Every great running back has their signature ability that sets them apart from their peers. For Barry Sanders it was his agility/elusiveness. For Adrian Peterson it’s his combination of power and top-end speed. For Terrell Davis, it was his vision.
The Broncos dominant zone running attack relied on Davis to find the cutback lanes and hit the right hole. He did this better than anyone during his time in the league.
I dug around and found an old play breakdown from ESPN in 1997 of one of Denver’s signature plays that put Davis’ vision on display - the toss play.
About the play: The Broncos have made this play famous with Terrell Davis. He has great vision and knows just when to cut back. Davis might gain one-third of his yards on this play.
Davis will take the toss and try to stretch the play to the tight-end side. This allows the play to develop, so he can see which defender has been too aggressive and overrun the hole. At that time, Davis will cut back and find daylight.
When to expect the play: The Broncos will have this play in for any and every defense. They really love it against defenses that are fast and overpursue the outside run.
Keys to the play: The left tackle must get up to the weak-side linebacker, so he can get the 'backer out of Davis' vision. All long runs happen because of great blocking by receivers, and Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey are two of the best. The offensive line cannot allow quick penetration or the play has no chance.
Here’s a slower version of the breakdown.
It was this vision that led Denver to two Super Bowl wins.
The Miami Sun-Sentinel did a story leading up to Super Bowl 32 against the Packers and talked about Green Bay’s number priority being to stop Terrell Davis. Here’s what they had to say about his signature running style and incredible vision. (emphasis added)
The Broncos' signature run is a toss left or toss right to Davis. Sometimes, Elway will hand the ball to Davis going right or left, but it's a cosmetic difference. The line blocks it the same way.
As Davis starts in motion, the idea is to get the defensive linemen moving laterally to try to hold the perimeter and keep Davis inside. That allows the smaller Denver offensive linemen to angle-block rather than confront Green Bay's bigger defenders head-on.
They are not trying to blast the Packers off the line. That's not their style and they are not built for it. They are trying to get them moving so they can shove them aside and create wider gaps through which Davis can run.
Despite the number of times Denver runs the toss play, Davis doesn't often try to turn the corner and head down the sideline. He is a downhill runner. His thing is cutback, get through the gap, bust the linebacker tackle and take off.
And he does it well because of his decisiveness and vision. He is an instinctive back who sees holes develop an instant before they happen. He feels the gaps appearing, and he has cut back before the gaps are fully open. That gives him a head start into the hole.
The Packers have not faced an offensive line with a combination of this kind of runner and this kind of blocking scheme all season.
I think this quote from the book Terrell Davis: TD!, written by Jeff Savage, sums it up best.
Terrell is a powerful runner who relies on cutbacks and quickness, but his biggest strength is his vision. “I can see the hole opening as fast as anybody,” he said. “I can see the big picture.”