Which running backs fit with Marc Trestman’s offense?

Though there is lots to like in the Baltimore Ravens backfield, there are also a ton of questions. Justin Forsett, the Raven’s leading rusher last year, is no lock to return. Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro are under contract, yet they are both extremely unproven. What is Marc Trestman to do? And how will his new offense inform the Ravens’ decisions?

Discuss in the BSL Forums here

At different points, I’ve discussed Taliaferro‘s fit with Trestman, Forsett‘s value to the offense and how the zone blocking scheme will inform the Ravens’ decision at running back.

What will be fascinating about this season will be how Trestman melds his idea of what a running back is (Matt Forte) with what the Ravens want from one. It absolutely can be done. After all, good vision in the ZBS doesn’t preclude a running back from also being a good receiver. But it will make the Ravens more selective. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Trestman used his dream running back, Forte, and then find some players who fit the description in free agency and the draft.

How did the Bears use Forte?

Let’s start with the big one, the reason Forte excelled in the Bears’ attack: In two years, Matt Forte has had a ridiculous 176 catches. In 2014, Forte set a record with 102 receptions out of the backfield in a single season. By comparison, the Ravens’ single-season record for receptions from any player is 103 by Derrick Mason. Crazy.

Watching Forte’s film against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, the reason for Forte’s gaudy reception total becomes readily apparent. Two reasons: Trestman’s offense uses the screen well, and quarterbacks look to get rid of the ball to the running back much quicker in Trestman’s quick-strike system.

Here’s a look at a screen the Bears ran. Jay Cutler lines up under center (uncommon for the Bears) in a formation that screams either run or play action. Forte Touchdown Formation

From there, the Bears set up what looks to be a pretty typical play action pass, in which Forte would either block or run a traditional quick comeback to act as a safety valve for Cutler. He actually does end up running a comeback, which I’ve marked, but not without a little twist.Forte Touchdown Blocking

Maybe you can see that little twist coming from the picture above. Forte has to do a little acting here to get Charles Johnson to believe it’s a play action pass, not a screen. As you can see in the next pic, he sells it perfectly.Forte Touchdown Acting

Forte has a pretty solid reputation as a blocker, but obviously he is not equipped to handle a guy like Charles Johnson. So Johnson is able to quickly get past Forte to pressure Cutler, or so he thinks. In reality, Forte had no intention of blocking Johnson. He just wants to make sure Johnson continues to rush Cutler rather than cover the screen. And as you can see, Forte playacting pass blocking is a lot prettier than most running backs actually pass blocking.

Forte Touchdown Paydirt

Now believing that Cutler is looking downfield, Johnson blows past Forte to try to pressure Cutler. Forte, meanwhile, finds an open space and awaits the ball. Cutler throws a nifty little pass to get past Johnson and into Forte’s hands. With Kyle Long (75) and Jordan Mills (67) as lead blockers, Forte has nothing but open space between him and the end zone. Touchdown.

This play encapsulates what the Bears looked for in a running back under Trestman: versatility. Had the Bears not established the run earlier, the Panthers would not have bit on the play action. If Forte couldn’t sell his fake blocking, Charles Johnson would have stayed back to cover the screen. And if Forte couldn’t catch the ball and get up field, the screen would have been useless. In one play, Trestman showed what the Ravens need from their running back.

With regards to simply using the running back as a safety-valve, which Trestman often does, that is a pretty simple proposition for the Ravens. As long as their running back can catch the football, which Justin Forsett and even Taliaferro most certainly can, they should be fine in that regard.

Which leads me to my next point: the running backs that actually fit the description of a Trestman back.

So let’s get into it.

Free Agency Options (note: I will only be examining FAs that won’t cost the Ravens compensatory picks)

Justin Forsett

He can catch, he can stonewall pass rushers, and he can break off big runs. Forsett is the total-package out of the backfield. The Ravens would probably be wise to not feature Forsett quite as heavily in the future, but he has all the skills necessary to succeed in Trestman’s offense. You’ve seen it all season. I don’t need to go into further detail on him.

