Backs as receivers in today’s NFL
There has never been more diversity and creativity in the NFL passing games, and an underrated factor is the production of the running backs as outlet receivers. We have always had the “nickel back” who mostly plays on third down, but in today’s game these guys are so explosive that their coaches keep them on the field for all three downs, and they are constantly figuring out ways to get them the ball. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina), Alvin Kamara (New Orleans), Chris Thompson (Washington) and even Kareem Hunt (Kansas City) are rookies who can run inside and outside, but their best production is usually in the passing game.
A trend that has really taken off this season is how many physical first- and second-down backs are now being used much more in passing situations. Todd Gurley (L.A. Rams), LeSean McCoy (Buffalo), Melvin Gordon (L.A. Chargers) and DeMarco Murray (Tennessee) are backs that we only think of as runners, but they are now getting a lot of targets on check downs, etc. And when you get these guys in space their run skills kick in and they are not easy to tackle.
The Tennessee run game is well-defined
Although they did not have a productive game against Cleveland, these Titans coaches have figured out a way to give both of their talented backs enough snaps to keep them happy and maximize their production. They play both of them in the backfield together in some of their personnel packages, even though they have different skill sets. Murray is usually the starter, but as the game goes on they like to feature the more physical Derrick Henry, who can wear down a defense and also control the clock between the tackles late in the game and when they are sitting on a lead.
Murray has elite receiving skills. He can also pass block and is very effective in the passing game. He has more quickness than Henry and he has a better chance to give them big plays. They run behind an elite offensive line and, as good as they are, this run game has not yet reached its stride. This is an offense that will stay with the run game even when it is not going well, and that bodes well for both backs.
Kansas City and Oakland still have work to do
This entertaining Thursday night thriller was fun to watch, and there were numerous highlights and game-changing plays. But this game also pointed out some weaknesses for both teams.
Lets’ start with the Chiefs. The loss of free safety Eric Berry has been covered up fairly well in recent weeks with their changing coverage schemes, but against a strong Derek Carr passing game, his loss became magnified. With no Berry sitting in centerfield, Carr attacked between the hashes, as the Chiefs played a lot of Cover 2, man-under schemes. Offenses are also targeting corner Terrence Mitchell in man coverage, and they stay away from Marcus Peters.
This has been a defense with a great pass rush that leads to creating turnovers. But when that doesn’t happen it becomes an ordinary defense, and right now it is not dominating like we are used to seeing.
Offensively, they should remain very explosive, although opposing defenses are starting to roll out a game plan that sits back and takes away the Alex Smith deep passes with a lot of zone looks. And they force the Chiefs to throw more underneath passes and put multi-play drives together. When Smith does see man coverage, this offense is at its best with deep accuracy and passing weapons who thrive in one-on-one situations.
As for the Raiders, they desperately needed this victory, but they still have some significant flaws. Offensively, they must decide what to do with their run game. Marshawn Lynch looks like an aging back who has little gas left in the tank, and the future of this Raiders run game appears to be in the hands of Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, who can give them more explosive plays.
Do they waive Lynch and move on, or do they go to a three-man back rotation and hope that they can keep him happy? They must also cut down on all of their dropped passes, and Carr must be a little better in his decision making. He is getting away with some throws that could easily be intercepted. On defense, they are a liability in man coverages, which hurts their ability to blitz. So they may be forced to play a lot of zones to keep everything in front of them, but that are not who the Raiders are, and playing with patience and discipline is not their style.
The L.A. Rams and Jacksonville are not going away
Both are coming off strong statement wins on Sunday, and now they enter their bye week to not only get healthy but also work on their weaknesses. The Rams have travelled 6,400 miles in the last two weeks to beat Jacksonville and Arizona (in London on Sunday), and they are doing it in style as the NFL’s highest scoring offense. Jared Goff spread the ball around well enough in the passing game to keep defenses in personnel packages that don’t load the box to stop Todd Gurley. And when Gurley faces a base defensive front he is going to get his yards, both in run and pass. On defense, they seem to have opened things up with more blitzes and aggressive pressure packages.
They are creating numerous turnovers. and Wade Phillips has opened up his entire defensive playbook. These guys are having fun and playing loose. Jacksonville lost to these Rams in Week 6, but on Sunday they dominated hapless Indianapolis, 27-0. And the Jaguars did it without their best weapon, Leonard Fournette. Their defense took over this game with 10 sacks, and when they are focused they can dominate most NFL offenses.
Against a poor Colts pass defense, Blake Bortles looked like a real quarterback and not just a game manager. But he needs to put together more solid games against better defenses. A healthy Fournette, a more productive passing game and an attacking defense makes the Jaguars a tough team to beat. Like the Rams, they are a team who knows their identity, and they believe in what they are doing.
It’s a long year in Cleveland and Indianapolis
Reality is likely settling in for these two teams as they look ahead and realize that coming up with wins (or even a win) is problematic with tough second half schedules. Both teams are a mess with too many fixes to overcome, and they have little to hang their hat on. Cleveland actually got close to a win in their 12-9 OT loss to Tennessee, but the Colts were totally inept in their 27-0 loss to Jacksonville.
