When Rashad Jennings’ sore hamstring forced him to join Darren McFadden on the sidelines during the Week 5 win over San Diego, the Oakland Raiders weren’t sure how their backfield would hold up. Marcel Reece not only kept the ground game going, he just might have given the coaching staff a solid blueprint for the rest of the season.
Reece had been mostly overlooked through the first four games, and it seemed like offensive coordinator Greg Olson was content using the veteran fullback strictly as a lead blocker. To anyone who had watched Reece over the past three years, it made no sense.
Only when the Raiders lost their top two running backs, both to hamstring injuries, did Olson attempt to get Reece more actively involved.
The 6’1” Reece is arguably the best fullback in the NFL. He is easily the most versatile player in Oakland’s backfield, a 255-pound bull who is equally strong running the ball as he is catching it.
In fact, the argument could be made that Reece is a more punishing, physical runner than either McFadden or Jennings. That’s why it was foolish to let him languish without the ball while the duo ahead of him struggled to get the running game going.
Prior to getting seven carries for 32 yards in Week 5, Reece had run the ball just twice previously this season. Yet late in the fourth quarter against San Diego after Jennings went out, Reece kept the chains moving and helped milk precious time off the clock by barreling his way through the heart of the Chargers defense.
Because of his size and the powerful leg drive he honed while developing his blocking skills, Reece is not an easy man to tackle once he gets a little momentum going. Late in the fourth quarter against San Diego, he took a handoff from quarterback Terrelle Pryor and tried to go off the left tackle.
Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget was waiting for Reece, but the 28-year-old back lowered his shoulder and knocked Liuget backward before getting tackled after defensive back Marcus Gilchrist came in to help.
None of this should have come as a surprise to anyone on Oakland’s coaching staff.
When McFadden and then-backup running back Mike Goodson were injured midway through the season, the Raiders started Reece at tailback in a mid-November game against the New Orleans Saints. He ran 19 times for a career-high 103 yards and had another 90 yards in receptions.
His hands are what truly separate the former college wide receiver from other fullbacks in the NFL. He caught a career-high 52 passes in 2012 and has 106 for his career.
Former offensive coordinator and ex-head coach Hue Jackson, who coached Reece for two seasons, was a huge fan and made the fullback an instrumental part of the offense. If he wasn’t lining up at tailback or alongside McFadden as part of a split backfield, Reece would frequently find himself lined out near the sidelines like a wide receiver.
Coming out of the backfield to catch a pass makes Reece a nightmare matchup for most NFL linebackers, and the Raiders need another reliable downfield threat to pair with Denarius Moore, Rod Streater and rookie tight end Mychal Rivera.
Where he can be effective for Oakland, and where the offense needs some of its most help, is as a running back in short-yardage or goal-line situations. Reece can push the pile much more effectively than either McFadden or Jennings, and he’s quick enough to take advantage when a hole opens up.
Oakland coach Dennis Allen said he doesn’t think Jennings’ hamstring injury is serious, and the team is hopeful of getting McFadden back soon.
Even when they return, Olson needs to do a better job of dialing up plays for Reece and make him an integral part of the weekly game plans, beginning with Sunday’s showdown in Kansas City against the unbeaten Chiefs.