Analysis Notebook: Week 15
I am a huge fan of Marcel Reece. Let’s get that out of the way up front. I think he’s a tremendously talented player who has the kind of versatility that should make him one of the league’s best X-factor type weapons. Think Darren Sproles, Aaron Hernandez (on-field only), Shane Vereen, Jimmy Graham – guys who pose matchup problems to defenses because of all the things that they can do well. He has legitimate versatility in that he does everything well, not simply is capable of doing a lot of things, none of which to a satisfactory standard, as with some other ‘versatile’ players.
The game against the Chiefs ended up being a fairly sound thrashing for the Raiders who couldn’t seem to work out how to cover Jamaal Charles or defend a simple screen pass, but it was also a perfect summation of Marcel Reece in a nutshell. Not only did he show a little bit of everything he does well but he was also criminally underused, touching the ball just 13 times in total while Rashad Jennings carried the ball 23 times alone. Either the Raiders don’t see what Reece brings to the table despite being shown on a pretty regular basis in his limited opportunities, or they aren’t capable of exploiting that kind of versatility in the way other coaching staffs are. Either way, to see the best of Reece we might have to hope he makes it out of Oakland, or the coaching regime there undergoes a change.
Reece has undergone one of the stranger position switches I can think of by converting from college wide receiver to NFL fullback. What is most impressive about that is that he has developed into a pretty good in-line blocker while maintaining his ability as a receiver at the NFL level. There are plays you can find (though sadly not in this game) where Reece is split wide and catches post-routes 15+ yards down field, high pointing the ball over defensive backs as if he were any other NFL wide out. The next play he will be back in the I-formation putting his hat on a linebacker in the hole.
The first play I want to highlight isn’t quite as spectacular as a 15-yard post route, but it is Reece in the receiving game taking apart a linebacker to the tune of a 45-yard gain. That in itself isn’t staggering, but the linebacker in question was Derrick Johnson, one of the best in the game.
The play was a simple play-action pass, the type that is in every playbook in the league. Both outside receivers essentially just run off the coverage, Jennings stays in to block, and Reece slips through the line and heads towards the sideline as the main read on the play. Johnson read it well and took off in pursuit of Reece. The ball gets through anyway but Johnson was in good position to make a tackle for just a 5-yard gain or so and would have done so to any other fullback in the league, and plenty of halfbacks, but Reece just ran away from him, turned the corner and headed down the sideline, eventually only being stopped by the safety coming across to prevent a touchdown, 45 yards down field.
The play itself is impressive, but becomes even more so when you consider who he did it to. Johnson is one of the best inside linebackers in football, and more to the point is no slouch athletically, but Reece had no problems leaving him in his wake for pure speed after the catch.
Of course Reece was a college receiver, so we should probably expect him to be able to get the better of linebackers, but you would expect that to impact on his blocking in a major way. The thing is, it doesn’t. He earned a +1.5 run blocking grade in the game and he ranks inside the Top 10 for blocking in PFF’s fullback rankings this season after finishing sixth last season. I’m not going to try and claim that he’s Lorenzo Neal out there, but he blocks better than plenty of traditional lead-blockers that don’t have his versatility and benefits in other areas. There were multiple blocks in this game where he got the better of both Johnson and fellow inside linebacker Akeem Jordan, and I would have drawn one up but this article is already going to be pretty image-heavy and to be honest they’re not exactly spectacular images to look at.
The area where Reece is perhaps most underused but potentially most beneficial to the Raiders is in running the football. I said last season I thought Reece was the best running back on the roster, even when they were all healthy. People thought I was nuts. I still think that, and the 123 yards against the Jets on only 19 carries goes a long way towards backing it up. The Raiders only load Reece up with carries when they have no other choice through injuries. In the past two seasons combined he has had just four games of 10 or more carries, but those games resulted in 66 carries for 348 yards, which is an average of 5.3 per carry. This last outing against the Jets was particularly impressive because that defensive front is fearsome against the run. Reece averaged 6.5 yards per carry against it, scored a touchdown and made four defenders miss. He has the kind of speed, power and vision to make him a legitimate threat as a runner.
Take this example against the chiefs.
The run was designed to go up the A-gap between the center and right tackle while the guard climbed to the second level and took out the linebacker. As you can see, and as Reece has already seen, the gap just isn’t there, but a pretty significant hole has opened up to the outside. It seems obvious from this view to hit that hole instead, but you’d be amazed how many runners will just plow towards the original intended point of attack instead. To be fair, it’s not quite as obvious as it looks. By breaking off his run and changing the gap he intends to hit, Reece screws with everybody’s blocking leverage. Linemen trying to block one way suddenly find themselves actually blocking towards where the run is now going. DE Tyson Jackson exploits this and gets outside the RT once Reece bounces it outside, but is unable to bring him down as he simply gets handed off to the floor. The run might have had a big gain in it except Akeem Jordan was able to shed his block and get across to make the tackle after a reasonable gain.
The final play isn’t exactly something I’d lean on when selling Reece to a new team, but it’s worth mentioning anyway if for no other reason than it does show some positive coaching from the Raiders. Since looking a bit more closely at special teams this season I have noticed teams getting far too cute in how they defend gunners on punts. The Raiders apparently noticed the same thing and at least gave the punt unit the capability of exploiting this.
Kansas City pulls covering defenders off both gunners, but while they replace the defender on the near side with another dropping off as he comes in, the far side gunner is left all alone with the defender expected to cover him tight to the line and only dropping out as the ball is snapped. He might have had a slim chance of influencing the gunner from there on a punt, but a quick pass out in that direction leaves him nowhere. Instead of a long snap to the punter the Raiders snap the ball directly to Reece, the up back, who delivers a simple quick pass out to the gunner Chimdi Chekwa for the first down.
I’m not highlighting this with the idea of pitching Reece as any kind of passing option, but it’s impressive to see the composure to take advantage of a situation presented to them nonetheless.
Despite getting comprehensively beaten in this game the Raiders saw plenty from Reece to highlight in giant neon lettering that he should a far bigger focal point of the offense than he currently is. I think Rashad Jennings is a pretty good runner, but there is no way that he should have a 23:5 advantage in carries. That ratio should be far closer to 50:50, leaving Reece the opportunity to be a factor still as a lead-blocker but also as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
His ability to line up in multiple spots also gives the Raiders a huge realm of untapped creativity in terms of favorable matchups. The Patriots teams of recent seasons were so difficult to defend because they forced you to make a decision before the snap how you were going to defend certain personnel, and then used that against you. With Marcel Reece in the huddle teams could be facing a running back, lead blocker, or even wide receiver, but at the moment the Raiders aren’t doing nearly enough with Reece to make that question an issue.
Marcel Reece is one of the league’s most versatile Weapon-X type players, but you could be forgiven for missing it, because apparently his coaches have up until now as well.
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