Reggie Bush

Though not a strong runner, Reggie Bush is an incredible receiver out of the backfield. In fact, I’m stunned he has never actually been used as a wide receiver in his career. He isn’t a strong runner, but Bush could be a quality third-down back for Trestman. If Forsett moves on, Bush wouldn’t be a bad signing at the veteran’s minimum to at least guarantee some receiving production out of the backfield (as long as he’s healthy, which is no guarantee at all).

Steven Jackson

Like Bush, Steven Jackson is no longer a strong runner, albeit for completely different reasons. In Jackson’s case, he’s just not explosive anymore. But that doesn’t matter as much in the passing game. Jackson has always been a multi-dimensional threat with good hands and solid blocking skills. In 2006, Jackson caught 90 balls for 806 yards, showing his versatility. Though his role changed over the year, his skills through the air have not. So like Bush, Jackson could be a nice safety blanket if Forsett moves on. And obviously, that should not be a big money deal.

Best fits in the draft

Duke Johnson

A Miami prospect that has caught the eyes of Ravens’ fans, Duke Johnson is versatile and explosive. Good combo. His running prowess has never been in question. He can also pass block (though at this point he seems mostly limited to cut blocks, which he does well), and he looks like a weapon through the air. This play pretty well sums it up. 


See how Johnson catches the ball cleanly, makes the first guy miss and picks up some yardage. Those would also be valuable skills in the return game too (wink, wink). 

Jay Ajayi

Jay Ajayi is probably the most established dual threat running back in this draft class, going for 535 yards through the air at Boise State last year. With 2,358 total yards of offense last year, Ajayi was a beast. The concerns are big, though: He tries to bounce too many runs outside, which won’t work in the NFL with his middling speed. A good ZBS running back is a decisive, one-cut runner, which is something Ajayi would need to learn how to be.

In sum, there are a ton of guys in the draft who would make sense. Melvin Gordon is among the best running back prospects in years thanks to his vision and burst, but he has done very little through the air. Todd Gurley is a multi-dimensional threat, but injury history and questions about vision are concerning. Tevin Coleman is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Mike Davis had 34 receptions last year, more than most of the top prospects. Javorious Allen had 41. David Johnson has established himself as a threat through the air. David Cobb was among the most productive and physical backs in this class, yet he is a projected Day 3 pick. The list of names goes on and on. 

The Ravens will definitely pick one of these guys or another running back I didn’t mention. It is too deep of a draft class not to. Who it will be remains to be seen, but whoever it is will fit the Trestman and the ZBS mold. Scout accordingly.

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Scouting: Jesse James – TE, Penn St.

Year – Junior
HT/WT – 6’7”/261 lbs
Expected draft spot 3rd – 5th round

“The Outlaw”. “The Road Dogg”. Can the Ravens draft him just because of the cool nicknames that go along with being named Jesse James? 

James sticks out to me because of one thing. Size. 6’7” will play at the next level. Jimmy Graham is 6’7”, Rob Gronkowski is 6’6”. Maryland Terps fans might remember Jesse James well, as he caught a TD pass against one of the Terps tallest cornerbacks, Sean Davis (6’1”). James does a beautiful job of going over the DB, and using his strong hands to secure the grab, and the all-important “complete the process”. Hard to tell from the video if he got two feet in, necessary by NFL rules. But a nice grab and a TD on this day nonetheless. 

Discuss your thoughts on this potential Ravens draft prospect on our message board.

Sticking with the Maryland theme, James is entering the draft a year early, like Teprs standout receiver, Stefon Diggs. Also like Diggs, the experts feel like James hurt his draft stock by coming out early, and could have vaulted up draft boards in 2016 with one stronger collegiate showing. CBS Sports lists James as their 3rd best TE prospect, but as a 3rd round selection in a very shallow TE class. Walter Football lists him as a 5th round selection. Mike Mayock of NFL.com, did not list Jesse James in his top five tight ends.

Statistically, James numbers won’t astound you, but it’s widely because he was under-utilized in Happy Valley. He caught 38 balls for 396 yards with three scores last season. What he lacked in receiving opportunities, you would think he would make for in the run heavy aspect of the Penn State game. Hard to tell if he’s at fault, but as a team the Nittany Lions rushed for 2.9 yards per carry.

