The San Diego Chargers put their faith in Ryan Mathews last season and got burned. Mathews couldn’t stay on the field for several reasons, which didn’t really have to do with his ability to gain yards. Mathews struggled with injuries, ball security and with his pass-blocking.
Since Mathews didn’t run with his shot to be the every-down running back, the Chargers signed former New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead to share the load. Woodhead brings to the table the skills that Mathews lacks. Woodhead is going to see significant offensive snaps, which will come at the expense of Mathews.
Despite losing snaps, the addition of Woodhead could actually be a very good thing for Mathews. Woodhead combined with Stevan Ridley in 2012 and BenJarvus Green-Ellis from 2010-2011 to form a complete backfield in New England, and he should do the same with Mathews in 2013.
There is such a thing as asking to do a player too much, and it’s worth considering whether the Chargers were guilty of putting Mathews into a position to fail. With Woodhead in the fold, Mathews will only be asked to run the ball. Mathews isn’t going to improve his ability to pick up blitzes if he hasn’t already, so trying to get that out of him is just focusing on the wrong thing.
Head coach Mike McCoy was hired for his ability to adjust his scheme to his players. For that to be possible, McCoy has to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his players and devise a scheme that puts them in a position to be successful.
Mathews can run the ball and he’s a solid receiver, but Woodhead can pass block and he’s a good receiver, making him a better player on third downs. Woodhead is certainly capable at taking a few handoffs and running the ball as well, but he’s not going to take 20 carries between the tackles.
In New England, Woodhead was used primarily in the shotgun formation and on third down. Occasionally, Woodhead would split out wide as a receiver or was part of a single-back set with Tom Brady under center. Woodhead proved to be versatile for the Patriots because he could run, catch passes and help protect Brady.
The Flat Route
Probably the most common route Woodhead ran with the Patriots was when he leaked out of the backfield into the flat. It would be rare to go five snaps without seeing Woodhead running these routes, usually from the shotgun formation. Woodhead would also run a similar pattern if he was lined up as a slot receiver or from a one-back formation.
The Patriots would occasionally run screen passes with Woodhead; other times he was just a check down for Brady. Woodhead always faked like he was going to stay in to block, making it difficult for defenses to determine if he was going to stay in or run a route.
Here’s a good example of a play run out of the shotgun. Brady quickly reads half the field, while Woodhead fakes likes he’s staying in to block:
The offensive line gets out in front of Woodhead, so he can catch the pass and have room to run. The play is designed to gain positive yards and defenses usually come up to make the tackle after a short gain. There were times where teams actually blew up Woodhead before he could get more than a yard or two (as they did on this play), but that’s mostly a product of poor blocking or superior defensive preparation:
Woodhead runs basically the same route from the slot with Wes Welker lined up as a tight slot receiver. The defense is at a disadvantage because they can’t possibly commit that many defensive players to a short zone, and Brady knows one of his receivers is going to be open for a solid gain:
One of the three defenders drops deeper to cover his zone, leaving Woodhead open for the catch. Woodhead is able to gain a solid eight yards on the play after the catch, setting up a very manageable 2nd-and-2:
The Patriots used Woodhead in a couple different ways as a running back. One of the ways they liked to get him the ball was to hand it to him from the shotgun formation. Traditionally the shotgun is known as a passing formation, but the Patriots spent a good amount of time in the shotgun, so the run was a good change of pace.
Peyton Manning also spent a fair amount of time in the shotgun under McCoy in Denver last season, so this is part of Woodhead’s game that could easily translate to the Chargers’ new scheme. The Patriots created big holes for Woodhead with movement from the offensive line. Woodhead’s ability to read and burst through openings could make him a good fit for inside and outside zone runs that the Chargers will use more this season.
The Patriots also often turned to Woodhead in the red zone, even in one-back sets in 2012. Woodhead was able to score seven total touchdowns in 2012 compared to just six total touchdowns for the No.1 running back, Ridley.
While Woodhead isn’t tall, he’s extremely well built for his size. Woodhead’s low center of gravity actually makes him tough to bring down. On one of his touchdown runs he ran through the tackles of NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rodgers from five yards out. He might be short, but that doesn’t mean he plays small.
Pass-Blocking and Ball Security
All running backs are asked to pass block from time to time. It’s a passing league so picking up blitzes and helping out overmatched offensive tackles is an underrated skill. Woodhead has been primarily a third-down running back, which means he’s been asked to run pass routes and stay in to block on a greater percentage of his plays than a typical running back.
In three seasons in New England, Woodhead has allowed just two sacks of Brady (zero in 2012) in 156 snaps as a pass-blocker, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required). By comparison, Mathews has allowed five sacks over the past three seasons in just 89 attempts as a pass-blocker.
Mathews hasn't been horrible in pass-blocking, but he's not been able to stay on the field enough to demonstrate he’s a capable at pass protection. Or, he's been bad at it between Sundays—if Mathews had demonstrated his ability in practice to pick up blitzes and pass protect, the Chargers wouldn’t have turned to Ronnie Brown in those situations as much as they did last season.
The other good thing about Woodhead is that he’s never had a problem securing the ball. Woodhead has just two fumbles in his career and only lost one of them. Mathews has 12 fumbles in the same three-year period and has lost seven of them. If Mathews continues to struggle holding onto the ball, Woodhead could be called upon to carry more of the load.
The Chargers re-signed Brown as well, which would be the obvious option if Mathews can’t stay healthy or can’t hang on to the ball. The Chargers are taking some of the pressure off of Mathews in the hopes that he can do the one thing they need him to do: hold onto the ball when he runs.
Woodhead has been called the replacement for former Charger Darren Sproles, but that’s not totally accurate. Sproles was—and still is—a much better player with the ball in his hands than Woodhead, but the two do share some skills. Sproles was asked to pass block a lot for the Chargers, a role the team gave to Mike Tolbert in 2011, Brown in 2012 and will give Woodhead in 2013.
The Chargers can operate their new offense a lot like they did with Tolbert in 2011, but with a much smaller, speedier running back in Woodhead. That means a nearly 50-50 split of the snaps with Mathews seeing the share of the carries and Woodhead getting more snaps as a receiver and pass-blocker. The 2011 season also happened to be Mathews most productive year, so the Chargers are wise to try to replicate that success.