Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.
Remember when Reggie Bush was one of the most exciting football players any of us had ever seen at USC, and everyone said the Saints got a steal when they made him the second pick in the draft? What happened to that Reggie Bush?
He certainly wasn't on the field on Sunday in the Saints' win over the San Francisco 49ers. Bush had 10 carries for 31 yards, had eight passes thrown to him and caught five for seven yards, and fielded one punt, which he fair caught. Did you ever think, when you watched him at USC, that you'd see Reggie Bush have the ball come to him 19 times in a game, and that he'd have 38 yards to show for it?
Bush has been in the league for three years now, and it's clear that he just isn't making it as a running back. In fact, the way the Saints used him on Sunday provided a good example of how not to use Reggie Bush.
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For starters, the Saints need to get Bush out of the I-formation. He looks lost when there's a fullback directly in front of him. I don't know if he can't see over the fullback or if he feels like the fullback gets in his way or what, but it just doesn't work, and the sooner Saints coach Sean Payton realizes that, the better.
Against the 49ers, Bush had five carries in the I-formation, and they went for two, one, negative-two, negative-one and one yard. A total of five carries for one yard.
To be charitable, I'll describe the best of those runs, the two-yarder, which came on second-and-10 early in the first quarter. Bush was lined up behind fullback Olaniyi Sobomehin, and with the 49ers putting only six in the box, the Saints had the clear numbers advantage. The Saints' offensive line opened a big hole, Sobomehin led the way through it, and at the time Bush got the ball, he looked like he was poised to break a long one.
And then as he crossed the line of scrimmage, he inexplicably ran straight into the outstretched arm of 49ers defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who brought him down with ease. If he had simply cut to his left after he crossed the line of scrimmage he could have had a big gain, but instead he gained just two. Bush just doesn't make good use of his athletic abilities when he's in the I-formation. He looks like the I makes him feel penned in, and as a result the Saints really ought to just stop using him in it.
I really think, though, that it's simply a matter of having a fullback directly in front of him slowing Bush down, because he broke off a nice run in the offset I. The play came on a first-and-10 in the second quarter, with Bush six yards behind the line of scrimmage and directly behind Drew Brees, while Sobomehin was four yards behind the line of scrimmage and offset one yard to the weak side of the formation.
The play was very similar to that previous two-yard gain, but this time after Bush initially got caught up inside, he churned his legs, found a little bit of running room, and picked up nine yards up the middle. That was the only time Bush took a handoff out of the offset I, but I think he's a lot more comfortable in that formation. When the fullback is directly in front of him, he looks like an Olympic distance runner who wants to make his move but is boxed in by slower guys around him.
Bush can be very effective running the ball is in situations where the defense has the nickel package on the field. On third-and-10 in the second quarter, Bush lined up next to Brees in the shotgun and took a handoff up the middle for 10 yards. That was one of those plays in which we were reminded that Bush has real athletic talents: He's got way too much speed and agility to be averaging 3.5 yards a carry, which is what he's getting so far this season.
Bush has more career receiving yards than rushing yards, and in some respects I think the Saints might just be better off making him a wide receiver permanently. As it is, he does play quite a bit of wide receiver: He had three passes thrown his way when lined up wide near the sideline, and another pass thrown his way when he was lined up in the slot.
But Bush was mediocre in those situations; two of the passes were incomplete, one went for a four-yard gain and one went for a nine-yard gain that was negated because the Saints accepted a 49ers penalty.
Bush doesn't run particularly crisp pass routes; most of the time he just sort of strolls into the flat and waits for Brees to throw him the ball. Bush is athletic enough that he can occasionally turn those plays into big gains, but most of the time (as you can tell from the stunning stat line of five catches for seven yards), he turns them into nothing.
As a receiver, Bush is in serious need of a coach who can convince him to catch take the ball and run forward. I don't ever remember seeing an NFL player give up as much ground as Bush does. On first-and-10 as the Saints tried to get a drive going before halftime, Bush lined up next to Brees in the shotgun, ran a short route and caught Brees' pass about five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He then proceeded to backtrack three yards before running out of bounds for a two-yard gain. The play yielded two yards and took seven seconds off the clock.
If that was the best Bush could do he would have been better off just dropping the pass -- and Brees would have been better off just throwing the ball away. And that's really the bottom line with Bush's role on the Saints: It's not so much that Bush can't be a good NFL player, it's that the Saints are forcing him the ball and thinking he's going to be a player of Barry Sanders' caliber, when he's really more like a Dave Meggett.
There's no shame in being Dave Meggett, who had a solid 10-year NFL career. But he had that career catching passes on third downs and taking the occasional handoff on a draw play, not getting the ball 20 times a game as an every-down back. Through three years and a 3.7 yards-per-carry career average, the Saints have shown how not to use Reggie Bush. Now they need to show how to use him.