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The Tape Tells All - Breaking Down Isaiah Crowell's Week 5 Performance


Welcome back to "The Tape Tells All," where this week I'll be looking at Jets running back Isaiah Crowell, who ran for 219 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries against the Denver Broncos in Week 5.

Crowell's performance comes as a major surprise. In Week 4 against Jacksonville, he managed to turn four carries into no yardage. On the whole he's had an up-and-down year, finding the end zone five times in five games.

Let's check out the game tape on Crowell, as well as some background information and analytics to support what the tape is showing.

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Isaiah Crowell: The Tape Tells All

Background Information

Like many people, I bought into the Isaiah Crowell hype last offseason, drafting him in multiple leagues in the third and fourth rounds when he was expected to be a break-out candidate for the Browns. That didn't pan out.

Crowell finished as the RB31 last season for the Browns, rushing for 853 yards and adding in 182 receiving yards. He found the end zone just twice, a number that he's already more than doubled this season.

There were also signs to suggest last season that Crowell was better than his performance indicated. Among running backs, he ended up 13th in runs of 15 yards or more, 13th in yards created, 11th in yards created per carry, and was 16th in yards per carry against stacked fronts. Despite ranking in just the 54th percentile among backs in the 40-yard dash, Crowell has shown himself capable of using his speed to create big plays. Here's something I saw during Sunday's games that seemed unbelievable at first glance:

Impressive!

In 2018, Crowell currently ranks as the NFL's most efficient runner per Next Gen Stats, the only back whose efficiency measures out to a number lower than three using their formula. This means that Crowell doesn't spend time behind the line of scrimmage, waiting to make things happen; instead, he's quickly turning up the field to make moves.

 

Isaiah Crowell's Game Tape

So, what did we see from Crowell on Sunday? And what can it suggest for his outlook over the rest of the season?

First, let's look at some charts from the meeting with the Broncos to help conceptualize some things.

Here's the breakdown of Crowell's runs. From left-to-right, the four categories are wide left, inside left, inside right, and wide right:

Crowell was fairly effective everywhere but the left side proved especially effective for him.

Here's Crowell's actual carry chart, so we can see what each of his 15 carries looked like.

Alright. We have some good ideas now of the kinds of plays that Crowell was effective on -- ones where he could turn the ball outside. None of his five carries of five or more yards came up the middle. Crowell was likely able to get around the defense due to his burst ability. Let's see if the film meshes with that hypothesis.

Some good blocking here by the Jets line helps Crowell get to the line of scrimmage, but then Brandon Marshall manages to disengage. You can see just the tiniest move to the left by Crowell as he gets to the 25, creating enough space for him to get past Marshall and up to the next level. At the end of the play, Crowell shows that he isn't afraid to absorb contact, barreling into the Broncos defenders and picking up a few extra yards.

Here's a play I love, because Crowell looks like he's heading for a four-yard loss, then a two-yard loss, then a gain of nothing, but he somehow manages to get five yards on the play. Some really good hesitation moves in the backfield, with Crowell dancing around just enough before finding an opening he likes over toward the sidelines. Once again, he's able to absorb the contact and get extra yardage.

THE CUT. THE SPEED. LOOK AT HIM GO. TOUCHDOWN.

Excitement aside, this play shows us some of the things that make Crowell a threat to break long touchdown runs off. It starts with a really, really great cut, but that cut isn't the single thing that enables Crowell to get down the field and turn this into a score. Crowell is an incredibly elusive runner, and if you watch here you can see him constantly make these tiny shifts in direction as he heads toward the end zone. He's got the legs to stay ahead of linebackers and the shiftiness to keep ahead of them even as they start to catch up. Couple that with some good downfield blocks and you get six points for the Jets.

Okay, deep breath. That was an exciting play, but it's time to calm down and look at...

Oh my, the extra effort on this play. Crowell is going absolutely nowhere, down about a yard behind the line of scrimmage, until he suddenly emerges from a sea of players in front of the first down marker. Once again, Crowell keeps the legs churning to make yardage happen after that initial contact.

Now, a quick reality check here: I love that Crowell is able to make something happen on these plays where he's clearly heading nowhere, but I don't like the abundance of these kinds of plays. Per Football Outsiders, through Week 4 of this season the Jets offensive line ranked 30th in adjusted line yards and 29th in stuffed rate. The team actually ranked much better in yards at the second level and in the open field, suggesting that the team's running backs are capable of making things happen once they're able to get yardage beyond the level created by the offensive line. In other words, Crowell can be effective once he gets past the first level of the defense, but the Jets get stuffed at the line more than most other NFL teams because the line rates poorly on run plays.

Crowell makes a few other big plays in this game, but a lot of it looks similar to what he did on the touchdown run, getting around the outside and making things happen once he's out in space, so I'm not going to clip those and bring them over here.

 

The Fantasy Impact

So, the tape suggests that Isaiah Crowell is a dangerous player in the open field, but also that the Jets offensive line lacks the ability to consistently create openings for Crowell.

There's another issue as well when it comes to Crowell's fantasy value: his snap count:

Crowell hasn't been on the field for even half the team's offensive plays in any game yet, and even Sunday's masterful performance found him in for just 40.3 percent of snaps. The Jets seem content to keep Bilal Powell on the field, especially because Powell is more useful on passing downs. This makes Crowell a lot less useful in PPR leagues as he's been targeted eight times this season in the passing game, while Powell has already been targeted 16 times.

Ultimately, I think Crowell's ability to bust off big yardage is encouraging, but we're likely looking at another up-and-down year for him where his value greatly depends on his ability to get loose and make those big plays happen. I don't trust this Jets offensive line enough to project Crowell as a consistent RB2 the rest of the season, but his current rate of finding the end zone makes him a good flex candidate. He's also got a chance to rise past that if he can consistently outperform Powell, and if he's able to show the Jets that his elusiveness in the open field can translate to a role in the passing game.

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