During the NFL draft, one of the players I secretly wished the Packers would select was Dexter McCluster from Ole Miss.
Obviously, the Packers were desperate for an offensive tackle and could use some more help in the secondary. It was also unlikely that he was the best player available on the Packers board with Koa Misi and Sergio Kindle still available in the second round, but a “luxury” pick such as a McCluster would have been a lot of fun to watch.
But something funny struck me after McCluster was picked by the Chiefs in the second round with the 36th pick overall; what exactly is a third down back?
Now before people start stating the obvious, let me ask you this from a scheme standpoint: Why ask a player who excels at running the football to be a supporting player in the passing game?
In the case of Dexter McCluster, who is being considered the “prototypical” modern day 3rd down back, why draft a player who lacks the size of a running back and is predicted by many teams to be unable to withstand the impacts that NFL running backs sustain (subsequently, McCluster I believe is being moved to wide receiver).
Going more specifically towards the Packers, why is Brandon Jackson a 3rd down running back, and is he any good at it? (The Packers seem to think so and have praised him as a 3rd down back on multiple occasions). In this article, I hope to analyze the typical assignments of a 3rd down back and whether Brandon Jackson best fits that role.
• Short Yardage Back: While not really part of the modern day responsibility of a third down back, but back when teams were more run oriented, teams often had bigger running backs run between the tackles in order to get a couple yards for the touchdown or the 1st down. Jerome Bettis near the end of his career could be considered the prototypical “old school” third down back. He famously rushed 5 times for 1 yard (or .2 ypc), for 3 touchdowns and a total of 18 points in one game.
o Analysis: Most modern third down backs are ill fit to run between the tackles since they lack the strength or size of a bigger back, especially on short yardage situations, where the defense has stacked the box and is cheating the run.
o Jackson Analysis: Brandon Jackson was rarely asked to be a short yardage back; for one, Ryan Grant’s running style is very favorable in short yardage situations and John Kuhn fills the role of the “bigger back”. The only real occasion that Jackson had an opportunity to be a short yardage back last year was during the Seattle game, where he hid behind the offensive lineman and subbed in as a fullback; obviously that’s something of a trick play and I doubt the Packers would have employed it if the game was close.
o Conclusion: The best player for short yardage situations is probably the fullback, in the Packers case John Kuhn.
• Safety valve receiver: 3rd down backs are often asked to run short patterns and sit in soft coverages. These kinds of routes are often very deceiving since running backs will typically chip block a defender before starting their route, so the defenses will have to guess whether a running back is staying behind to block or is going out into a route.
o Analysis: The safety valve role has become so important for third down backs that the most coveted 3rd down running backs are wide receiver/running back hybrid players such as San Diego’s Darren Sproles, and it’s probably the reason why Dexter McCluster was drafted as high as he was. But aside from a few elite pass catching running backs, most running backs display at best average hands; and this makes sense since their main focus is to run the ball, with catching the ball as a secondary skill. Yes, catching the ball is important for a running back, but a running back that couldn’t run the ball but could catch wouldn’t last too long in the league.
o Jackson Analysis: While Jackson has seen action as a safety valve receiver, it’s obvious that the Packers used him only as a last resort. For example Jackson had 21 receptions this year for 187 yards in 2009; compare that to Ryan Grant who had 25 receptions for 197 yards. But typically he is not in on third downs and isn’t usually a receiving option or well known for his hands. Furthermore, the Packers’ offense downplays the role of a third down receiver; being a rhythm west-coast offense, the Packers often use quick slants and other quick passes to avoid the pass rush, so many routes run by wide receivers and tight ends could be considered “safety valve routes”. Finally, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jermicheal Finely are all good at catching balls in the middle of the field in traffic, so a pure safety valve is not as important.
o Conclusion: The best player for a safety valve receiver is probably a tight end or a slot receiver. In the Packers case Donald Driver or Jermicheal Finely; both of these positions often require catching passes in the middle of the field in lots of traffic. These players also usually taller so are easier targets and have better pass catching ability.
• Pass Blocker: Third down backs are often asked to be the last line of defense against the pass rush; often they will either help the offensive lineman block or they will block defensive players who have either gotten free or weren’t accounted for in the offensive line protection scheme.
o Analysis: While often the bread and butter responsibility of a third down running back (especially for the Packers), running backs don’t make the greatest blockers; people remember Brandon Chillar’s sack of Jay Cutler in week one not because of the quarterback sack, but because of him leaping over 3rd down running back Garrett Wolfe (who is only 5’7”). Furthermore, running backs typically lack the size and the strength to do anything but slow down defensive tackles and ends.
o Jackson Analysis: Apparently the best trait of Brandon Jackson is his pass blocking ability, but considering the amount of sacks Aaron Rodgers took last year, there is still something left to be desired. Obviously, most of those sacks weren’t Jackson’s fault, shoddy line play and Rodgers holding the ball had more to do with it. But when Rodgers was getting sacked so often in every game, the Packers were forced to bring back Mark Tauscher mid-season.
o Conclusion: Obviously the best player to pass block would be a offensive lineman, such as a more agile tackle, but I think a tight end would also fare quite well, one of their prime responsibilities is inline blocking and a tight end, such as Donald Lee in the Packers’ case probably has an easier time blocking against defensive tackles as he’s half a foot taller and heavier than Jackson by 30 pounds.
• “Surprise” running back: Sometimes offenses try to catch defenses cheating on obvious passing plays by running the ball, usually on a running back delay play. For instance, if its third and long and the defense is playing in a nickel or dime package, it may make sense to run the ball considering there are so few players in the box.
o Analysis: A fairly unusual play call on 3rd and long, while the running back will typically gain a couple of yards, usually the defense will stop them before they reach the first down. On third downs, defenses often play a contain scheme that allows the offense to gain yards, but not enough yardage to get the first down (“bend but not break” defense). Most teams typically will use this play a couple of times a year, especially if getting into range for a field goal is deemed an importance.
o Jackson Analysis: Brandon Jackson has taken a couple of running back delay plays in recent memory, but the Packers have such a talented receiving corps that usually the Packers will throw the ball, even when the defense knows that its going to be a pass. Furthermore, considering the running back corps of the Packers, there isn’t one player who stands out as being the best “delay” running back, I believe Ryan Grant would do just as good of a job as Jackson in this regard
o Conclusion: The best players for the “surprise” play are running backs, with speed/shifty running backs typically do better in this role since they can take advantage of the confusion early on and running through tackles is not that important since the line is not stacked. However this is a very rarely used play in the NFL and probably even more rare for the Packers so I doubt many teams put much emphasis on having a back that can perform this role.
So in conclusion, a 3rd down running back really only has an advantage over other players schematically in regards to the “surprise” run play, which is basically a trick play. In my opinion the most important role for a 3rd down back is to pass protect so a tight end, in particular a blocking tight end makes the most sense to me.
In many ways the Packers agree, one of the most common pre-snap adjustments you will see with the Packers run is the tight end motion; usually it’s just a move to see if the defense tips its hand, but often times if the Packers are about to run or they feel like they need extra pass protection, you will see the inline tight end motion from one side of the offensive line to the other and then come back and station himself roughly behind the guard in preparation of either pass blocking or working as a safety valve receiver.
Naturally, Brandon Jackson isn’t going to be complaining, he is obviously behind Ryan Grant and any opportunity he gets to be on the field is a plus, but in terms of schematics and the strengths of player positions it seems to make more sense to have tight end such as Donald Lee or Tom Crabtree line up as the third down back.