Normally these running back-by-committee arrangements never work out well. It's like the old saying, "If you have two starting quarterbacks, you really don't have any starting quarterbacks." But Vikings coach Mike Tice seems to have the right feel for his stable of running backs to walk that fine line of playing the hot hand.
His trio of primary running backs consists of Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Doug Chapman.
"All will play. All will always play," Tice said. "I like to try to keep guys fresh. You try to get a feel for when a guy is getting a little bit tired. Also, the flow of the game — I remember when Leroy Hoard was here, I always felt like there were different games where the style of game was suited for Leroy Hoard. I always felt there was a style of game that was suited for Smitty (Robert Smith). We have three different kinds of runners."
Bennett remains the starter, even though Tice pulled him when his holding penalty nullified a 40-yard Daunte Culpepper-to-Randy Moss touchdown pass in the Buffalo game.
"I got a little annoyed with the player and decided to take him out," Tice said. "That's just how it goes. Michael is the starter. We're hoping that he puts together a solid game for us, as far as running the ball and pass protection, because it's the whole thing. We like what he's doing. He's averaged 4-1/2 yards a carry, and we'd like to one day get him up to the 20-carry range."
There's nothing scientific about Tice's approach to his running back rotation. He says he's going to rely on his instincts.
"It's a feel thing," he said. "I'm going to handle that. We won't dump that on (offensive coordinator) Scott (Linehan) or (running backs coach) Dean (Dalton). I'll handle that. I'll put them in when I think I have the feel for it, and the guys will be ready to go at any time. One game I might make a mistake and put the wrong guy in, but I think what I'll do is see how I feel it should go and go with my gut. But Michael will get 2-to-1 [carries compared] to the next guy. He'll get the majority of the work. Michael needs to get 1,000 yards for us this year."
Bennett clearly has the most home-run potential from the line of scrimmage, and it's just a matter of time before he hits a seam in the defense and his pure speed quickly puts defenders out of position to catch him. Though his running style is quite different than that of Robert Smith, his predecessor, like Smith he is a threat to go the distance anytime he touches the ball.
He's already matured quite a bit from his early rookie days when he lacked patience as a runner and would literally outrun his blocking at times. But there's obviously more to being a feature back at the pro level than just running. Being able to consistently pick up the blitz is also pretty important.
Remember D.J. Dozier? The former first-round pick by the Vikings in 1987, Dozier was a fine runner from scrimmage, but his inability to handle the blitz pickup never got him out of Bob Schnelker's doghouse.
That can get the quarterback injured in a hurry. And doing so via a holding penalty can obviously cost you a big play on offense.
Bennett can do the job here. He'll stick his nose into the action and normally gets the job done. But Tice communicated to his entire team that everything counts, even the little things, when he sat Bennett down.
Tice was also playing the hot hand in going with Williams, who is certainly more highly regarded by Tice than he was during the Dennis Green regime.
Williams rarely got a chance to carry the ball under Green, except in short-yardage situations and as an occasional third-down back out of the backfield.
In Green's defense, Williams always seemed to be nicked because of injuries. Still, Tice appears to have a broader role for Williams that goes beyond special teams and short-yardage. He's getting him some carries much in the same way Brian Billick did last season when he was with the Baltimore Ravens.
Williams has shown his wares nicely as a runner from scrimmage and got his first 100-yard rushing performance with the Vikings in a losing effort against the Bills. It's not a fluke when the backup running back gains over 100 yards rushing in a game. The offensive line is obviously doing their job, but so is the runner behind them, in this case Williams.
Tice describes Williams as "more of a downhill runner" than Bennett, and he's a terrific complement to the explosive speed of Bennett, who always has defenders worrying about angles of pursuit.
Williams isn't going to outrun most defenders, but he's going to deliver as much of a blow as he'll receive just about every time he is tackled. He shows good vision and acceleration to the hole and almost always falls forward.
He's also their most polished running back in the passing game when it comes to running pass routes, catching the ball and picking up the blitz.
While he still also contributes on special teams, his role there, particularly on the kickoff coverage team, has been lessened some as he sees more time with the regular offense.
Chapman provides some of both Bennett and Williams, but with a little style that is all his own.
"Chapman runs hard and can cut back," Tice said.
Not that he's the only back capable of cutting back, but Chapman seems to really have an instinctive knack for it. Like Williams, he hits the hole with authority. He generally stays low, runs behind his pads nicely and has a great sense for cutting back against the flow of pursuit.
Chapman proved last season that he too is capable of racking up a 100-yard rushing game when he's called upon. He also can catch the ball out of the backfield and normally more than holds his own on pass protection. But an uncharacteristic fumble (even though he quickly recovered it himself) saw him grabbing some bench, too.
Again, Tice pays a lot of attention to detail.
No. 4 on the depth chart at running back is first-year man James Wofford.
He hasn't gotten his chance during the regular season yet, but Tice remains high on Wofford, as indicated by the coach's willingness to keep Wofford on the 53-man roster, even when he's been forced to make some tough choices concerning roster moves of late.
Wofford lacks outstanding size and speed, but he runs extremely hard, has quick feet, some wiggle and has some Chuck Foreman-type qualities as a runner.
"I think we've got three and James (Wofford)," Tice told VU recently. "He has a different style than all three of those guys. I like our running back situation. So, yes you can expect all three to play. I think you'll see Michael carry most of the load though."
Hot Hand Gets The Ball
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