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Tale of the Tape: How the Broncos could use the running back in the passing game

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We take a look at what Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello could be cooking up for Phillip Lindsay and Theo Riddick in the passing game.

NFL: Preseason-Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As preseason gets underway and we get the first peek at what the Denver Broncos offense could potentially look like, one thing is clear - the running backs will be more involved in the passing game.

In addition to the team signaling it with their actions by signing a primary pass catching back, Theo Riddick, Rich Scangarello has talked repeatedly this offseason about getting the backs, and Phillip Lindsay more involved in the passing game.

“That’s the exciting part,” Scangarello said. “One of the great things about coming to Denver that really excited me from the day I walked in the door is that there are a very few players in the league like Phillip that have the ability to win in a one-on-one matchup at any time. I think that easiest matchup to create in the NFL is the halfback on a linebacker. That’s what we try to do in this offense a lot, and I think he has that gift and that ability and those traits. Excited to try to do that and try to force defenses to put a DB on him to open up other players.”

Despite injuries to Riddick and Andy Janovich in the preseason, Denver’s plan is still to heavily feature on two-back sets, as well as involve the running backs and the fullbacks in the passing game. This is something that has been a staple of the Kyle Shanahan offense since he was in Atlanta, and carried over into his San Francisco 49ers’ offenses.

Scangarello looks to be bringing that to Denver as well. Last year, the 49ers ran 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end) more than any other team in the league by a large margin, logging 54% of their snaps in that personnel grouping. New England was second with 36%.

In addition, fullback Kyle Juszczyk out-snapped every 49ers skill player besides George Kittle with 62% of the offense’s snaps. And it wasn’t just lining up in that personnel to run the ball, Juszczyk was the 3rd leading receiver on the team, with running back Matt Breida right behind him in 4th. Between Juszczyk, Breida, and their other backs, the 49ers backfield caught 77 passes last year.

However, if you’re worried that heavy 21 personnel and using a fullback means we’re going to be trotting out an offense from the 1990s, fear not. Just because the team uses a fullback doesn’t mean they can’t be creative.

21 personnel in a Kyle Shanahan offense

Heck, this image above is the 49ers lining up with “21 personnel”. The fullback is split wide to the top of the screen, the tight end is split out at the bottom, and they’re in the shotgun.

This is instructive for Broncos fans heading into this season because we have already begun to see flashes of this in preseason, and will likely see Scangarello use similar concepts that they used in San Fransisco under Kyle Shanahan.

The core of both Kyle and Scangarello’s philosophy when it comes to backs in the passing game is exactly what Scangarello said in his press conference quote - the goal is creating one-on-one matchups for their backs, or force the defense to tip their hand and shift a DB onto them.

We see this all throughout Kyle Shanahan’s offense, dating back to his time in Atlanta. In fact, Denver was on the wrong side of some of Kyle’s tricks in 2016 when Tevin Coleman racked up 132 yards and a touchdown in the passing game exploiting Denver’s linebackers.

So, as with all our Tale of the Tape’s we attempt to answer the question what does this actually look like? Let’s dive in and see what we can learn.

Splitting backs out wide

The primary tool Shanahan/Scangarello uses to create one-on-one match-ups is to come out in 21 personnel with receivers in a reduced split (lining up closer to the numbers) and then split the backs out wide.

There are three major advantages to this tactic:

  1. Get the defense to declare coverage. If they send a linebacker or safety out with the back to cover him wide, they’re in man, if they shift and leave a DB out there on him, they’re in some form of zone, and now the offense can go to work with this information.
  2. Control the box count. If a linebacker follows the fullback or running back out wide, it lightens the box to either help the run numbers, or helps create throwing lanes over the middle.
  3. Create one-on-one matchups. When a team comes out in 21 personnel, the majority of the time, the defense will counter with their base run stopping package, which means the defense has more opportunities to isolate non-coverage players.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Here the 49ers break the huddle with a fullback and a running back, but they immediately split the running back out wide to the bottom of the screen, and the fullback will align off the right tackle.

You can see the Lions players trying to adjust and get lined up, motioning for someone to go out and cover the running back.

In the confusion, the quarterback snaps the ball quickly, leaving the defender way off the running back.

This is an easy decision by the quarterback on a 3rd and 2 as the running back quickly hitches up right past the sticks for the easy completion.

An alternative for the future, they could also look at the fullback who gets loose on a seam route.

Editor’s note: I apologize that my gifs look like 1930s picture shows. Working out the kinks still.

Alright, next one. This is a perfect example of moving the fullback in motion to create space in the box. Notice they send Juszczyk in motion and the linebacker is going to follow him.

Which leaves a wide open vacancy in the middle of the defense.

Where might you suppose the pass is going? Right into that vacancy the coach just created for his offense with a simple fullback motion.

Now, at this point you might be thinking that motioning a fullback out wide is nothing more than a decoy. If you test that theory, the offense will make you pay. Sleep on Juszczyk at the top of the screen, and the QB will take those free eight yards every time.

This next one is a lot of fun, and perfectly schemed. Here the defense left a DB on the running back motioned out at the bottom of the screen, so the offense knows he’s in some sort of zone.

So, they’re going to flash two routes at him, and throw whichever one he doesn’t take.

The slot receiver runs a fade up the numbers, and the corner sees him starting to top his defender, so he bails to help.

The QB is watching all the way, and the second that corner commits and takes a step deeper, he fires underneath to the back, who now has a one-on-one and plenty of space.

Imagine Phillip Lindsay in going to work in this scenario.

Speaking of YAC, here’s what can happen when you create these one-on-one opportunities.

Denver has already begun incorporating and showing some of these concepts in the preseason.

Here is Andy Janovich split out wide against Atlanta.

While this one unfortunately resulted in Theo Riddick being injured, I love what they are already doing to incorporate him into the offense.

Other ways to create and exploit mismatches

There are several other ways to exploit those one-on-one match-ups that Scangarello/Shanahan use.

My personal favorite, the old fashion Texas route. Isolate the back on the linebacker, and let him go to work.

The Broncos also featured Theo Riddick on this route in the preseason.

This one is perhaps one of the most interesting formations I have seen someone use. The offense comes out in a trips bunch, but the motion the running back to tuck in right behind all of that.

The 49ers also hurry into this formation and snap the ball before the defense has a chance to get set. Look at the defenders stacked up trying to figure out who to cover.

Breida, the running back runs a deep over route to the opposite pylon so whoever is covering him has to sift through all that traffic AND run with him across the field.

The safety comes over for help too late, and it’s and easy pitch and catch.

The runner crosses the goal line with the ball, and the offense is awarded points.

Last way to involve the running back is the classic screen game. Here, Shanahan dials up a beautifully designed screen to create plenty of open space for the runner.

The offense uses jet motion and the tight end coming across the formation to draw the linebackers to the offense’s left. Then they’ll play action fake, and set up the screen.

Take a look at the linebackers here after the play fake. Almost in unison they step back to cover the play action pass with eyes on the jet motion.

This leaves the running back wide open in space with two linemen leading the way, and only one man to beat.

I love the multiple layers of deception here and stress this puts on a defense.

Hope you enjoyed going through some of these concepts, and having a bit of a preview of what we’re going to see beginning week 1 with this offense.