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NFL's Fullback Revival Is Logical Response to Smaller, Faster Defenses

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 14, 2016

Sep 27, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco (42) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys strong safety Barry Church (42) in the third quarter at AT&T Stadium. Atlanta won 39-28. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Football isn't unlike boxing. For every punch, there is a counterpunch. The fullback position can serve as a knockout blow if properly used. 

Greater fullback usage is a natural reaction to the NFL's development into a pass-happy league. Though that may read as an oxymoron, the natural evolution toward run-heavy offenses is logical based on the league's trend of smaller and faster defenses geared toward stopping the pass, primarily in defensive sub-packages. 

What's old will be new again. 

A series of measures and countermeasures can be seen during individual contests throughout the entirety of a season.

These moments can be captured pre-snap, when a quarterback audibles into a new play and the defense responds with a new look. On a play-by-play basis, coordinators attempt to create mismatches. Tweaks can be found series by series as teams react to certain situations. Coaches and players adjust each and every week through the lens of the previous contest.

These battles of wits become the game within the game. 

Over the past decade, offenses relied far heavier on the pass than at any other point in the league's history. The game is faster. The quarterbacks are better. And the rules are geared toward scoring points. 

Meanwhile, fullbacks became the NFL's forgotten men. Those who still play the position are regarded as neanderthals in today's world. Yet their effectiveness remains, even if the position is no longer viewed as it once was. The glory days of Jim Brown and Jim Taylor are long gone. Even a crushing lead blocker like Lorenzo Neal isn't needed. 

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The position isn't extinct, but may be listed as an endangered species, even though it can still be a big part of an offense. 

"I don't receive much glory or recognition," Atlanta Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco told Bleacher Report in a phone interview. "But I get the gratification from those guys behind me making big plays because I did my job."

The Pro Bowl blocker plays a vital role in the NFL's No. 1 offense. 

"The fullback is just a running back with lesser speed," he explained. "When it comes to playing the position, they're making the same reads. The fullback is making the run fits three or four yards in front of the running back. Everything truly fits itself. I've always played the position as if I'm making the same read as the runner.

"My role is mainly for blocking purposes. I'm completely content doing so. When Devonta [Freeman] or Tevin [Coleman] bust a big one or I have a good pass-pro set, that's the same to me as catching a 25-yard pass or making a 12-yard run. I like being able to spark something within the offense."

Top fullback usage rates (2016)
TeamFullbackPercentage of offensive snaps
Baltimore RavensKyle Juszczyk36.7
Denver BroncosAndy Janovich32.6
Atlanta FalconsPatrick DiMarco32.2
Minnesota VikingsZach Line29.9
Oakland RaidersJamize Olawale29.0
Carolina PanthersMike Tolbert28.6
New England PatriotsJames Develin26.1
Pro Football Focus

A look around the league shows the seven teams that use fullbacks more than any other—the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Falcons, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots—are among the NFL's best. Those franchises own a combined 25-11 record. In fact, three of the league's top four offenses come from those aforementioned squads. 

Success doesn't need to be achieved by setting up the run with the pass. Teams can be dedicated to the run with traditional two-back sets and still be an explosive offense.

         

There and Back Again

Former Cleveland Browns assistant coach Earnest Byner.
Former Cleveland Browns assistant coach Earnest Byner.Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Earnest Byner spent 14 seasons in the NFL as a starting running back. He earned Pro Bowl honors twice and became a champion as the Washington Redskins' workhorse on their way to victory at Super Bowl XXVI. Most still remember Byner for The Fumble during the 1987 AFC Championship Game, but he overcame the stigma and even wrote a book, Everybody Fumbles.

After closing the chapter on his playing career in 1997, Byner became an NFL coach. He spent 16 seasons between the Ravens, Redskins, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

His combination of experience playing in the backfield and teaching today's generation provided a unique perspective. 

"When you look at the teams who are doing well, particularly late in the season, they typically have a power formation—or what I call 'big-boy football,'" Byner said. "When it comes down to it, those teams are going to get you into a box and beat you up.

