The Gut Check No.457: Isaiah Crowell - Footballguys

Don't trust Isaiah Crowell but can't sell high? Matt Waldman analyzes Crowell and the Jets' ground game and shows what to expect for the rest of the season. 

The Gut Check likes exploring sticky problems and Isaiah Crowell is one of them. Despite delivering the eight-best totals of any running back in standard leagues, Isaiah Crowell has been a boom-bust fantasy starter thus far.

  • Week 1 vs. Detroit: 10 carries, 102 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
  • Week 2 vs. Miami: 12 carries, 35 yards and 2 receptions for 4 yards.
  • Week 3 vs. Cleveland: 16 carries, 34 yards, and 2 touchdowns and 2 receptions for 17 yards.
  • Week 4 vs. Jacksonville: 4 carries, 0 yards and 1 reception for 3 yards.
  • Week 5 vs. Denver: 15 carries, 219 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 reception for 12 yards.

Based on the volume alone, Crowell is a committee back with Bilal Powell who has earned red zone touches and big-play runs. If you're only looking at the data and not exploring the on-field context, this is the end of the story; Crowell is a boom-bust guy and not one you can really trust. Stay away or hope to get lucky.

It's a dumb ending that will keep you sleepless at night because many of you with Crowell have tried to trade him but learned what you'll have to give up to get an upgrade isn't always feasible. Now you're stuck with him as one of your potential starters for at least a few more weeks and you don't want to rely solely on luck.

What if you can learn how Crowell and the Jets are winning in the run game and which teams could provide the best match-ups? It could prevent you from making a desperation trade for a running back that involves giving up another player you really can't afford to lose.

It would allow you to seek additional help at a cheaper price — acquiring a quality flex-receiver from waivers or a lesser trade while managing your weekly lineups to maximize your best matchup opportunities. Then you can use Crowell where he has the best shot of delivering his highs while lessening your risk on weeks where he's more likely to underperform.

This sounds great to everyone but most of you won't trust the prognostications on a weekly basis. Yours truly had success projecting the Patriots fantasy cluster-duck of a backfield and receiving corps a few years ago based on film review but many of you were a little late to the party and wanted some future hand-holding.

Before we look at the tape, know that Crowell and Bilal Powell are a true committee with essentially a 50-50 split in touches:

  • Crowell and Powell essentially have similar volume based on down-and-distance situations.
  • The duo earns a near-even split of the workload during the first and third quarters.
  • Crowell earns more touches in the second quarter.
  • Powell earns more touches in the fourth quarter.
  • Don't get too wrapped up in this because game-script has been likely a factor.
  • The only difference between the pair in terms of game-script is that Powell has earned 10 more carries than Crowell in tie games. There's not enough data here to draw a conclusion.
  • The touches based on field position are also even.

The only thing that the data shows at this point is that Crowell has generated bigger plays than Powell despite having similar down-and-distance, quarter-to-quarter, game-script, and field-position opportunities. Despite Crowell outscoring Powell five touchdowns to one, Powell has performed well enough that we should not expect a change to the Jets' workload formula.

The reason Crowell is the focus of this piece is this big-play differential that has elevated him to a top-10 fantasy producer when Powell is a high-end flex-play in three-back fantasy lineups. We know what Powell is, but there's an opportunity to use Crowell's volatility to our advantage.

Here's what the tape tells us about Crowell's skills, the Jets ground game, the defenses it works against, and what we hope to expect as the season unfolds.

1. The Jets Want Crowell on the edge Against Pass Looks

The Jets like its chances in the perimeter game thanks to the run blocking skills of H-Back Quincy Enunwa and tight end Eric Tomlinson. Enunwa affords this offense flexibility to audible to a pass and still have a playmaker in the shallow and intermediate reaches of the field who can earn quick separation.

