Playbook: Studying improved RBs

With the season coming to a close, the crew at “Playbook” has taken to the film to find players who made marked improvements on the field.

This time, we are looking at running backs:

Quarterbacks | Defensive backs | Defensive tackles | Wide receivers

C.J. Spiller, Bills

Spiller was brought in last season to be the explosive component the Bills felt they lacked. For the majority of his short career, Spiller had been used as a returner, receiver, but rarely at running back (only 74 carries all of last season). When Fred Jackson went on injured reserve before Week 12, there was concern that the Bills running attack would all but disappear. Spiller had averaged a mere 3.8 yards a carry up until this point, so the concern was definitely warranted.

Spiller proved his doubters wrong by upping his yards per carry to 5.2 and ending the team’s final six games with five touchdowns and 633 yards of total offense. The biggest improvement we saw from Spiller was a decisiveness and confidence that was not visible in his rookie season. As he began to develop a patience of letting blocks develop while using his instincts to attack, his numbers improved tremendously.

By displaying a balance of consistency and big-play ability, Spiller has most definitely warranted an increase in touches next season. He is gaining an intuitive feel for the position and Chan Gailey‘s offense.

Darren Sproles, Saints

Sproles has always been classified as a third down/scat-back type of player. Standing at 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds, Sproles has never been viewed as a prototypical running back. In San Diego (2010), the Charger offensive line did not excel at getting to the second level of defenders, which prevented Sproles from getting open space to maneuver in the run game.

Now, with New Orleans, Sproles has the luxury of two All-Pro guards.

Sproles has proved to be a perfect fit to go along with the Saints passing attack. By attacking intermediate portions of the field, the Saints are constantly drawing the attention of linebackers away from Sproles. He is left with more space and favorable matchups to excel, which explains why he generated 86 catches for 710 yards as a running back.

Sproles is virtually unstoppable when he is one-on-one in the open field, either with the ball in his hands or en route as a receiver. As long as the Drew Brees is at the helm and attacking every blade of grass, Sproles should continue to thrive.

Reggie Bush, Dolphins

Since he was drafted second overall in 2006, Bush has always been looked upon as an underachiever. He had never played a full season or rushed for more than 581 yards in a single year.  The Saints tried to utilize Bush in specific formations and positions on the field, but he never seemed to show a level of consistency.

When the Dolphins signed Bush and drafted Daniel Thomas, they envisioned a “Thunder and Lightning” tandem. However, when Thomas caught the injury bug, Bush was given the opportunity to start in all of the 15 games in which he appeared.

Reggie continued to display his big play capability, but he was forced to mold himself to provide the Dolphins offense with a complete ground game. For the first time in his career, Bush displayed a comfort in attacking defenses north and south. More handoffs created more rhythm as a runner; Miami’s use of various play-calls (misdirection, traps and sweeps) played to Bush’s advantage. Contrary to his prior reputation, Bush was more physical to and through the line of scrimmage.

With opportunities finally coming to Bush, he was able to register five yards per carry and record his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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