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How to Use a Running Back in the Passing Game

Throwing the football is more efficient than rushing it, but that doesn’t mean all catches by RBs are created equal

Elias Stein/Getty Images

The modern NFL is increasingly positionless. Safeties play as de facto linebackers, corners and defensive tackles move around the formation, quarterbacks run, tight ends split out wide, and running backs catch passes more than ever before. In fact, on Sunday, it was a pair of running backs—not receivers—who paced all pass catchers in receptions, with Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley reeling in 14 passes apiece to match the record for most catches by a running back in a game since 1999. Washington running back Chris Thompson wasn’t far behind, notching 13 catches of his own.

With two weeks down, two of the top three players in catches are running backs, and six are in the top 15. Those six—McCaffrey, Thompson, Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, and Theo Riddick—are all on pace to shatter Matt Forte’s single-season record for receptions at that position (102), and McCaffrey and Thompson are on pace to break the single-season receptions record for any position (143). That prolificity from pass-catching backs is an accelerated continuation of a recent trend: Per ESPN Stats & Info, running backs caught 2,757 passes last year, the most in a season since 2002 (2,858), and players at that position set decade highs in targets (3,444) and yards (22,382) while matching the high in touchdown catches (108).

The early numbers point to an expanded utilization of running backs in the passing game—and that’s a good plan, as passing is almost always more efficient than running—but it was clear Sunday that teams aren’t yet truly maximizing the skill sets of these types of dual-threat running backs. McCaffrey managed 102 yards with his 14 catches and Barkley became the first player in league history to catch 14 passes in a game and gain less than 90 yards (he finished with 80). Both ended up with an average depth of target (aDOT) on the wrong side of zero (negative-0.5 and negative-1.3 yards, respectively). There’s certainly a time, place, and utility for short passes, but that’s an awful lot of dinking-and-dunking.

What is the best way to use a running back in the passing game? There’s no one answer to that question—style, individual player skill sets, and schematic philosophy all factor in—but what we saw on Sunday from a few of the most-targeted backs was surely not it.

Not all routes are created equal. The traditional running back route tree typically features shorter, quicker, and easier routes that originate from the backfield. But Pro Football Focus found that those types of routes are also less valuable to the overarching goal of running an offense: scoring points. Throwing to players lined up at running back tends to produce a better completion rate, which looks nice on the stat sheet, but those plays generate an average expected points added (EPA) far, far lower than plays targeting players lined up pretty much anywhere else. To wit: Barkley’s 14 catches on Sunday were actually worth a minus-1.53 EPA.

We don’t need numbers to just see why the majority of Barkley’s receptions weren’t going to make a big difference for the Giants’ offense. Here’s his route chart from Sunday’s game, via NFL Next Gen Stats. Note that the green signifies the yards after the catch, that nearly every one of his routes start from the same spot in the backfield, and none threaten the defense vertically.

Instead of lining Barkley up all over the formation, creating mismatches on linebackers, and letting him run receiver-style routes from the slot or in space (as I had hoped to see), New York was content to let Barkley be little more than Eli Manning’s safety valve.

Barkley consistently made defenders miss, but his superhuman elusiveness wasn’t enough to make a big dent against Dallas’s swarming defense. It felt like every pass he caught was going to require a Herculean effort just to get back to the line of scrimmage.

There’s certainly logic in giving Manning an outlet against Dallas’s aggressive defensive front, but the Giants seemed to lean on those short passes as the foundation of their passing attack. Barkley’s 14 catches made up more than 40 percent of Manning’s 33 completions, and the veteran passer averaged just 6.34 yards per attempt on the day—25th league wide last weekend. This team has Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram on it, by the way.

Manning and the Giants could certainly do more damage by mixing up where Barkley lines up and which routes he runs. That’d make it exponentially harder on opponents to match up with New York’s offense, particularly in deciding which players to put on the field. Do you send a linebacker out to help stop the run, or do you counter with a corner or safety? It puts coaches in a bind, and that’s what makes Barkley so much more valuable than your garden-variety back.

The Panthers made plenty of mismatches last year with McCaffrey, deploying him as a de facto slot receiver on more than 100 snaps. The Steelers have done that over the years with Le’Veon Bell, the Falcons have done it with Tevin Coleman, and the Patriots love to do it with James White. You can use versatile running backs to create mismatches for your run game, too, by the way.