"Because certain programs are playing well and use a fullback, this sets the tone for a comeback of two-back offenses. When you need him, you better have a guy who can put a helmet on the linebacker to get the runner to the second level."

Byner spent OTAs and training camp in Berea, Ohio, with the Cleveland Browns. The veteran coach worked with the team's talented running backs, Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Under head coach Hue Jackson's supervision, the Browns employ a heavy gap- (or man-) blocking scheme that has resulted in one of the league's best running games. Cleveland is averaging nearly 125 yards on the ground, and it has a fullback leading the way in Malcolm Johnson.

Crowell ranks fifth in the league, with 416 rushing yards, third in the league, at 5.6 yards per carry, and he owns the season's longest runan 85-yard touchdown jaunt against the Ravens in Week 2, as seen below:

NFL Network @nflnetwork

Hope you started @IsaiahCrowell34 in fantasy. 85 yard. To. The. House. #CLEvsBAL https://t.co/ZmePi4SGFa

Johnson's block sprung the lengthy score. 

The Ravens lined up with eight men in the box. Safety Eric Weddle walked up and found himself alongside the team's linebackers. With each of the Browns linemen and tight end Gary Barnidge getting effective hat-on-hat blocks, only Weddle remained.

Cleveland's fullback crushed the defensive back in the hole: 

Cleveland Browns fullback Malcolm Johnson blocks Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
Cleveland Browns fullback Malcolm Johnson blocks Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle.NFL Game Pass

In fact, the second-year blocker continued to drive the Pro Bowl safety toward the sideline, even after his fellow running back cleared the second level: 

Cleveland Browns fullback Malcolm Johnson continues to block Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
Cleveland Browns fullback Malcolm Johnson continues to block Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle.NFL Game Pass

These long runs are a result of a team being committed to the running game. 

"We need to see those types of plays," Byner said. "They don't have to be 80-yard touchdown runs. But they do need to be effective. Those plays are body shots to a defense. Those powers or lead plays are not looked at as calls that lead to big gains. They weaken and take the energy out of a defense, though. They serve as a determinant. This is tough-man football. These things set up the team as the season progresses and makes a statement about the type of players and team you really are."

Also, a natural advantage exists when a fullback sets his sights on an undersized linebacker or defensive back. 

Defense is completely different today compared to five or 10 years ago. On average, teams were in their nickel packagetwo linebackers and five defensive backsover 63 percent of the time last season, according to The MMQB's Peter King. The number varies based on individual squads, but arguing whether a team is a 4-3 or 3-4 "base" defense has become outdated. Every NFL defense shows multiple looks and is often found in sub-packages to defend the pass.

To get more athletic, the linebacker position changed as well. Even when a defense isn't in nickel or other sub-packages, today's linebackers look different to those menacing tacklers revered throughout football's history.

Big, burly downhill run-stuffers are no longer preferred. In fact, their species may be more endangered than fullback. Modern linebackers are being asked to run sideline to sideline, work in space and make plays all over the field. Some teams, such as the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, converted safeties into linebackers. 

This is something offenses can exploit. 

"Teams can definitely take advantage of it," Byner said. "You look at a guy who isn't used to being in the box—especially these converted safeties. He's not used to being in those tight confines and taking on blocks. You try to take advantage, especially early in the season, because you know they haven't done it."

When a fullback sees an undersized linebacker or defensive back in the hole, his eyes light up, as he knows it's going to be a productive day. 

"I definitely get that feeling in my stomach and think to myself, 'OK. This isn't a 265-pounder where my shoulders would get smoked,'" DiMarco said. "Facing a smaller linebacker or defensive back to start the day can really set the tone and open up the running game. Putting your pads on a smaller guys builds confidence and becomes a tempo block. It's a good way to start the day."

The Falcons fullback is counted among the league's best, but special talents usually dictate whether other organizations want to emulate the most successful franchises. 

