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Bleacher Report – Vikings

It’s a passing league, but Falcons, Patriots proving running backs are still valuable

By Matthew Coller

Super Bowl LI will be remembered for either Tom Brady setting the NFL mark for most championships by a quarterback or Matt Ryan winning his first title, but make no mistake, the two top-notch quarterbacks were greatly helped by their running backs along the way.

While the running game may not carry the weight it once did, teams with multi-faceted attacks from the backfield offer the toughest challenges to defenses. Both the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons use more than one running back to offer different types of threats to their opponents.

Atlanta’s ability to stretch the field with Julio Jones opens up an underneath passing game to running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for 85 receptions on 105 targets for 883 yards. That works out to 8.4 yards per target. To put that in perspective, New York Giants superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. averaged 8.1 yards per target (1.367 yards on 169 targets).

Freeman, a fourth-round pick from Florida State, rushed the ball 14.2 times per game and was targeted 4.1 times while his cohort Coleman added 11.5 touches per game. So combined, the two running backs made up for 26 plays of Atlanta’s average 65 offensive plays each game. That’s 40% of the total offense and their combined 2,482 yards made up 37% of the Falcons’ total yards.

Here is one example of how offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan takes advantage of his deep threats to get the running back in open space. Three receivers line up to Ryan’s left and one to his right. At the bottom of the screen, you’ll see a “Go” route that clears out the area, taking the cornerback in man coverage and the over-the-top safety back and leaving the running back 1-on-1 with a linebacker.

Freeman and Coleman are used almost interchangeably. That is not the case for the Patriots, who have a ground-and-pound runner and two extra receivers out of the backfield who are labeled running backs.

LaGarrette Blount carried the ball 299 times this season, ranking No. 2 in the NFL in carries. How many would have guessed that the Patriots’ offense would feature a running back who was second in the league in rushes?

Blount was used in two ways: As a closer and a red zone finisher.

Of course, Tom Brady often put the Patriots ahead in games, but there is a reason New England rated only eighth in Yards Per Play against but No. 1 in points against: Because Blount’s grinding running style ran down the clock. His highest percentage of carries came in the fourth quarter and 188 of his runs came with two tight ends on the field.

Blount also scored 18 rushing touchdowns and ran 19 times for 107 yards on third or fourth down and less than two yards to go.

Before the 6-foot, 250-pounder could grind teams into submission, running backs Dion Lewis and James White acted as receiving weapons for Brady. White only caught two passes all year in a set with two tight ends. All the rest of his 60 receptions came with either three or four receivers on the field.

Most of White’s catches came on throws under 10 yards through the air, but he has the capability of turning into a deep threat. On this touchdown against Houston, there are three receiving options to the left and Julien Edelman to the right. Edelman goes across the middle, drawing the defense in his direction. Brady spots the single high safety and White 1-on-1 with a linebacker. Unsurprisingly, the throw is dropped in perfectly.

White and Lewis, who are both quality receivers out of the backfield, allow the Patriots to have the same type of mismatch that a slot receiver would have against a linebacker.

Overall, Brady targeted running backs 118 times and New England rushed the ball 402 times between Blount, White and Lewis. In total, the Pats had 1,114 plays, so 47% of New England’s snaps went toward a running back in some capacity.

Lessons to be learned from the Falcons and Patriots are two fold. On one hand, the running game still has its place in the NFL and that’s to wear down opponents and run the clock when ahead. It also tells us that hybrid running back/receivers are very valuable and may force defenses to (even further) change the types of linebackers they employ.

Each team will have to counter the other’s running back-based attack. Whoever does it best might make the difference in outcome the Super Bowl.

The post It’s a passing league, but Falcons, Patriots proving running backs are still valuable appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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