Running Back IQ

So you want to become a running back? Do you have good footwork and agility? How about your speed, size and strength? Although these basic factors can determine if you’re cut off for running back, one the most important, yet overlooked attributes of a ball carrier is running back IQ.

Put simply, running back IQ is the ability to make good decisions on the field. There are a host of decisions that must be made instinctively, and a few of the most common are listed below.


Part of the IQ of a ball carrier is the ability to anticipate what the defense is going to do. Knowing whether there is going to be a blitz, whether a defender is going to force you out of bounds or go for the big hit and even whether or not the quarterback is keying in to you as a late option are all crucial components of a running back’s psyche. The legendary Marshall Faulk mastered the art of anticipation, used this skill and his physical abilities to put himself in position to make a great play every time he was on the field.


It’s standard protocol to teach backs to hit the hole full speed in order to maximize yardage on each run, but at times, this thought process does not yield positive results.

On the contrary, running backs with patience wait for a hole to open up or even lure the defense one way in order to cut backside for a huge play.

My favorite zone running back is Terrell Davis. In his limited tenure in the league, he was able to pile up two impressive two thousand yards seasons with this running style. He received the ball many times on a stretch, zone-blocking read and waited for the lanes to open up. As soon as he saw daylight, he exploded into the gap, switching from a fast jog laterally to an all out sprint vertically up the field.

Going Down

Teams fortunate enough to have a power back love to load the line with two tight ends and run right at the defense. Backs such as Marshawn Lynch and L. Blount have a unique size and power that allow them to make a living punishing defenders as they run downhill. However, even these heavy loads can take physical punishment and risk injury and turnovers when they do not know when to go down. As a back, you’re taught to keep your feet moving at all times, but there are moments when the extra half yard is just not worth it. Defenders are taught to strip the ball and even go low when the ball carrier is fighting off potential tacklers. Knowing when to go down can prevent injuries and costly fumbles, especially towards the end of a game.

There’s much more to examine when it comes to running back IQ, like when to go out of bounds, how to go about blocking large defenders and even how to take advantage of mismatches in the passing game. Unfortunately, there aren’t any shortcuts to sharpening this mental ability. Watching a ton of film, studying defenses and a great deal of experience will definitely assist ball carrier in developing this much-needed running back IQ.

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