Breaking Down the Cutting Actions of RBs; Part 1

Many people know that the running back position is my very favorite one to train. However, I have a confession to make; I have a severe OCD problem with them…you see; I am obsessed with analyzing cutting actions of running backs and then finding ways to perfect those patterns for the athlete as well as develop a more well-rounded cutting repertoire that the athlete can use on-field. Thus, these next 2 blog posts will revolve around some of my thoughts on the matter. Part 1 will introduce the topic while Part 2 will expand on some specific examples.

As I mentioned with my previous article on RB-specific training, the task-specificity of today’s running back has very little to do with true linear acceleration and speed of the back. Sure, you may watch Sportscenter highlights on a Monday morning and see Adrian Peterson housing 80 yarders but typically the success of the game’s best is determined by their movement pattern usage in what I refer to as the phone booth on the field and how efficiently they are able to maneuver their bodies while in it. Basically, I am alluding to the need for the athlete to be able to start, stop, change direction, and restart at varying speeds in very short spaces and distances. Usually this occurs very close to the line of scrimmage and more rarely at the second or third level while in the open field.

When evaluating an athlete’s cutting actions on-field, we must remember that how well one stops (decelerates) will determine how well someone re-starts (accelerates). Many times when an athlete frequently chooses to employ a given cutting movement pattern it’s because of how he decelerates. Most guys have movement habits where they will set-up defenders in situations where he will juke, stutter-step, and feint a guy before he actually executes the full planting and reacceleration actions. That said there are essentially five major cutting movement patterns commonly utilized on a field. Each cutting action I see when I breakdown film is some sort of variation or hybrid of each of the patterns I will discuss below. These five are the Crossover Cut, the Power Cut, the Speed Cut, the Jump Cut, and the Lunge Cut.

Some of the more masterful cutting RBs in the league (such as Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, and Adrian Peterson) possess at least adequate foundational capabilities to perform each style but will still have one that stands out as their most optimal movement pattern if they had to choose the fastest route to pay-dirt.

Barry Sanders 2

When I speak about each of the patterns in Part 2 I will use a picture of the most agile and complete change-of-direction RB of all-time, Barry Sanders, to give quick illustration about the position I am discussing. Of course, each major cutting action has its advantages and disadvantages from both a technical and tactical standpoint. In addition, as I mentioned above, most guys are going to be more efficient at one of the cutting movement variations in comparison to another. This is mostly dictated based on biomechanical factors such as anthropometric features and morphology (his stature and build) as well as his specific strength characteristics. However, cutting on a field is also very instinctual. Of course, because of the open, chaotic, and variable nature of the sport demands, the particular execution of the movement pattern will never be exactly the same (it’s not like running the 100m dash or something). On a similar note, because of how quickly things develop, the cognitive and perceptual processing has to also occur very rapidly as well.

My role when helping a RB with his preparation is to try and optimize his biomechanical efficiency specific to the positions he will find himself in and then help him fine tune each cutting variation specific to his unique characteristics. Gradually, this new and more optimized pattern should be one that starts to occur involuntarily on the field. However, no matter how much work we do, some cutting actions are downright impossible for some guys to execute in a non-preprogrammed environment. Thus, it’s only likely that it would happen in a rehearsed training drill and never to occur on a Sunday. This is usually dictated by the level of his ability to tactically read his opponents (his perceptual and cognitive). In addition, the cutting action typically witnessed on Sundays will usually be the one that the athlete is most comfortable with.

Let’s face the facts here with the demands of this position. When a running back gets a ball in his hands, he is concerned with only one thing: not getting killed. Literally…that’s the only thing on his mind. He thinks to himself, “Get from point A to Z successfully.” And success is defined as getting there with your head and limbs attached. However, how he got from letters B thru Y will usually be an afterthought till he watches the film and realizes maybe he could have been more effective by utilizing some different movement actions in the process.

whitewater rafting

I often use the analogy of a master whitewater rafter here. A rafter of this level of qualification can go on the easiest of courses on a river and flawlessly and deliberately execute his exact path while planning out his maneuvers well-ahead of time. However, when he starts to get to the most advanced river rapids even the most masterful rafter will immediately go into a certain degree of fight-or-flight survival mode. He will know what he wants to do and where he wants to do it but all he really cares about is ending up back on shore again when all is said and done. The NFL running back is really no different than this. Thus, with my RBs, the last thing I want them doing is over-thinking trying to use one cutting action over another while out on the river (aka in a game situation) because they will surely get taken out by a nasty wave.

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