Let’s look at some more tape, and analyze the big tight end.

James makes a nice play, going up the seam first, then breaks off a flag route. Nice catch in stride, and outruns a LB on his way to the endzone. Good ball security as well.

Here against UCF, James shows a flash of toughness. Way to hang on to the football after getting hammered. 

That was a great play, but on the very next one, what happened? Did James hear footsteps? Was he shaken a bit. Here are where the negative plays come in. The ball was a shade behind him, but you gotta catch those.

James doesn’t run a very crisp route here. He gains zero separation from a linebacker, and doesn’t look for the ball. Could be a case of late game, blowout, loss of focus. But not good either way.

Easy drop


  • Size
  • Standout at the combine
  • Size
  • Size
  • Size
  • Nicknames (I’m reaching here)


  • Small hands
  • Average blocker
  • Smaller catching radius despite his size
  • Not a crisp route runner
  • Not a factor against better competition (Ohio State, Michigan State)
  • In game speed

Summary: Not hard to tell how I feel about this prospect. Ozzie Newsome stressed the importance of this being a “tight end friendly offense” in the “State of the Ravens” presser a few days back. They are in wait and see mode with Dennis Pitta, and honestly, no stock should be put into his return. They should proceed as if they will not have Pitta, and if he makes it back, consider it a bonus. I feel very certain that the Ravens will be taking a tight end in this draft. I can almost guarantee you that. How serious they are about upgrading the position, depends, on if a serviceable Owen Daniels is re-signed, and how they feel about the development of Crockett Gillmore. Also if they address the position in free agency. If they feel confident in how the position looks, I could see the Ravens, or another team, snagging up James if he tumbles down the draft board. 5th round seems about right to roll the dice with a guy who is a physical mismatch, and that’s about it. To be fair, Christian Hackenberg isn’t a good quarterback. Maybe a better QB will make a better player out of James.

However, with the prospects out there, if they really want an upgrade, they will target the position earlier in the draft. The next Jimmy Graham, “Outlaw” is not.

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Terps Basketball Recruiting Q&A with Michael Bohlin, 247Sports

On Tuesday Night, the 2014-15 University of Maryland Terrapins delivered their latest and loudest statement of the year with with a 59-53 win over #5 Wisconsin. With that victory the Terps improved to 23-5 overall, and are now 11-4 in their first year in the Big Ten. There are three regular season games remaining, to be followed by the Big Ten Tournament, and Maryland’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since the 2009-10 season.

The arrow for the program is clearly pointing up. What will sustain this upward trend is recruiting, and adding the next waves of talent infusion.

When this season ends, Maryland will see the departures of Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz, Richaud Pack, Jonathan Graham, and Varun Ram.

After sitting out this year following his transfer from Georgia Tech, Robert Carter will be eligible. Ivan Bender joined MD in January, but is still recovering from an ACL injury sustained in 2013. He will be in the rotation next November. Currently the lone member of MD’s 2015 Recruiting class is JUCO PG Jaylen Brantley.

Should there not be any unexpected departures, this has MD’s 2015-16 Depth Chart currently looking like:

2015-16 Terps
Guards: Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Jaylen Brantley
Wings: Jake Layman, Jared Nickens
Bigs: Robert Carter, Damonte Dodd, Michal Cekovsky, Ivan Bender

Baltimore Sports and Life thanks Michael Bohlin (a Basketball Recruiting Analyst) from 247Sports for providing some of his thoughts on Maryland’s chances with prospects in the 2015 and 2016 Classes.

(This can be discussed on the BSL Board here.)

Baltimore Sports and Life:  Currently, the lone member of Maryland’s 2015 Recruiting class is JUCO PG (Odessa Community College) Jaylen Brantley. Brantley – who will have 3 years of eligibility remaining when he arrives at College Park – has been described as having a quick first-step, and being a good creator for others in the scouting reports I’ve seen. Have you seen him, does he project as someone eventually capable of starting at the Big Ten level?

Bohlin: It has been over a year since I last saw Brantley play in person but the scouting reports you’ve found to this point give a solid description. He’s the type of player that is more than capable of scoring the basketball but doesn’t have to put the ball in the bucket to be effective due to his ability to facilitate the offense.

