Something that stood out when DeMarco Murray burst onto the scene in 2011 was just how successful he was when running behind a true fullback.
His most productive games of the season, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Buffalo, came when Tony Fiammetta was in the lineup. When Fiammetta was unable to dress because of an inner ear problem, Murray's average dipped to 2.9 yards per carry against the Redskins, 4.0 against the Dolphins and 3.2 against the Cardinals.
It was no secret Murray and Fiammetta had a real bond in their ability to read blocks, see the hole and get through it for positive yards. Murray and Fiammetta saw the same thing in the way the play was developing and adjusted on the move. It wasn't that Fiammetta was a punishing run blocker, but he was able to get off the track and clean up any missed blocks by the offensive line or tight ends. There were several times where a defender would flash in the backfield and both Murray and Fiammetta would have to adjust their path just to get a positive gain. The more you watched these two work, it was like they were one back.
Not to throw John Phillips under the bus because he is a tight end by trade and not a fullback, but when he was asked to sub for Fiammetta, you didn't see the same ability to adjust on the move and clean up those missed blocks. Phillips knew his path, understood his assignment and did it to the best of his ability, but for Murray, attempting to read blocks was entirely different.
In the offseason, the front office made the decision to not retain Fiammetta because of some health and injury concerns, and sought a fullback who could replace him.
Lawrence Vickers was a guy they looked at last year, but decided to sign a one-year deal with Houston. Vickers had played five years in Cleveland to begin his career and was looking to return home to the Houston area, but it was an odd fit because the Texans use a one-back scheme and often play with tight ends in the backfield. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are good one-back runners who don't need a fullback when they are running stretch plays.
The most productive game I studied for Vickers with the Texans was against Carolina. In that contest, he was a down hill player with a physical strike at the point of attack. I thought he did a really nice job of finding his target and delivering a blow to finish his block. He did a nice job of adjusting on the move, but not like I had seen with Fiammetta. When in the game as a pass protector, he was solid. As a receiver, I saw him do a nice job of adjusting to a low ball in the flat.
His tape from 2010 in Cleveland wasn't as good as what I observed with the Texans, but he received more opportunities so I had to study it.
I watched him play against Baltimore, New England and the New York Jets, and in those games I thought he was a one-shot blocker - he would hit, then slide off his man. At times he needed to be more square when making blocks. He accepted more blows than he delivered. He would unload on his man inside, but then his feet would stop. He did a nice job when on the edge, staying after his block in space.
Vickers had a couple chances to block on the backside, ut instead of hitting his man in the face, he cut blocked. The same low ball I saw him catch as a Texan was a drop against the Jets. I thought he needed to do a better job of playing under control. There were some snaps when he was off balance while trying to engage his block.
The conclusion is that Vickers is a much better player now than he was two years ago.
I'm looking forward to seeing if he can develop the same bond with Murray that he and Fiammetta shared last season.