This season, two other teams stand out as examples on how to best deploy versatile backs in the passing game. First, the Saints: In Week 1 against the Buccaneers, head coach and play-caller Sean Payton not only schemed up chunk plays by getting Kamara matched up against linebackers from out of the backfield …

… but he also flexed him out to the wing and had him run routes, as a receiver, in space.

Second: the Rams. Todd Gurley doesn’t run as many receiver-type routes as some of his peers, but he’s more dangerous than just about any player in the league in L.A.’s creative screen game. Rams quarterback Jared Goff used play-action on 29.1 percent of his pass plays last year, per Pro Football Focus, and through two weeks this season, he and this offense are way out in front again (an incredible 41.2 percent). That penchant for the play fake pairs perfectly with Gurley’s talents in space, where Sean McVay finds creative ways to sell each screen. Here’s a few we’ve seen this year.

We can’t talk about pass-catching backs, though, without focusing on Cardinals star David Johnson. His 2016 season still represents the closest any team’s gotten in the past decade to the platonic ideal for how to deploy a running back into the air attack: Johnson led all running backs that season with 80 catches, 879 receiving yards, and 27 missed tackles forced in the passing game, per PFF—adding four touchdowns through the air. That’s in addition to his 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing. Johnson netted 487 air yards that year (most for any running back in the past decade), saw a 4.7-yard aDOT (more than double any other running back, far deeper than the aDOT for all backs that year, 0.9), and ran 35 percent of his routes split out into the slot or wide. His route scatter chart looked different than that of any other running back in the league.

Under head coach and über-aggressive play-caller Bruce Arians, the Cardinals would motion Johnson into the slot to run crisp slants against all kinds of defenders.

They’d line him up tight to the formation, and get it to him on out routes downfield.

And they’d even send him out to the wing to run go routes up the sideline.

In that extraordinary season, as NFL.com’s Graham Barfield notes, Johnson ran an average of 31.1 routes a game, collecting 19 percent of the Cardinals’ targets.

In 2018, Johnson is rapidly becoming an example of how not to use a running back in the passing game. Under new head coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, his route variety has been decidedly more traditional. Johnson’s run just 16.5 routes per game—most of them standard fare swing passes or dump-offs with just 11 percent coming split away from the formation. His average depth of target is a completely average 0.8 yards. It’s little surprise that Johnson, who’s averaged more than 11 yards per reception in his career, has caught just six passes for 33 yards in Arizona’s first two games (5.5 yards per catch). Part of the problem is that the Cardinals’ offense is just really bad—they’ve run way fewer plays per game than in years past and Sam Bradford’s struggled to move the ball. But it’s mystifying that McCoy hasn’t deployed his most versatile player in the way he’s most dangerous: as a line-up-anywhere, mismatch-creating pass-catching threat. At the very least, they seem to be aware of their mistake.

The traditional running back route tree isn’t without merit, and it’s not going away anytime soon. On many of those shorter, out-of-the-backfield routes, running backs give their quarterback a quick outlet or dump-off option, and that can mitigate the issues around pass protection and the lack of offensive line talent in the NFL today. But for teams willing to bridge the gap between how Johnson was utilized in 2016 and what we mostly saw on Sunday—or just adopt that Cardinals’ vision of Johnson as a hybrid player altogether—the value could be immense. I’m looking at you, Giants.

There isn’t one blueprint for how to recreate Johnson’s role, exactly, and the best practices will change week to week throughout the season based on specific matchups coaches are looking to exploit. But as the pro game becomes increasingly spread out and played in space, running backs who can flex out away from the formation to create mismatches as de facto receivers will see their value only go up. Gurley and Johnson earned their new deals largely because of their value as all-around playmakers, and when players like Bell and Gordon get to the negotiating table at some point in the near future, their receiving chops are going to be a big focus. There’s a reason Gordon spent the offseason working on his pass-catching skills with LaDainian Tomlinson. There’s millions of reasons, actually.

The running back position isn’t dying; it’s just evolving. The complete backs, those who can not only carry the ball, but run routes and catch passes like a receiver, are going to be more valuable than ever. But coaches can’t benefit from these all-around talents unless they use them like one.