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The Drive: Penny Dreadnought

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks rookie running back Rashaad Penny decided to give me a bit of a break this week, and for that I thank him.

Behind the defensive line:

The 49ers front seven are, to be very technical in my description, tiny. From left to right: Jullian Taylor (77) is an undersized defensive tackle playing big end. (99) is DeForest Buckner. Both are 6’5” or taller, and both weighed in under 300 pounds at the NFL Combine. Earl Mitchell (90) weighed 296 at the 2010 NFL Combine and is playing nose. Quite a bit to his right is former LEO Cassius Marsh (54). He has an awful lot of responsibility for a dude weighing in at 252. (36) Marcell Harris, (51) Malcolm Smith and (48) Fred Warner are all in the range of very small linebacker to big strong safety. In fact, according to their current bios, 21-year-old Kam Chancellor was bigger than any of the three. More to the point, so is Rashaad Penny.

Brian Schottenheimer “forced” San Francisco into going small by deploying three wide receivers to the left, and Ed Dickson split wide on the right. In fact, given Seattle’s personnel, the 49ers are sort of big. Being down 20-3 but being thus routed by an offense which had rushed 22 times compared to only 7 pass attempts is how the 49ers found themselves betwixt and between. The Seahawks were mercilessly rushing the ball, but whenever San Francisco compensated through scheme and personnel, Seattle would pass. It’s an unorthodox approach. It’s also working really really well.

Penny just as he is about to receive the pitch:

Seattle’s blocking begins flimsy. David Moore, just behind Duane Brown (76), is setting a block more resembling a basketball pick. Jaron Brown, just ahead of Duane, is squaring up Warner. Both receivers are relatively big, but this flimsy blocking puts an emphasis on Penny’s second gear. Marsh is unlikely to track him down in the backfield. Penny must then quickly accelerate in order to achieve the correct angle. That aligns the blockers.

Penny has a gliding style. He doesn’t burst as the jargon goes, but his mix of talents bears a striking resemblance to those of Ezekiel Elliott:

Zeke:

Combine Invite: Yes

Height: 5116

Weight: 225

40 Yrd Dash: 4.47

20 Yrd Dash: 2.62

10 Yrd Dash: 1.58

225 Lb. Bench Reps:

Vertical Jump: 32 1/2

Broad Jump: 09’10”

20 Yrd Shuttle:

3-Cone Drill:

No Full Workout-Choice

Penny:

Combine Invite: Yes

Height: 5110

Weight: 220

40 Yrd Dash: 4.46

20 Yrd Dash: 2.63

10 Yrd Dash: 1.58

225 Lb. Bench Reps: 13

Vertical Jump: 32 1/2

Broad Jump: 10’00”

20 Yrd Shuttle:

3-Cone Drill:

No Full Workout-Choice

Of particular interest is the time it took both players to run from 10 to 20 yards. Compared to backs with elite “burst” like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, both reached 10 yards in 1.55 seconds, Elliott and Penny build speed. All four range between 1.04 seconds (Elliott) and 1.06 seconds (Kamara) running that second leg of the 40. Where Kamara and McCaffrey peter our, Penny’s still gaining.

20 to 40 split

Kamara: 1.92

McCaffrey: 1.88

Elliott: 1.85

Penny: 1.83

Which isn’t to say he’s better, but it’s an interesting portrait of his talent. Penny is a long-strider. A pitch allows him to run further before engaging the defense. Aligned eight yards back and along the right hash mark, and running a curve which resulted in Penny crossing the line of scrimmage over the left 20 yard marker, I estimate that Penny ran about 17 yards before crossing the line of scrimmage.

That deceptive speed is how Malcolm Smith doubled the effectiveness of Brown’s block. In the previous picture, you can see Smith beginning what looks like a reasonable angle of pursuit. J.R. Sweezy whiffed. Smith is entirely free. But by the time Penny is crossing the 20, that angle has proven downright awful. Smith has gradually flattened his angle until he’s more or less pursuing horizontally. He sandwiches Brown. This is a rare context in which “sandwich” verb indicates failure.

Brown’s block is ugly and effective. K’Waun Williams has kept Brown off of his body but at the expense of position. At best he channels the rush inside. Which gives Antone Exum Jr. (38) one last shot to stop Penny. If only Exum could anticipate where Penny would go.

Nope.

But let’s roll it back and see exactly what happens.

Exum must near the projected path of Penny but Exum must also contain the middle, or Penny will cut in and be home free. Ahkello Witherspoon (23) can potentially help, and the two could potentially form the kind of pincer which corrals a runner in the open field. Witherspoon, to his credit, does free himself from Doug Baldwin’s block.

But Penny splits them effortlessly.

Which racks Buckner with inconsolable grief, bringing us full circle ..?

Penny does not look that fast. He was not supposed to be this fast. One NFC exec, if Walter Football is to be believed, described Penny as having “[some] speed.” Lance Zierlein commented that “he doesn’t really have the burst or long speed to be a homerun hitter.” Some early comps I could find: Javorius Allen (4.53 40) and Jay Ajayi (4.57). After Penny ran at the Combine, mentions of his speed became more prominent. But in some ways, what we see here is one of those circumstances in which the tape does kind of lie. Ronald Jones II, for instance, certainly looks faster. Only, he isn’t.

Penny has become Seattle’s most valuable back per rush. His rushing DVOA is 8.3%, which would tie with Kareem Hunt if either qualified. This is the second incidental relationship between Kareem and a Seahawk in as many weeks, but facts are facts, and Hunt was a very successful running back. Penny is or at least was not very good at everything else a back must do but rush the ball, and I value pass blocking and receiving very highly. But it would seem after a surprisingly slow start that Seattle’s first-round pick is gaining steam.

We tend to think of players developing but in football, coaches developing an understanding of a player and what they are capable of, is often even more important. Maybe this kind of slowly developing run play, in which Penny can build speed, is a kind of breakthrough for Schotty II and Mike Solari. Maybe we think Penny is still just figuring it out while he’s already running by us. The Vikings, who are among the worst teams in football at defending rushes off either end, may just find out.