New York uses its tight ends, H-Backs, and receivers in bunch sets (two- and three-receiver sets tight to the formation) along with a left tackle in a two-point stance to give the defense a pass look pre-snap. If the defense is aligned in a run-friendly look, the Jets will happily feed Crowell — especially when the defense has it's defensive backs to the left tackle's side playing off the line and giving a soft edge.

These elements create a happy place for the Jets offense.

Here's another play in the same vein.

And another, which could easily lead fans to think Crowell is too eager to take plays outside when in fact, he's doing a strong job of making a smart decision. More on Crowell's individual skills later.

These plays all worked against a Broncos defense caught in a pass-oriented look with only two down-linemen. When the Jets tried this ploy against three down-linemen, the Broncos shut it down.

2. The Jets use pre-snap motion to create advantages against defenses playing to stop to run

The Jets aren't a one-trick pony in the run game. The offense does a good job of beating defenses by creating numbers advantages to one side. The Jets often use pre-snap motion to earn these advantages and/or create a soft edge.

For those unfamiliar with "numbers advantages," it's simply about counting the number of defenders to offensive players on each side of the center. When the offensive play design will lead to more offensive players than defensive players to that side, it's a winning look.

This is why offenses shift alignments and conduct pre-snap motion as essential elements of their offense. It allows them to run a small set of plays with a variety of looks. The goal is to enhance execution with a handful of plays while still making defenses guess what's coming at them.

Here's another just like the one above.

While the goal is the same — creating a soft edge — the alignment, the back, and the process of doing it are different.

What makes this play a 54-yard gain rather than a gain of 3-4 is the pre-snap motion that confuses the safety just long enough (all that's requires is a step of hesitation) for Crowell to blow by him in the crease. Football is truly a game of inches.

3. THE JETS layer these successful plays by combining elements of both to confuse and frustrate defenses

With a handful of successful plays like the ones above, the Jets can then layer these looks into one play and create further confusion.

When opposing defenses start giving up yards in chunks, they get desperate to make a play and get off the field and it leads to breakdowns in gap discipline.

Everything shown in these first three segments of film analysis applies to any opponent facing the Jets. When they give the Jets the edge, play a pass-oriented look with nickel, or use two down-linemen and pressure at the edges, New York will exploit it.

4. looking ahead

The Jets face a Colts defense that has been fantasy friendly to running backs this year.

Running Backs vs. Indianapolis Colts

Player
Week
Rush
Yards
TDs
Targets
Rec
Yards
TDs
1
17
95
1
7
5
54
0
1
1
-2
0
1
1
11
0
2
4
1
0
14
13
92
0
2
11
20
0
3
3
30
0
2
1
1
0
0
0
0
0
3
10
56
1
5
3
35
0
3
16
56
0
4
3
19
0
3
6
30
0
0
0
0
0
4
14
49
0
0
0
0
0
4
13
31
0
3
0
0
0
5
18
98
1
1
1
12
0
5
2
0
0
14
10
77
1

We also saw the Patriots use some similar ideas to generate soft edges against the Colts defense that should work for the Jets this weekend.

The same holds true for many of the Jets' remaining opponents:

  • The Rams are the only strong ground attack that the Vikings have faced this year and the Rams used bunch sets to create successful run plays.
  • Chicago hasn't faced a quality rushing attack this year. The Seahawks ground game didn't make positive changes until two weeks ago — after this matchup.
  • Miami limited the Jets in Week 2 (see below) but have been generous to the lead backs of the Titans, Raiders, Patriots, and Bengals.
  • Statistically, Buffalo has been a little stingier than average after a three-touchdown bloodletting courtesy of the Ravens, but it gave up 105 yards to the Chargers backs 110 yards to the Packers backfield trio. They're another team that hasn't passed a test against a quality rushing attack.
  • New England has been generous against teams that make running the ball a priority and can keep the Patriots offense in check.
  • The Titans haven't faced a stiff test on the ground. The closest it came was Philadelphia and on a per-carry basis, it failed.
  • Houston is battle-tested and a tough draw.
  • Green Bay is vulnerable as long as the Packers offense hasn't generated an early lead to remove the ground game from opponents' game scripts.

