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Steelers Film Room: Breaking down RB LaRod Stephens-Howling

Early into Pittsburgh's 2013 off-season they released RB Chris Rainey because of off-field incidents. In April - during the NFL draft - the Steelers signed western Pennsylvania native, former University of Pittsburgh and Arizona Cardinals running back, LaRod Stephens-Howling. How does Stephens-Howling fit into the Steelers’ plans?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Bumping this back up due to Stephens-Howling's outstanding performance in the Steelers' preseason opener against the Giants. - nc

LaRod Stephens-Howling is 26 years old and bit small of stature at 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds.

He may lack size, but he doesn't lack talent.

In college he led the Panthers in rushing as a freshman and a sophomore then he became the backup to LeSean McCoy in his final two years. After being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round, he immediately took over as a kick returning threat and has amassed 4,067 kick return yards and 25 yards per return in his five years. In Pittsburgh's loaded backfield his special teams ability could give him an advantage but how does he look as a runner?

Stephens-Howling wasn't used often as a runner in his five years in Arizona having totaled only 182 carries for 651 yards averaging 3.6 yards per carry. This number however is slightly misleading. The Cardinals have had inconsistent offensive line play over the years and Stephens-Howling was rarely given more than five carries per game. Since last year, Stephens-Howling has played in four games where he has had 15 or more carries. In those four games he had a total of 80 carries for 375 yards - averaging nearly 4.7 yards per carry. Below we have put together three separate plays that highlight Stephens-Howling's abilities.

Inside zone

This play highlights LaRod Stephens-Howling exceptional vision. Arizona is in a singleback formation with a tight end lined up on the left side. The play begins and immediately Stephens-Howling has to make a quick move because the center is unable to get to the defensive tackle lined up as the one technique. Stephens-Howling cuts back behind the center however the hole fills fast. He put on one more move and makes a cut behind the left tackle Batiste (recently signed by the Steelers) and hits an open hole. Unfortunately Stephens-Howling loses his footing and gains only three yards. The major take away from this play is how decisive Stephens-Howling is with his cuts and how good his vision is of the blocking. With many other running backs this play would have resulted in a loss.

Outside zone

The Cardinals are in 12 personnel, 1 RB and 2 TEs, for this outside zone play which gives them an advantage of being able to run to either side depending on the defensive front. As the play begins Stephens-Howling reads the tight ends block. Since the TE has sealed the linebacker to the inside, Stephens-Howling continues on the play's original path. The play is designed to cut up just after the tight end, but the Cardinals right tackle failed to block the linebacker who fills that hole. Stephens-Howling has no other choice then to bounce the play outside and utilize his speed. Stephens-Howling gets the edge and is able to get 11 yards on the play.

There is enough tape to suggest LaRod Stephens-Howling can be a good second option as a running back but he is clearly at his best as a third down back. Despite his size, he is a good blocker. He can get under linebackers and slow them down and executes cut blocks effectively. He isn't afraid to block and because of this will annoy any pass rusher on their way to the QB. Stephens-Howling is a great receiver out of the back field as well. He averages 9.5 yards per reception and has had four receptions that he has taken for 20+ yards over the last two years and two of those went for 40+ yards. His best play as a third down RB is the draw.

Draw play

In this play the Cardinals are lined up in a three receiver set with fullback Anthony Sherman flanking the QB on the right and Stephens-Howling on the left. The defense is expecting pass. At the snap Stephens-Howling gets the ball and presses the line of scrimmage. He sees the giant gap in the line on the right but still presses the line to increase the holes size. Lost behind the line Stephens-Howling executes a jump cut to the right and hits the hole. Now he is in open space where he thrives. Downfield he shakes a safety, allowing him to gain an extra 25 yards - more than half of the 40-yard gain.

When the defense is stretched out, Stephens-Howling is at his most dangerous. This shows in the stats as 37.9 percent of his runs in 2012 went for 15 or more yards which was sixth in the league. Stephens-Howling will continue to churn his feet and he breaks a surprising amount of tackles. In 2012, he forced 24 missed tackles on run plays and another 4 missed tackles as a receiver.

LaRod Stephens-Howling does have a hard time breaking out runs when the defense puts eight men in the box. He needs the defense to be stretched out so that he can use his vision and quickness to find an opening. Luckily for him that is one of the premises of the outside zone that the Steelers have worked hard on so far this off season. Don't be surprised if Stephens-Howling makes the most of his limited touches as he has been doing it his entire career.

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