This time of the off-season is filled will platitudes. Every offensive is going to be more aggressive, every defense needs to stop the run, Josh Allen is a bad quarterback. So every fan should give a little pause when they hear things like what the Broncos’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said about the running back room at last week’s conference call:
“They’ll have specific roles. I think this is probably our second or third question with regard to those two players.
I think there are times when they both can be on the field at the same time. There are times when one or the other will be on the field. I think they share the same skill set in terms of—when you’re a running back, you have to obviously be able to run the ball effectively, which they both can do. Whether we’re running the ball inside or outside, you have to be aware enough and physical enough to pass protect, to protect the quarterback and then when we choose to throw you the ball, whether you’re primary or you’re the outlet, you need to be able to catch the ball and do something with it. I think both those players that we’re mentioning—not to mention the other runners we have on the team—they can do all three of those things. What separates a running back and both those players have it, Phillip as well as Melvin and Royce and really all the backs, is you’ve got to have some collision balance. Your ability to break a tackle, bounce and create what is normally a good gain into an explosive one. They share those traits. They’ve both been very productive in this league, and we intend to use both of them.”
The idea that Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay could play on the field at the same time stirred up the local media and the imaginations of many in Broncos’ Country. It also left me puzzled. In all my time studying the Pat Shurmur offense, it seemed pretty clear that personnel groups with two backs on the field were a distant third fiddle to both three receiver sets (11 personnel) and Ace personnel (two tight ends).
Pat Shurmur had 2 backs on the field for just 77 plays in 2019, or 47 less times than he did in 2018.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 12, 2020
Keep in mind the vast majority of those were a fullback and Barkley.
For a little perspective, Shurmur fielded 11 personnel on 748 plays last year. Sets with two tight ends dropped from 234 in 2018 to 174 as the Giants adjusted to the Evan Engram injury halfway through 2019.
Combine that with Elway adding premier talent at wide receiver in Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler to a group with Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick and it’s worth wondering if the Broncos will play an overwhelming majority of the snaps with three receivers on the field. Also keep in mind that since Shurmur was added, Elway ate about a million dollars in a dead cap hit to dump Andy Janovich to the Browns for a 7th round pick. These aren’t the kind of moves of a team that plans to have two backs on the field often.
All those moves point in one direction, but the $16 million commitment to Melvin Gordon suggests a real effort to utilize him as the primary back in the Broncos’ backfield. Back when the signing happened, I did a full film study on Gordon you can read here. Admittedly, I was not a fan of the move in part because of how it looked like a downgrade at running back in an effort to acquire size, but it’s worth exploring how Shurmur can use both backs.
Can’t Shurmur just play both backs together?
In a word: yes. To do so efficiently isn’t as easy as it sounds, however. Most fans imagine an I-formation when they picture 21 personnel. The problem with Gordon and Lindsay in such a design is neither offers more value as a blocker than someone like Andrew Beck would.
That means running the ball would require misdirection. The Baltimore Ravens are an example as to how best this could work, but they’re also an anomaly because Greg Roman uses Lamar Jackson on true option concepts. Shurmur’s unlikely to follow this model with Drew Lock, so two primary ball carriers together takes plays off the field and makes the grouping easier to defend.
One reason why it rarely makes sense to put two primary ball carriers on the field in 21 personnel is they're so rarely effective lead blockers.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) June 14, 2020
Andrew Beck was a big part of this Phillip Lindsay touchdown. pic.twitter.com/RaxKftFXBy
Featuring both Lindsay and Gordon in the backfield together is also sub optimal in the passing game. Vertical backfield routes are easier to deal with, and neither Phillip Lindsay or Melvin Gordon have proven themselves so threatening as receivers to demand any real orbital effect where they attract attention wherever they are in the formation.
For Gordon and Lindsay to share the field under Shurmur, the Broncos would need one to act as a true receiver. When split out most of Gordon’s work came on gos, curls, and the rare slant. When he and Austin Ekeler both saw the field for LA, Gordon generally stayed in the backfield. He’s also a stronger pass blocker than Lindsay is.
Lindsay averaged just 4.1 yards per target last season and wound up with six drops. It’s fair to say that a myriad of factors played into such abysmal numbers, such as the quarterbacks, play design, and the receiving corps around him, but Lindsay doesn’t shirk all of the blame.
The good news is, Lindsay does offer a wicked combination of athleticism, vision, patience, and contact balance, which should tempt Shurmur to try to get him the ball in space. The Broncos missed on a touchdown last year where Scangarello did as much. More creative designs and better weapons around him should create opportunities.
Of course, it’s worth wondering if those better weapons should also eat into the target share. While completing a pass to a back is better than a negative play like a sack or interception, studies have shown the offense is in better shape with tight ends and receivers getting the largest target share.
Is the opportunity cost worth it?
If the Broncos’ receiving corps makes it out of this strange off-season healthy and Noah Fant makes the jump I hope for his sophomore season, I’d say Pat Shurmur will find his time better spent designing plays for 11 and 12 personnel.