How the Oakland Raiders Can Get the Most out of Maurice Jones-Drew

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How the Oakland Raiders Can Get the Most out of Maurice Jones-Drew
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A pair of notable numbers don't support new Oakland Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

The first is the number 29. That is how old Jones-Drew turned on the 23rd of March this year. The former Jacksonville Jaguars feature back has been in the NFL for eight seasons. During that time he has accumulated 1,804 carries and 335 receptions.

Considering how quickly careers end at the running back position these days, it's not a surprise that there are very few 30-year-olds giving teams quality snaps.

The other notable number that will likely scare Raiders fans ahead of the coming season is 3.4. That was Jones-Drew's average per carry on 234 rushing attempts last season. It was a career worst for a player who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry over his career and at least 4.4 since 2009.

For a couple of reasons, both of these numbers shouldn't be as daunting as they initially appear.

Yes, Jones-Drew is 29 years old and, obviously, he can't be a 300 touch player anymore. However, it should also be noted that Jones-Drew averaged 4.8 yards per carry before being injured in 2012 and 4.7 yards per carry on 343 carries the year before.

If Jones-Drew was a Chris Johnson or LeSean McCoy type of running back, then there would be a major problem with his age. He isn't a back who is reliant on his athleticism and explosive ability to be successful, though.

The veteran runner is a very technical, compact running back who relies on his vision, footwork and power between the tackles to be effective.

His 3.4 average in 2013 suggests that his power has dropped off with age. However, Jones-Drew's average dropped off for a multitude of reasons.

Two primary reasons stand out. First, he was clearly still recovering from the injury he suffered in 2012 for the first half of last season. That slowed him down a lot, but there were flashes of his previous power and explosion. Secondly, he played behind the worst run-blocking offensive line interior, and neither of his starting offensive tackles stayed in place throughout the regular season.

The context surrounding Jones-Drew's numbers is important, but it's also clear that he is not the same player he was five years ago.

In his prime, the former second-round pick was the kind of player who could do anything you asked of him, and he would do it so well that it would the hide deficiencies of the offense that surrounded him. These days he is still a very well rounded player, but there are certain situations you want to keep him away from.

With Darren McFadden on the roster—and hopefully healthy—the Raiders should be able to put Jones-Drew in the right situations to succeed.

McFadden is an explosive player who can run off-tackle and take advantage of space as a receiver. Jones-Drew is a technically sound receiver and he has the vision and patience to run off-tackle, but he no longer has the initial acceleration or second gear to take advantage of space.

Jones-Drew is best suited to being a between the tackles runner behind a man-blocking scheme. In Jacksonville last season, he was running outside and was asked to be a one-cut runner behind a zone-blocking line too often.

That is simply not where his strengths lie.

Running between the tackles behind a man-blocking offensive line, Jones-Drew can use his vision and agility to manipulate defenders and create gaps to break through. Last year, he struggled to do that consistently because of poor offensive line play, but a healthier version of the running back in 2014 should have more success.

NFL.com

On this play, Jones-Drew initially looks to run between his right tackle and his pulling tight end. However, the left defensive tackle gets position on the right guard's outside shoulder. Jones-Drew recognizes that the running lane won't be there quickly.

At this point, the second level of the defense has reacted to his initial movement. Therefore, when Jones-Drew cuts quickly back to the other side of the field, there is nobody in position to fill the gap between the left guard and the left tackle.

Jones-Drew has enough of a burst to slide through the offensive line and skip forward for a 12-yard gain.

Not only is he adept at reading and reacting to the movement of defenders to consistently set up his blocking, but Jones-Drew is also excellent at manipulating defenders to create a running lane he wants to attack.

NFL.com

On first viewing, this play seems like a simple run through a well-blocked lane off the right side of the offensive line. However, when you look closer at Jones-Drew's movement, you see a hesitation that plays an important role.

The movement is subtle, but subtle movements can make all of the difference for a back running between the tackles. Subtle movements are what separates Jones-Drew from your typical big, bruising backs—such as Brandon Jacobs—who never really realize their potential.

Jones-Drew's hesitation here drags the left defensive end, No. 71, towards his defensive tackle. It's this slight movement from the running back that gives his offensive lineman the positional advantage and means that the defensive end can only attempt an arm tackle out of desperation.

With his strength and size, it's very tough to bring Jones-Drew down with arm tackles—even for big defensive linemen.

These are the traits that will make Jones-Drew a very valuable goal-line back at the very least. From there, the Raiders will be hoping that he can set the tone for the running game as a whole while McFadden provides the big play threat.

Of course, the offense can't be that predictable.

If Jones-Drew runs between the tackles every time he gets the ball, defenses won't take long to figure out what the Raiders are doing. They'll begin to cheat on the interior of the defensive line and crash their linebackers to the line of scrimmage aggressively.

NFL.com

Even though Jones-Drew isn't necessarily an explosive back anymore, he has enough explosion to not limit the offense. He can attack the edges of the line and look to make plays in space at times.

Unless he loses this explosion before the start of next season, the success of Jones-Drew from snap to snap will be more about how effective the Raiders' play-calling is, as opposed to his ability.

In the passing game, the Raiders have a variety of options. Both McFadden and fullback Marcel Reece are effective receivers who can take advantage of space. Jones-Drew is an effective receiver who is adept at making defenders miss after the catch.

While McFadden and maybe even Reece are more explosive than Jones-Drew at this stage, he is a much more effective pass-blocker.

Jones-Drew is one of the few running backs in the NFL who can be left alone with a defensive end or linebacker and still be effective. He doesn't simply chip pass-rushers before breaking into a route, and he doesn't need to constantly be part of a double-team.

The veteran back appears to relish the contact, while also paying close attention to his technique. He plays with balance, control and power so he can be effective in space or in tight. At this point in his career, he is likely the best pass-blocking running back in the NFL.

At one point in his career, Maurice Jones-Drew could be a feature back in any offense. At this stage, the Raiders aren't signing him to be a feature back, and he needs to be used correctly to be as effective as possible.

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