the ball just seven times in Week 1, Johnson has double-digit touches in the past three games, including Sunday’s 17. The Browns are starting to integrate him into their offense nicely, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Johnson log a few more 15-touch games as the season goes along. Crowell will remain involved but the second-year back found himself in the doghouse a few times last season. If history repeats itself, Johnson could be in for some heavy usage and has the potential to take over as the Browns’ lead back regardless of what Crowell does with his touches.
Stephone Anthony (LB-NO)
Stephone Anthony was a surprise pick at the end of the first round during the 2015 NFL Draft. A linebacker with great size (6-2, 243) and speed (4.53), Draft Insider had him rated as a second-round pick but the Saints saw things differently, grabbing the former Clemson star with the 31st overall pick. While New Orleans has once again had issues stopping the run so far this season, they have shown some improvement in that area, some of which can be attributed to Anthony’s play in 2015. Through four games, the rookie linebacker has 23 tackles (14 solo), including seven stops and his first career sack in the Saints’ Week 4 win over the Cowboys.
Much of Anthony’s impact came in the first half Sunday night, as the rookie was obviously amped up for his first primetime experience. All of his tackles, including his sack, came in the first half, and he showed off his impressive array of skills to stop Dallas’ running game before it could get started, as the Cowboys averaged less than three yards per carry excluding an early 45-yard scamper from Lance Dunbar. On that long run, Anthony got caught up on a block before he could fill the hole off tackle, and Dunbar used his quickness to shoot through the gap and get downfield in a hurry.
The rookie linebacker showed good recognition skills and stayed disciplined in the middle of the defense, two traits that stood out in his tape at Clemson. Anthony showed the ability to scrape down the line effectively and keep himself away from blockers, patiently reading and reacting to the running back’s first move to fill the hole and putting himself in good position. He showed great closing speed through the gap once he committed to heading upfield and stopped both Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden in their tracks on multiple plays, not allowing either Cowboys back to gain extra yardage once they were in his grasp and aggressively taking them to the ground.
His sack came late in the second quarter with Dallas driving near midfield. Anthony blitzed off the left edge but saw the right guard uncovered waiting for him to engage. Instead of trying to work through the guard, Anthony stunted around the other side of the offensive line to penetrate the backfield. After Brandon Weeden broke a sack attempt from Kenny Vaccaro, he looked up to find Anthony closing quickly and had little choice but to go down to the ground and accept the sack, setting up third-and-long and effectively ending the Cowboys’ march down the field.
Anthony showed the ability to get good depth in coverage as well, using his speed to quickly close on receivers in the short field to prevent run-after-catch opportunities. As a player who primarily played downhill at Clemson, this was good to see from the rookie, who has the athletic ability to be a solid cover linebacker as well. His solid start to the season has gone a long way towards improving New Orleans’ linebacking corps, and Anthony’s presence in the middle of the Saints’ defense will give them a three-down weapon for years to come.
Hau’oli Kikaha (LB-NO)
A second-round pick out of Washington, Hau’oli Kikaha was an unbelievably productive college player with the Huskies. After missing most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to multiple knee injuries, the 6-2, 245-pound linebacker posted 40.5 tackles for loss and 32 sacks as a junior and senior. Due to his medical history and athletic limitations (4.9 40-yard dash), we had him rated as a seventh-round prospect and the 19th-best outside linebacker in the draft. So far this season, Kikaha is doing everything he can to prove us and other scouts wrong and reward the Saints’ confidence in him with 26 tackles (16 solo) and three sacks in 2015.
Despite Kikaha’s lack of speed, his backside pursuit was impressive Sunday night against the Cowboys. While going mostly unblocked off the edge on plays run away from him, Kikaha did a nice job moving parallel down the line of scrimmage without overpursuing, taking good angles to keep Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden from cutting back against the grain. His sure tackling ability made it impossible for either back to break free of his grasp, and teams may want to think twice about leaving Kikaha unblocked off the edge in future weeks.
Not only was Kikaha effective on plays moving away from him, but he also excelled when the ball was run at him. Using his hands effectively like he did in college, Kikaha fought hard to avoid getting engaged by opposing linemen at the point of attack, working his hands non-stop to hold his ground and using good extension to set the edge. In addition to setting the edge and staying clean, Kikaha maintained outside contain to force run plays back inside while also staying in position to finish tackles. He showed an effective rip move once extended to break free of blocks and flash in the hole as well.
Kikaha also used that rip move to beat Tyron Smith for his third sack of the season on a third-down play in the third quarter. After the rip got him underneath Smith and gave him leverage, Kikaha showed good strength and balance to render Randle’s help block useless, although it did allow Smith to recover. Kikaha continued to fight with his high motor, going right through Smith a second time on his way to bringing down Brandon Weeden for an 11-yard loss.
The former Huskies standout had many doubters in the draft community thanks to a laundry list of injuries and unimpressive measurables, but Kikaha has done nothing but make plays through his first four NFL games, much like he did throughout his college career. The Saints’ linebackers needed a facelift after last season’s struggles and if Kikaha can stay productive, he and Stephone Anthony could help New Orleans get back to respectability at the second level of their defense.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter @christripodi to talk football and the NFL Draft.