The NFL continues to become more passing oriented, and running backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield have become more valuable than ever. Ted Nguyen looks at how the NFL uses these running backs’ skill set.
Inline blocking tight ends are becoming increasingly obsolete and pass catching tight ends are in as high demand as ever. Tight ends like Jimmy Graham, who is rarely asked to block, are incredibly valuable in the league. As the game continues to become more pass reliant, the running back position will evolve to fit in this new NFL. I don’t believe the position will change as dramatically as tight ends, but having a running back who can catch presents all sorts of problems for defenses. The trend began with backs like Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk catching passes out of the backfield, and now players like Darren Sproles, Tevin Coleman, or Giovani Bernard are being asked to catch passes more than they are asked to carry the ball. Let’s look at why and how they are being used in today’s NFL.
They are a Match-up Nightmare
Much like tight ends, pass-catching running backs can be matchup nightmares for defenses. Teams will usually devote their best coverage defenders like cornerbacks and safeties to an opposing team’s receivers and tight end(s), often leaving a linebacker to cover the running back. There are a select few linebackers who excel in coverage, but most are run stoppers first. On top of that, the back usually has a lot of space to work with because the other receivers have cleared out the field by the time the RB releases out of the backfield.
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Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard is one of the best pass catching backs in the league, and when he is on the field defenses should be expecting a pass. He isn’t a huge threat running the ball, averaging only 2.7 yards per carry this season. However, the threat of an inside run and the offensive personnel dictates that a linebacker has to be on the field to cover him. Linebacker Spencer Paysinger (#42), is the unlucky Dolphins defender who is assigned that task in the play above. The other receivers clear out tons of space for Bernard and he leaves Paysinger in the dust with a nifty route. That’s a lot of space to ask a defender to cover, even for a cover corner, but a linebacker like Paysinger doesn’t stand a chance.
Quarterback’s New Best Friend
Tight ends are often described as quarterback friendly because they run routes in the middle of the field and present big targets, but a good pass catching RB can be just as valuable. Backs are often the last phase in a quarterback’s progression and a good one can make people miss and maximize yardage on a play that the defense might have otherwise covered well. But RBs can really help out their quarterbacks when the play breaks down and they run outside of the pocket. A good back will know how to find open space and make the quarterback look good.
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Here, Philadelphia Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz goes through his progressions before breaking the pocket. Sproles, who is running an out route, recognizes he is getting too close to the sideline and wheels his route up field to the open space. Wentz hits Sproles for the easy completion and he does what he was born to do: Run in the open field. Sproles scores and makes Wentz and the entire Eagles offense look good.
Running backs don’t always have to be the last progression. Creative coaches like Andy Reid are taking advantage of their receiving backs by designing plays that defenses aren’t used to seeing.
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Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware is lined up out wide to the offensive left. When backs are lined up out wide, it forces the defense to declare what type of defense they are in. In this case, a corner is matched up on Ware, and when Ware motions into the backfield, the corner doesn’t follow, which confirms that the defense is playing zone. The tight end runs a hitch route, while Ware releases out of the backfield into the seam over the top and is wide open. This play is a great call against zone because it floods one of the linebacker’s zone with two routes. Defenses aren’t used to seeing running backs run routes up the seam and linebacker Denzel Perryman (#52), who is responsible for that zone, looks like he was expecting Ware to run a short check down route, like most running backs do. Instead, Ware explodes up the seam where he is left wide open.
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Sean Payton is also known for creative play designs and here he is taking running back mismatches to another level. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees shifts tight end Coby Fleener out, which draws out a linebacker, and then Brees motions running back Travaris Cadet out to the same side, which draws another linebacker out of the box. Fleener and Cadet then run a “rub” concept. Fleener gets into the defender guarding Cadet’s way just enough to get Cadet open for a touchdown. This may seem like a simple strategy, but linebackers don’t usually practice against rub routes out in open space. Good offensive strategy involves an element of surprise and making defenders uncomfortable, which is what the Saints are able to do to the defense with their pass-catching back.
After four weeks of play, three of the top ten receiving yardage leaders in positions other than wide receivers are running backs. I would not be surprised to see a few backs with comparable receiving statistics with tight ends at the end of the year. Running backs aren’t commonly highlighted as matchup problems in the pass game for defensive coordinators, but if a team has one it could add another problem for defenses to think about. As teams become more pass oriented, backs with receiving skills are going to become increasingly valuable.
Follow Ted on Twitter via @RaidersAnalysis. Check out his site and his other work at ITP, such as how Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey seems like an omniscient back, Washington’s use of formations and on the evolution of the counter trey rush.
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All film courtesy of NFL Game Pass