The preseason is a horrible time to learn much about teams in great detail. Coaches don’t play their best players or run their best plays. Offenses and defenses are plain vanilla and every coach has the same mantra throughout the preseason: exit as healthy as you possibly can.
All that being said, we can predict a few things when we look at the Pep Hamilton offense. What we have to do is start with the general and move to the specific later on. We know what we have been told and what the coaches preach to the media in sound bites. Then, coaches usually say the same things. Bill O’Brien always talked up the running game, but late in the game we knew they would be passing the ball. That was partially because Deshaun Watson was the quarterback and it was partially because the O’Brien running attack never really left the hanger.
Judging by the first two preseason games we can see that the Hamilton offense should be more balanced. They ran 53 plays in the game against the New Orleans Saints and 59 plays against the Los Angeles Rams. They passed the ball 61 times in those 112 plays and ran the ball 51 times. For the modern NFL that is more balanced. So, we can guess that Hamilton is more committed to the running game than O’Brien and Tim Kelly were.
Who Will Do the Running?
When thinking about the depth chart I go back to the main mantra of the preseason: leave as healthy as humanly possible. You’ll notice that neither the Rams nor the Saints really played their starters. That’s because they know who their starters are. So, they spent the game evaluating the backups. Viewing the preseason through that prism is absolutely enlightening. If we look at the top five running backs through that prism we can harbor a few guesses.
Marlon Mack — 3 carries, 6 yards vs. NO, 8 carries, 29 yards vs. LA
Royce Freeman — 12 carries, 25 yards vs. NO, 9 carries, 30 yards vs. LA
Rex Burkhead — DNP vs. NO, 2 carries, 5 yards vs. LA
Dameon Pierce — 5 carries, 49 yards vs. NO, DNP vs. LA
Dare Ogunbowale — DNP vs. NO, 6 carries, 27 yards vs. LA
The guy with the most carries is probably not the highest on the depth chart. In fact, you could probably look it as an inverse relationship. For one, you don’t want to get any of your core players injured. Secondly, you want to give your bubble players as many opportunities as possible to make the team. So, it should be no surprise that Royce Freeman leads the team in carries this preseason.
The numbers behind Freeman really are telling though. Why did Marlon Mack get so many carries against the Rams when he has been first on the depth chart for most of training camp? My guess is that he is no longer number one on the depth chart. Pierce has likely supplanted him. From there, it is just a question of how many backs they will carry and how the pecking order will be.
Final Camp Battles
Considering the fact that the Houston Texans just cut their fullbacks, I’m going to guess that they will carry four running backs. That means that one of the running backs will be on the outside looking in when preseason ends. Unless there is a huge surprise, the final cut will come down to Ogunbowale or Freeman.
Numbers are nearly meaningless because you aren’t facing the best. One guy might be going against the twos while the other goes against the threes. So, we have to go on feel and just how they look. So far, Ogunbowale has looked better than Freeman as a runner. Freeman did catch a couple of balls out of the backfield, so it could down to how both look against the San Francisco 49ers.
The 64,000 pound elephant in the room is Mack. Quite frankly, he hasn’t looked very good. I don’t see them cutting him based on the preseason, but every year there are surprise cuts and he could be the one from this position group. If we see him getting many more carries on Thursday it could be a sign that they are trying to make up their mind on him.