Dwain McFarland and Jarrett Moyer marry data and film to breakdown the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints elite utilization of running backs in the passing game.
Passing Game Positional Utilization
When analyzing components of a great aerial attack, the first position outside of quarterback discussed by most analysts is at wide receiver. This makes sense — wide receivers dominate many key statistical receiving categories:
But what if I told you two of the league’s elite offenses aren’t currently subscribing to this approach?
The New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots are bucking this trend by utilizing their running backs in the receiving game more than the rest of the league.
It isn’t just that they are using more, they are also depending on more yards and getting consistent scoring production from the position as well. What is most amazing is how well the explosivity and efficiency of these two offenses have sustained. In 2018 the Saints were third in scoring. The Pats were fourth. In 2017 they were fourth and second respectively.
Passing Game Efficiency
Often when teams target their running backs heavily the offensive efficiency, as measured by net yards per pass attempt (NY/A), goes down. From a winning perspective, NY/A correlates very highly with success. The league average in 2017 and 2018 was 6.4 and 6.2. The formula for NY/A is pass yards minus sack yards divided by pass attempts plus sacks.
Since 2011 teams with a NY/A greater than seven have a 63% win rate (~10 games per season).
Over the past two seasons, 24 teams have seen their running backs equal or eclipse 25% of receptions — only five of those kept their net yards per attempt over seven. The Saints and Patriots account for four of those five.
No other teams are better maximizing this market inefficiency, but what is allowing them to do so?
Elite Production Enablers
For one, they have Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Both future Hall of Famers demonstrates elite post-snap processing and outstanding accuracy on passes of 15 yards and under (77% and 70% respectively). Getting the ball out accurately and on-time (even to the third, fourth or fifth option in the progression) allows the receiver to catch the ball in-stride within an open catch window, maximizing opportunity after the catch:
Running Back Archetype
Secondly, these two offenses place a high value on backs who can run much more than swing routes. Alvin Kamara and James White are skilled at executing routes in the underneath and intermediate zones, much like slot receivers. In 2017, seven running backs reached 50 or more targets with an average depth of target greater than 1.5 yards. In 2018 there were eight backs to make this list. Alvin Kamara and James White each made the list both seasons. These backs leverage ideal cognitive and physical traits for working the middle of the field: rapid processing of defenders in space, outstanding lateral cutting ability, stop/start quickness and pass-catching skill:
Lastly, Sean Payton and Josh McDaniels are adept at utilizing personnel groupings and formations to stretch the opposing secondary and create matchup advantages beyond the line of scrimmage:
While wide receivers are the sexy position group to highlight in NFL passing offenses, clever use of play design and individual running back talent can produce easy chunk plays. It might be time for more teams to consider how to get their running backs more involved.
You can follow Dwain McFarland and Jarret Moyer on twitter @dwainmcfarland and @JMoyerFB.
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