Rushing Into The Future: The NFL’s New Backfield Is Anything But Traditional

Story posted January 19, 2022 in Sports, CommRadio by Eric Fenstermaker

Derrick Henry is anything but normal for a running back.

The 6-foot-3-inch star bulldozes through opposing defenses that stand in his way.

Henry’s brute strength is an outlier amongst running backs in the NFL, but Henry himself is also an outlier at his position.

The former Alabama rusher is one of the last few remaining rushing solo stars. Backfields in the NFL are anything but stagnant nowadays.

Each of the 32 teams in the NFL implements a somewhat different strategy in how they handle the run game, but most don’t employ just one featured star to carry the entire unit.

Here are some of the different combinations and strategies that teams are trying to utilize.

One-Two Punch

The Green Bay Packers may be the best example of this mentality. Aaron Jones has been the primary rusher for the Packers in recent years, but recent success from AJ Dillon has caused the backfield to become almost a 50/50 split.

Dillon finished the regular season with 803 rushing yards on 187 carries, and Jones carried the ball 171 times for 799 yards.

The Packers cycle both backs in for certain situations, and both serve an important role in Green Bay’s high-powered offense.

Also, the Cleveland Browns are another great example as they use both Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. Both backs serve a unique purpose and give the Browns’ offense more versatility.

Running Backs by Committee

The Philadelphia Eagles utilized multiple different backs throughout the season, and this strategy helped the Eagles record the No. 1 rushing offense in the regular season (158.7 rushing yards per game).

Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, Kenneth Gainwell and even Jalen Hurts (quarterback) all got significant (68 or more) touches this season, and this was vital for the Eagles’ rushing attack.

The Ravens are another team that utilized this system a lot with multiple different players this season.

With plenty of injuries and moving parts, Baltimore employed the help of a plethora of rushers to cement that aspect of its offense.

Quarterbacks Are Rushers, Too

Why use a running back when your quarterback can do the job?

Quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray have all dramatically changed rushing schemes in the NFL.

When quarterbacks run the ball, naturally, running backs take on a smaller role. This means teams lean into the run-pass option more often and try to cover ground with the man under center.

As more and more quarterbacks are becoming increasingly mobile, the running backs on different squads need to learn and adapt – the two most notable areas being as pass catchers and blockers.

WRB1?

Traditionally, wide receivers (WRs) and running backs (RBs) stick to the role their names outline. However, as more rushers are becoming assets in the passing game, wide receivers are starting to take on major roles as ball carriers.

Two players that really epitomized this idea this season include Cordarrelle Patterson and Deebo Samuel.

Samuel racked up 365 rushing yards on 59 carries for the San Francisco 49ers during the regular season. This unique role of both rusher and receiver has propelled San Francisco into the playoffs and helped secure a first-round win.

Patterson exploded in his role with the Atlanta Falcons this season going for 618 rushing yards (leading the Falcons’ rushing attack) and finishing the year with 548 receiving yards.

While the Falcons struggled to gain momentum and make a series playoff push, Patterson remained a catalyst that kept Atlanta in the mix for a while.

Patterson and Samuel may have started a trend of revolutionizing the wide receiver position.

 

Eric Fenstermaker is a fourth-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at esf5129@psu.edu.