As good as the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was on Sunday, racking up 154 yards rushing, he missed open running lanes.
“There are some of those plays, you wish you could get back,” he said after the Week 8 beating of the Atlanta Falcons. “That’s what the next game is for.”
The former Clemson running back is one of the league’s most dynamic runners because of his ability to bounce any run outside and take it to the house. But like any other home-run hitter, that’s also his downfall. He goes too much for the home-run and ends up striking out altogether. In other words, he misses open running lanes that can move the chains, and instead on those runs he gets a meager two yards.
It’s part of the process of developing as a running back. Patience is a must, as is vision. To see the hole, you have to let it develop, and once it develops, you have to hit the hole. Ellington’s still learning that, and it shows when watching him on the field. He only plays 30 snaps a game because head coach Bruce Arians believes that Ellington’s build and pass protection are subpar, but in those snaps he averages roughly six carries per game. Last week he received a season-high 15 because of injuries at the position, and he showed off his talent.
Runs came in 12, 22, and 80 yards, all significant chunks that are atypical of everyday running backs. He also had multiple runs of one, two and three yards, however, not all of which were the fault of his paltry offensive line. The lanes were there, and he just missed them.
One miss came early in the first quarter. There was less than 14 minutes left with 1st-and-10 to go. It was the first play of the game for the offense and it was going through their game-breaking running back. Seven yards behind the ball was Ellington lined up in the “home” alignment. He was the lone tailback in the offense’s 12 personnel, which featured a TE at each end of the line of scrimmage. The play-call would be a toss to the left, a run type that requires utmost patience and cutback ability. This was a test for Ellington.
The ball was snapped and quarterback Carson Palmer tossed the ball left. As Ellington caught the ball, he paced behind the lead blocks of his left tackle and center near the numbers. But as he did that, he ran too fast, nearly touching the heels of the left tackle. That forced him to slow down and take several choppy steps that halted his momentum. It also made him miss the running lane that formed behind the sealed block of the center just outside the 20-yard line. Trying to pick up any yards he could, Ellington slammed into the back of his blockers and resorted to leverage and power, ducking his head and pushing forward. This was not his type of running style and it showed. He picked up only two yards.
These types of dead end runs happen. It’s part of being a runner. Not every carry is a home-run or even a positive gain. But it’s important to find the hole to gain consistency because amidst all the clamor for Ellington to get more touches, whose to say that’ll be the best for his team? Maybe he’s better served as a change-of-pace back because he doesn’t provide positive yardage consistently? Sometimes it’s okay to pick up four yards and be happy with it.
Another instance of Ellington missing an alley came near the end of the second quarter. There were 47 seconds left in the half and the Cardinals were backed up in their territory after Palmer was sacked. That made it 2nd-and-19 from the 15-yard line, leaving it to Ellington to run out the clock and get the team safely to the break.
Ellington was lined up offset to Palmer’s left in shotgun. The play-call was a delayed draw that would get him into the open field with blockers, potentially setting up a long gain provided the Falcons’ rushers came too far upfield. The play began and Ellington got the handoff. He ran to his left behind three blockers against two Falcons defenders. This seemed like the ideal scenario because the offense had numbers at the point of attack, but he still needed to make a decision — keep running wide or cut inside?
It’s one decision that’s admittedly difficult for him to make in the heat of the moment. He has to read his blocks and the leverage of the outside defender if he’s going to run outside. Part of the outside defender’s (No. 55) body is visible, indicating that the blocker doesn’t necessarily have control of him. But because Ellington is running full-speed again, he makes it difficult for himself to cutback and hit the alley that’s forming behind the blocks. He gives himself no choice but to run outside, picking up only three yards before being dragged down by the defender.
These sort of runs are going to happen when Ellington is running full-speed and trying to bounce it outside to hit a home-run all the time. It happened once (he had thee carries) in Week 7 against the Seattle Seahawks, too. He doesn’t always bounce it outside to his credit. He has had plenty of quality runs in between the tackles this season, but he’ll need to be more consistent overall if he’s going to make more of the additional touches everyone wants him to get. He’ll need to take the handoff patiently, let alleys develop, and take the cutback lanes when they’re available.
Once he starts picking up yards consistently, Arians will have no choice but to give Ellington more carries.