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MHR University - The Importance of Speed

Welcome to another edition of MHR Universtity. Some time ago, we discussed the importance of endurance. Today, let's take a look at another key element of the game. Speed is an important part of the Denver Broncos arsenal. It has been a hallmark of the defense (particularly the LBs), for years. What makes speed so special? Are there different kinds of speed? Are there misunderstandings about speed?

There are certainly misunderstandings about speed, as there are about any positive human attribute. For instance, if someone is smarter than we are, we like to brag that the person lacks "common sense" or only has "book knowledge". If someone is stronger than we are, we like to think that they are "dumb jocks". If someone is faster than we are, what do we like to say?

Often we say the person must be lacking in other traits. A fast person "can't be strong" or "can't have good catching hands" or "can't tackle". The truth is, none of these things have any physical correlation with speed. Perhaps one exception may be how "big" a player is, since bulk can interfere with good running form. To check one's bias, notice which way the accusation usually goes. For example, the fast person is said to have "poor hands", but a person with "good hands" isn't usually said to be slow.

But speed is a rare blessing, and perhaps it is hard to believe that the gift can also be paired with gifts like catching, tackling, and strength. There is a difference though. Speed cannot be coached. You have it or you don't.Read on...

Olympians who are trained to sprint are trained to do things (mostly positioning their bodies with intense concentration) so that they can eck out less than a second's difference over an entire race. The same applies to competitors in events like the luge, or the bobsled. Intense concentration on how to position one's body is the difference of 10ths or 100ths of a second, which makes a diference in Olympic competition.

But not in football. Players build the endurance to run longer, use oxygen more efficiently, and run through blocks. They don't build speed. You've got it or you don't.

What is speed? Is there such a thing as "football speed"? In my opinion, speed can be broken down into several components. The first is acceleration, or "burst". This is key in two areas.

In the first area, burst is critical to linemen on both sides of the ball. There is no greater indicator of who will win a battle on the line than who fires first. This is perhaps the most important lesson that is passed on to linemen. I have seen film (that was slowed) time and time again of linemen being dominated by opposing linemen because the prior was slower off the snap. One might think that the offense has the advantage because they know the snap count, but this isn't entirely true. The "snap count" doesn't allow movement, only the actual snap of the ball. If a player can rocket out of his stance a microsecond faster than his opponent, physics gives an incredible edge to that player.

In the second area, acceleration is important because "top end speed" rarely comes into play in football. While players are sometimes dragged down from behind, the vast majority of tackles occur either within a moment of a receiver catching a ball or as a RB tries to regain speed after a move that has slowed him (perhaps the handoff, a turn, a spin, a juke, a cut, etc). Players are rarely brought down once they reach their top speed.

Another component of speed is a combination of agility and acceleration. I call this "swivel speed". This is the ability to make football moves (perhaps a change in direction) with very little loss of speed. My favorite example happened very recently, in a play involving Champ Bailey in '07. Champ raced towards the QB in a rare blitz, the pass went pass him, and he turned to hunt down the receiver. The way Champ turned (in football scouting it is called "turning on your hips", "rotating on your hips", or "swiveling on your hips") was to lean towards the ground like a bike making a turn, and making a small circle before racing back. This move almost looks like the player has just planted his foot, stopped, and accelerated back. But there is actually a small circle made as the player leans to one side, flips his top hip to now become the bottom hip, and continues the turn (the flip acts like a slingshot, throwing force into the next step). It is not a natural move, and has to be taught. A very athletic and agile individual like Champ can turn the move into a second chance at a tackle.

Last, "angle speed" is something taught as early as middle school football and other sports (like soccer and rugby). The idea is to not chase the ball, but to go to where the ball is going to be. This is called "taking a good angle" on the play or the ball. If you start from a player's side (a few yards away) and run towards him, you will end up behind him. But if you run for a point several yards in front of him, you will get there first. Another dramatic example was a few years ago, when speedster Champ Bailey intercepted a ball and ran the length of the field to almost score a TD. NE Patriots TE Watson cut a perfect angle, and knocked the ball (and Bailey) out just short of the TD. I believe this was a playoff game, and one Denver won at any rate.

What is the importance of speed? It has many applications that one might not have thought of on first glance. For example, speed is momentum. A RB who has built up speed and keeps his legs moving can be brought down, but he will likely gain extra yardage in the process. A RB with momentum is also harder to bring down in the first place. Speed allows for errors, since a fast player is more likely to get back in the play if he has been tricked. Speed means less time for an opponent to make decisions. Speed means less chance of being seen during a play. Speed on defense means a greater opportunity to be involved in ending the play.

Speed is also hard to measure in some terms. For example, I knew plenty of coaches who shared my sentiment that track stars rarely had good "football speed". It bothered me, since I coached both sports. I'm not sure what the prime variable was. Perhaps it was the added equiptment, or the need to be fast under the pressure of being assaulted, or the need to make other moves besides hurdling (like twisting, turning, straight arming, catching, etc). Basketball players and wrestlers made the conversion easily, but for some reason track guys didn't seem to.

Speed is so important that there are phrases that praise the talent. "You can't coach speed", "speed kills", "you can't tackle what isn't there", and "you can't make a play on what you can't catch" are among them. Facing a big guy? Send a few guys after him, and teach the guys how to tackle. Facing a fast guy? Put several guys on him and hope someone can stay with him!

For Denver, speed at LB has paid dividends in the past (until playing in a contain system that doesn't place an emphasis on speed). Denver LBs can race side to side, and take away the edge and sweep runs. Denver LBs can match most TEs in coverage. Denver LBs are also a blitz threat. Even if one wants to run up the gut and try to overpower a fast LB, the other two (because of speed) are right there to help.

With the end of the Bates scheme of run contain, it is a reasonable hope that Denver LBs will be able to once again take advantage of their speed, and make a positive contribution to the defense this year.