Baltimore Sports and Life: A pseudo member of MD’s Class of ’15 is Ivan Bender, who enrolled into Maryland in January. The 6’9 Bosnian native was eligible to practice immediately, but is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered in 2013. The reports I’ve seen suggest he is an athletic shot-blocking 4, with a decent shot. Once healthy, what type of ceiling do you believe he has?

Bohlin: I am less familiar with Bender’s game as he was a bit of a surprise addition to the 2015 class upon enrolling this past January. Of the two Bender’s, his younger brother is the better long-term prospect. However, from all accounts Ivan should be able to continue to develop into a serviceable big man, at the very least, for Mark Turgeon.

Baltimore Sports and Life: Diamond Stone (6’10, 255lbs Milwaukee, WI) remains MD’s leading priority, and seemingly the final piece to their projected roster for next year. UConn, Oklahoma State, and the hometown Wisconsin Badgers are also in play for the consensus 5 star Center. Where do you see him ending up? What are his primary strengths, and what are his current limitations?

Bohlin: I currently have Stone projected to sign with the Connecticut Huskies but his Crystal Ball currently has the in-state Wisconsin Badgers as the team to beat for his services. In the end, I believe those are the two schools in the best position to secure a commitment from the five-star center. He’s a distinct low-post threat for any team he plays on that can also face up from the high post and be effective. He’ll need to continue to improve his conditioning and explosiveness going forward as those are areas where Stone still has room for improvement.

Baltimore Sports and Life:  It was reported this past week that Thon Maker plans to reclassify into the Class of 2015. Like Stone, Maker (7’0, 210 lbs) is an elite Center prospect. While he has visited MD, the Terps do not appear to be near the top of his list. Where do you see Maker going, and whose game do you like better – Maker or Stone?

Bohlin: Maker has a more developed face up game out to the perimeter than Stone does and this versatility is one of the things that makes Thon such a highly touted prospect. It is hard to get a sense as to which turn his recruitment will take next as some have floated the possibility of Maker doing a post-graduate year of high school before declaring for the NBA Draft. In the end, going the college route will be the best thing for him and the schools in the best position appear to be the Kansas Jayhawks and Kentucky Wildcats.

Baltimore Sports and Life: A 3rd 2015 Center we’ve seen Maryland linked to is Yankuba Sima (6’11, 215 lbs). Thoughts on his game, and MD’s chances with him?

Bohlin: Of the big men that Maryland has been linked to, Sima looks to be the one that is most likely to give a commitment to Mark Turgeon at this time. The Terps have been recruiting Sima going back to September of 2014 with the four-star big man having already visited College Park once. Sima is a skilled forward that will only continue to improve as a player as he becomes more and more comfortable with the physical style of play in the United States.

Baltimore Sports and Life:  Maryland’s first commitment of the 2016 Class is PG Anthony Cowan. The Washington D.C. native seems to be gaining steam in the recruiting rankings. What do you like about his game, what do you question?

Bohlin: He’s a true leader and a player that should have no issues running an offense to get looks for himself and others. I like the way that Cowan plays with no fear despite, more times than not, being one of the smaller guards on the floor. While it isn’t a trend by any stretch, Cowan has struggled at times when matched up against bigger guards and that is something I would keep an eye on going forward.

Baltimore Sports and Life:  Some other names in the 2016 Class we’ve seen MD connected with include Tyus Battle, Brandon Robinson, Mamadi Diakite, Tone Carr, Curtis Jones, and Barret Benson. Who stands out to you among that group?

Bohlin: For obvious reasons, Tyus Battle is the name that sticks out immediately as he’s established himself as one of the top talents in the class of 2016 regardless of position. While I haven’t had as much of an opportunity to see him play as a junior, I was very high on the ability of Curtis Jones while he was playing locally at Paul VI this past season.

Baltimore Sports and Life: Who else in either the 2015 or ’16 Classes could you see being a possibility for the Terrapins?

Bohlin: I would keep an eye on players like Malik Ellison and Maurice O’Field in the class of 2015 while some other names that jump off the page in the 2016 class as possibilities are Markelle Fultz and Cassius Winston.

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