To get a grasp on Chargers running back Austin Ekeler's 20 touchdown season, we talked to former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew at Super Bowl LVI Radio Row.
Throughout his nine year NFL career, Jones-Drew rushed for over 8,000 yards and found the end zone 68 times. During the 2011 season, Jones-Drew rushed for a league high 1,606 yards, 11 touchdowns and was named a First-Team AP All-Pro and Pro Bowler. Prior to the NFL, Jones-Drew shined as a running back, leading the Bruins in rushing all three seasons he played, something only five other running backs in the school's history had done before.
We caught up with the three-time Pro Bowl running back to talk Chargers. Specifically, we started with what stood out the most to MJD about Austin Ekeler's game and his huge season in 2021.
"That's a tremendous feat, I don't think I've ever scored 20 in a season, but you know when you watch Austin Ekeler, I know he wasn't drafted, but when you watch the way he works in the offseason, you watch the way he works at training camp and at practice you see it show up in the game. I thought with the addition of [Joe] Lombardi, their offensive coordinator, you were going to see more of an Alvin Kamara type performance, and you saw that.
"I didn't know he scored 20, I knew he was up there pretty high, but they utilize him very well. I know a lot of times [with] a running back, people think about carries, but it's more about touches and how many ways we can get you the ball in space and one-on-ones so you can utilize your ability off of the way he breaks tackles, the way he makes guys miss, his explosiveness. They did a great job of that."
Jones-Drew talked about how the running back position has changed over time and has evolved since he entered the NFL in 2006. Ekeler finished the year with eight receiving touchdowns, enough to make him the running back with the most receiving yards (647) and receiving touchdowns in 2021.
Jones-Drew shared how important it is to have a running back in your offense who can catch the ball and how players like Ekeler are great resources for his son to watch.
"When I was in the league, there [weren't] a lot of guys that did that. I didn't do that at first, I had the ability to do it, but I was never brought up that way in the game. I remember my second year they were like, 'Listen, you are going to learn how to play wide receiver so we can motion you around and get the ball to you,' so I learned that, and it helped me obviously a ton. For kids now because of 7-on-7 in high school and the more spread offenses you are seeing, guys are getting out in space more. Running backs are coming in now more with that experience doing those things.
"I have my son watch [Barry Sanders] and also watch Austin Ekeler and a couple other guys that aren't the biggest guys, but they are very explosive and they find ways to make plays. Because you know a lot of us can't be six-foot or whatever you want to be, but if you are able to catch the ball and make plays, you'll be ok."
At 5-foot-7 and 210 pounds, Jones-Drew and Ekeler have similar body types and styles of play. Jones-Drew explained what the key is to making plays as an undersized running back in the NFL and how Ekeler showcased those skills in his four-touchdown performance against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
"Studying the defense is one, you have to be a student of the game and understand where guys are fitting defensively on those certain runs plays. I want to say I was watching the Chargers-Steelers game at SoFi where he had a run going to the right and he cut it back left and it was wide open and that's studying because you are watching that backer and he's going to go over the top. I think the other part is just having the instinct and the vision and a lot of guys don't have that so that was a big find for [the Chargers], especially to get a guy undrafted like that to come out and be able to perform."
Jones-Drew acknowledged the physicality of the running back position and how he has seen running backs decline after five seasons in the NFL. However, as Ekeler enters his sixth season in the league, Jones-Drew explained how the Chargers' lead back is only at the beginning.
"He's always performed well and he's only getting better which is scary, because he's getting better and better and normally year five is where a running back kind of tables off a little bit, so expect him to keep going. I'm excited to see what he brings to the table because again, he's a running back and he does a really good job at it, he helps your quarterback, he does a great job in the pass blocking game. He's an all-around back which is good to see."
Jones-Drew also talked about Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and what he likes most about his skillset after two years in the NFL.
"Obviously you are going to talk about his arm strength and his ability to throw the ball down the field. I think his toughness is good, you know at the end of the day he's the kind of prototypical guy you are looking for. I remember the Draft he came out in, I had the Bengals picking him [first overall] because of that ... It's always good to see guys come from college and really see their true potential, their growth and you're seeing that with Herbert.
"I love the way he throws the ball different to everyone else. I think that's something a lot of people don't understand at quarterback...you have to put the ball in different areas for different guys so it's exciting to see the way he's able to adjust depending on the receiver he's throwing to, or the back he's throwing to, or tight end."
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