The Browns continue to play hard on defense, and their game plan against Tennessee of loading the box to stop the run was very effective. But their offense remains a mess. A revolving quarterback door has all three signal callers looking over their shoulders, and it sure looks like the coaches have mishandled this situation.
The Colts without Andrew Luck have little chance to be competitive. They have vastly overrated their defensive offseason additions, and on offense their pass protection is awful. That leads to inconsistent Jacoby Brissett quarterback play. They just don’t have a roster that gives you excitement for the future, but at least Cleveland has some promising young guys to build around.
What is wrong with Carolina and Tennessee?
These are two talented teams that had serious deep playoff aspirations, but after seven weeks they are no better than mediocre, with limited big plays and identity on offense. As Cam Newton goes, so goes the Carolina offense, and against Chicago on Sunday it had no flow to it. It is difficult to identify what the philosophy is. The offensive line is getting no push in the run game (which has been non-existent between the tackles) and an average Bears defense sacked Newton five times. He suffered 11 quarterback hits and was constantly under pressure.
All the same questions remain. Are they a vertical or horizontal passing game? Is Newton’s run ability going to be a part of this offense (zone read, quarterback draw, etc.)? Where is the creative play calling to keep defenses off balance?
As bad as they are playing, nobody is running away with the NFC South, so they are right in the middle of the playoff race.
Tennessee has a defined game plan but doesn’t seem to adjust when an imposing defense stops it. The Browns sold out to stop Murray and Henry and the Titans’ run game, and they were successful. But why not more successful passes against single coverage, and why not more passes off play action against a Browns defense that was missing its best two defensive backs?
Why do the Titans look ready to play one week and then look totally flat the next week? Where is the creative game plan and play calling? Why not better production on third down? Even with all of these questions they are in almost the same situation as Carolina. Nobody is running away with the AFC South, and that means that they are still in the middle of the playoff race.
Could this Baltimore offense look any uglier?
When your best offensive weapon by far is your place kicker you know you are in trouble! Maybe the Ravens can us the excuse of an offensive line and receiving corps that has no continuity because of injuries, but every team has to deal with that this time of year. They have lost four of their last five games, and in that stretch they have only scored three offensive touchdowns.
Against Minnesota, they averaged 3.3. yards per play, their measly run game produced 64 yards and Joe Flacco had 186 yards passing (a lot of it was “garbage-time offense” late in the game). There is no creativity in this offensive scheme, they rarely make a defense uncomfortable by forcing adjustments, and they just don’t get into any flow. Their defense continues to play hard and keep them close, but it can’t carry this team every week. It is hard to imagine this offense turning itself around.
New Orleans now can use their entire playbook
With Adrian Peterson now in Arizona, the roles in this offense are now better defined. Mark Ingram is the bell-cow back who can run with power between the tackles, and he is a back who gets better with a heavier workload. Rookie Alvin Kamara goes from being a “gimmick” third down player to a guy who gets more touches, especially on outside runs and outlet passes. But he can also give you inside production as a traditional tailback.
They complement and trust each other, and Drew Brees now has better play-action possibilities. In the passing game he has Michael Thomas deep, tight end Coby Fleener intermediate (and seam routes), and slot receiver Willie Snead and Kamara on underneath routes. That gives Brees targets on all three levels, as he reads the defense deep to intermediate to short, which is what he prefers to do. This is an offense that looks very close to taking off and producing big numbers.
Don’t look now, but the Chargers are making a move!
After looking like the same old Chargers in the first month of the season, with offensive mistakes, a poor kicking game and the inability to hold a lead and close out games, they finally turned things around in Week 5. And now they have won three games in a row, and at 3-4 they are back in the thick of the AFC West and playoff race.
They shut out Denver on Sunday 21-0 in front of a home crowd that had more Broncos fans than Chargers faithful. All of a sudden their defense is carrying the momentum of the team and allowing Philip Rivers to call a more conservative offense and not take a lot of chances.
They are at their best on offense when their run game controls the clock and allows the passing game to be complementary. What was so impressive against Denver is that their run game was so-so, but when they needed to close out the game in the fourth quarter they put a 10 play, 92-yard drive together. This is a team that is having fun, they block out all the distractions, and they have an us-against-the-world mentality that seems to be working for them. Let’s see how that works at New England this week.
The Pats defense is closer to being back
Their 23-7 win over Atlanta in their rematch of last years’ Super Bowl was certainly a step in the right direction for the improving New England Patriots, but there is still work to be done. Their defense is playing much better, especially in the red zone, but they still give up a lot of plays between the 20s. They made stops at key times, and they held Matt Ryan to only 2-for-9 on third down and they did not have the big breakdowns that we have seen all season. As good as the defense should feel about the effort, it is not a unit that will dominate on a weekly basis.
It will likely have good days and bad days, but the New England offense is good enough to carry the defense most weeks. Speaking of the offense, its ability to roll out so many personnel looks without a lot of substituting forces the opposing defense to often stay in base personnel, especially when Tom Brady goes to his no-huddle. Pass protection can still be an issue for the tackles against speed edge rushers, but when Brady has a clean inside pocket where he can step up, they are usually OK.
The Pats are not a perfect team, but almost halfway thru this 2017 season there are no perfect teams, and they are right back in the Super Bowl mix, which is where we are used to seeing them.