Aaron Jones proved right those Green Bay Packers fans who had been pining that he needs to get the ball more frequently. It’s also been established, with irrefutable, undeniable, completely concrete evidence that Jamaal Williams is a more than capable blocker. Both Jones and Williams are good pass catchers and good runners, with Jones having a good advantage in that capacity. The problem, much like the problem the Golden State Warriors faced when Kevin Durant signed, is that there’s only one ball. So what is a team with two good running backs to do?
Put them on the field at the same time.
It’s not that simple, of course; opposing teams won’t suddenly fall over like a bunch of fainting goats when they see 30 & 33 in the backfield. Luckily for Green Bay, their new head coach happens to have some experience running an offense with a pair of talented running backs. To the film!
Last year, the Tennessee Titans, under the direction of offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, didn’t use two backs all that often and when they did they used similar backfield action. By keeping the same action but running different plays, the linebackers can’t sell out in any one direction or else they run the risk of getting exposed. If they blitz toward the first handoff? Read option to the backside or pull the ball and throw it to a middle route receiver. If they hesitate in their stances? Run it toward the edge and beat them to the spot, or run it at them and pick up at least an easy four yards.
In our first clip, the Titans chose the last option. Tennessee has Derrick Henry to Marcus Mariota’s right and Dion Lewis to his left in the shotgun formation, with a tight end to the left. The opposing Philadelphia Eagles have their defensive strength to the weak side of the formation with four box defenders to the offense’s right and three to the left (with the middle linebacker directly in the middle).
Mariota motions the left receiver in, and his defender follows but stays 8 yards off the line of scrimmage. This is an easy call for Mariota to make, as there are more blockers than defenders, so Tennessee runs to their left. There’s a twist of course; a fake handoff to Lewis running right freezes the linebackers and both #2 and #3 in red bite on the fake to Lewis, removing themselves from the play.
That allows the TE and LT to combo on the DE, and the LG and C to combo block the DT. Both the LT and C then move to the second level to pickup the linebackers. The only unblocked box defender is Brandon Graham, circled and highlighted; he’s the furthest away from the play on the LOS, meaning he has the longest route to make a play on the ball and can also get held by the fake to Lewis.
It turns out that Graham did end up making the play and read it as well as anyone could have, but Tennessee still got three easy yards with room for a lot more if Graham doesn’t make the play he did.
As a quick aside; you can also run this to the other side from the same formation just as easily if the Eagles had the left side stacked instead of the right; just have Henry perform the fake and hand it off to Lewis after a simple switch call at the line.
Earlier in the game, Tennessee used its mobile quarterback out of this formation only with a TE to the right. The Eagles knew Tennessee is a run first team, so they come out with a nickel formation but 8 in the box. Using Philadelphia’s aggressiveness against them, the backfield motion is to down block on the line and fake to Henry left to right in order to really sell that handoff.
It was sold well because it was a read option. Dion Lewis acts as either a) cutback blocker for Henry, or b) lead blocker for Mariota on the keeper. It’s not a play I want Aaron Rodgers running regularly, but it’s something that could be utilized on third-and-one, when we’ve seen Rodgers run in the past.
So now we know we can run with two backs. What about passing? Well this next clip should look pretty familiar; it uses the exact same backfield motion and nearly identical blocking, and was called immediately after Mariota’s run. Fool me once, shame on you — fool me twice, shame on me; the Eagles were definitely feeling some shame here.
Here’s the diagram, with the coverages in red. See if you can spot the open area:
Deep middle, a fan favorite for long bombs.
The Eagles go with an inverted cover 2 with the cornerbacks having the deep halves; smartly, the bottom receiver goes inside the zone and behind the safety and finds himself wide open. Notice the Air Raid themes here; the top receiver has the option, depending on the coverage, to cut the route short and run a comeback or go over the top if he has a step; Eagles went soft, so he cut it back. The bottom receiver also has the same choice; if there was a deep safety, instead of running his route into the coverage, he would sink down in front of it. The idea, on its surface, is simple; run to where they aren’t.
That’s more frustrating than having a phone without a headphone jack.
This next clip takes advantage of personnel and gets your good route-running back in space against an overmatched defender. When you bring both backs on the field, some defenses counter with a linebacker or heavy safety. The Eagles wisely stayed in a Nickel formation, but the outside coverages were soft enough that Tennessee saw an advantage anyway.
We’ve seen this before; two RBs, one TE.
The Titans then motion Lewis to the left slot. Not catching the Eagles by surprise, cornerback Sidney Jones follows him across the formation.
Luckily for Tennessee, he gives Lewis too much cushion. A simple out route gets an easy three yards; if the throw was sooner and in a better spot, Lewis has room to run.
So far we’ve got an inside zone, read option, play-action pass, and a motion to quick out. All of these are generally considered standard at this point. What is a common play in the NFL that isn’t on that list? The screen pass.
I previously highlighted a few new formations and plays that Matt LaFleur can bring to the Green Bay Packers, and the final clip in that article was a fake jet sweep fake dive TE screen. I really enjoy the numerous fakes and non traditional motions, so its only fitting that the 2 RB screen game comes with its own quirks.
Putting Dion Lewis in ‘orbit’ or ‘rocket’ motion (a deep, behind the quarterback motion as opposed to Jet motion which is close to the LOS) to Mariota’s right side gets the defense’s eyes wandering that way as the ball is snapped. To really sell the fake, Mariota turns and pump fakes to Lewis as soon as he gets the ball.
The linemen hold their blocks for a second longer than a typical screen pass to give Mariota enough time and get the pass rushers up field, while Derrick Henry sneaks in behind them to the left. The motion and fake take defenders out of the play without having to allocate any blockers to them*.
(*Note: A quick adjustment I would make is to have the bottom WR sprint inside at the snap to block a safety/lingering linebacker to allow the screen man to cut back inside, especially against zone coverage or teams that ball watch too much.)
After the pump, Mariota pivots left and lays it off to Henry with blockers established.
Another good read by both a DT and CB turn this into a loss; if Henry is more patient in his route he could have caught it behind his guard with more room in the middle of the field, but the design is there for something big.
Both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams could operate as either back; Williams is the better blocker and Jones the better runner and receiver, but smart play design can put them both to use. And even if the Packers wanted to use Williams as a true fullback and have him lead block for Jones, they can! In fact, they already did in 2018 (s/o to fellow APC writer Jon Meerdink for the play memory).
And of course, some sweet, sweet slow-mo:
It’s past theoretical at this point. Green Bay has two quality running backs without signing Le’Veon Bell, and a new playbook could make both of their stocks rise even further.