A vital point with an analysis of opposing defenses is also the opponent's offense. It's actually more important because most of the defenses above are vulnerable to good ground attack. The Jets have a good ground attack.

Leave your biases about Crowell at the door — along with whoever put them in your head. Crowell isn't a superstar, but he's a competent NFL starter with all of the necessary physical and conceptual tools.

This play and the ones above are ample evidence of Crowell's footwork, agility, stop-start acceleration, balance, power, and competent long speed. Don't confuse his struggles in Cleveland with his game.

The Browns didn't have a quarterback provide any semblance of offensive balance. Carlos Hyde has been better with Baker Mayfield because Mayfield forces defenses to play with more honesty to the run and pass than with Tyrod Taylor. The same has been true with Josh Rosen in Arizona, despite only modest increases for David Johnson.

As long as the Jets are within 7-10 points of its opponent, the offense will look for ways to run the ball in these situations. The two games where the Jets lost this game script was in Jacksonville and Miami when the team faced 13- and 14-point deficits by the middle of the second quarter.

When examining the remaining schedule, let's factor the opponent's offense and defense and the Jets' defense. New York's run defense has faced Detroit, Miami, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Denver. However, the Jets took Denver and Detroit away from its desired game script and that must be taken into account when analyzing how it performed against these productive run units.

Overall, the Jets run defense has weaknesses and is vulnerable. However, it's the pass defense that's the weakest unit. The crew is opportunistic with takeaways but gives up a lot of production in the middle of the field.

When examining all of the factors, here's a list of good/bad matchups for Isaiah Crowell as a potential fantasy starter (and Bilal Powell as flex).

Remaining Schedule (Good = 8-10 yardage points and a touchdown; Neutral = 3-6 yardage points and a touchdown; Bad = 1-5 yardage points and no touchdown)

  • Colts (Good): Andrew Luck can keep a game close and produce but he lacks the weaponry build a huge lead and a close game favors the Jets ground attack.
  • Vikings (Neutral): The defense is vulnerable but the Vikings passing offense is terrific in the middle of the field and could build an early lead that ruins a run-friendly game script for New York.
  • Bears (Bad): If the Bears offense uses the same concepts in Week 6 that it did in Week 4, this is a bad game script. However, if the Bears revert to its offense prior to Week 4, this could elevate to a neutral game script.
  • Dolphins (Good): Sam Darnold made mistakes early in this game and took the Jets offense away from its plan. Look for a better performance a favorable game script in the rematch.
  • Bills (Good 2x's): The Bills have an athletic defense but the offense is still questionable, at best. Expect a good game script and enough volume for a good performance.
  • Patriots (Bad): The Patriots have made the necessary offensive adjustments and barring significant injuries, the Jets will likely face deficits that kibosh its ground game.
  • Titans (Good): This should be a close game, and the Jets have a good shot at chunk plays on the ground. The Titans offense is getting better but still vulnerable to off weeks.
  • Texans (Bad): This is a battle-tested defense with an offense that is emerging. Unless it loses DeAndre Hopkins, Deshaun Watson, and/or Keke Coutee, stay away.
  • Green Bay (Neutral): Realistically, this is a game to "check back in December." If the receivers remain banged up and the ground game remains a committee, this match-up could be elevated to "Good."

That's five good matchups, two neutral matchups, and three bad matchups with real potential for one of the neutral matchups to become a good one and a bad one to become neutral. If you can find a compelling flex for Weeks 7, 8, 12, and 15, Crowell has the offense and the skills to deliver in Weeks 6,9,10,13, and 14 — and perhaps 16 if the Packers can't get healthy.

Five favorable matchups, including one in the playoffs, isn't anything to overlook — especially in competitive leagues where winning requires more than a good draft and a nice pick or two on the waiver wire.