     

The Future Is Now

Denver Broncos fullback Andy Janovich.
Denver Broncos fullback Andy Janovich.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The fullback revolution may have started with the Broncos' Andy Janovich. 

"I have noticed people really love having a fullback in the offense," the rookie said, per Mile High Report's Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann.

Eyebrows weren't raised when Denver selected the Nebraska product with the 176th overall pick in this year's NFL draft. The decision indicated Janovich's talent level as the first fullback drafted, but the position offers little in the way of excitement. 

After his first six games, Denver's sixth-round selection has already made quite the impression on fans and defenders alike. 

"I've always had a willingness to just go in there and hit somebody as hard as I can," the first-year fullback said. "I'm ready to bring it every play."

The 4-2 Broncos lean heavily on their lead blocker. In the season opener against the Carolina Panthers, Janovich scored a 28-yard touchdown on his first career carry. More importantly, he's been a key addition to the offense. 

"Obviously, it gives us more options," offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said in July, per Caroline Deisley of the Broncos' official site. He continued:

There is a whole set of plays that we can run with two backs that we didn't run very much of last year [during the team's Super Bowl run]. That just opens it up and gives us a little bit more for the defense to have to worry about. One extra blocker in there allows us to block another guy closer to the line of scrimmage.

Running back C.J. Anderson added, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold: "Our offense is a little different. Teams are going to game-plan us a little different because we have a fullback. We know that going in, but we've also been talking about it since OTAs, minicamp and training camp and the preseason, how people would attack Andy."

Janovich is a unique creature, though. The man known as Hammerhead among his teammates had the opportunity to play fullback in college. 

The NFL's fullback problem stems from a lack of incoming talent. While the differences between pro-style offenses and those of the spread variety continue to blur, finding a true fullback playing at the collegiate level is like searching for Sasquatch. Of course, everyone believes they exist, but they're rarely seen. 

"Watching football on Saturdays, we never really see the fullback anymore," said DiMarco, who played for the South Carolina Gamecocks. "The argument for fullbacks being a dying breed really starts at that level.

"Once the draft rolls around, teams tend to look for a third or fourth tight end because they don't want to groom somebody. Some teams have even converted defensive tackles and tried to teach them an entirely new position.

"If teams at the collegiate level utilized the fullback more, the NFL would have more trust in young players and the position in general."

But that's not the case. Of the 128 teams that participate at the FBS level, only a handful will produce fullbacks capable of playing at the NFL level. Over the past five years, an average of two to three fullbacks have been drafted in each class.

Yet the influx of running talent about to enter the league could drastically change how organizations view those men, leading the way for talented ball-carriers. 

      

Next Man Up

For years, the narrative surrounding the running back position as a whole often invoked buzz words such as "devalued," "short shelf life" or "easily replaceable production." 

Byner analyzed this: "I believe the supposed devaluation of the position was more of a myth than actual reality. Some teams try not to pay the position due to injuries and whatnot, but they still know the position's value, especially with the current resurgence."

In 2013 and 2014, no team drafted a running back in the first round. Things changed when elite talents such as Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott became eligible, though. The trend should continue into 2017 with a potential running back class as talented as any in recent memory. 

"Based on watching LSU [Leonard Fournette] and FSU [Dalvin Cook] on film, the class is strong as s--t," an unnamed NFL personnel man told The MMQB's Albert Breer. "It's a rebirth of the position."

Sep 24, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles fullback Freddie Stevenson (23) celebrates a touchdown in the second half against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Fournette and Cook will be the headliners if and when they declare, but the personnel man didn't mention other top talents such as Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, Oregon's Royce Freeman, Oklahoma's Samaje Perine or Georgia's Nick Chubb. 

A heavier investment and emphasis on running backs around the league would do the same for the fullback position. 

"As such, fullback becomes more important if a running back likes a fullback in front of him and grew up with that lead blocker—some guys don't like it and prefer a one-back alignment or an H-back that moves in front of him," Byner noted. "Those types of things only help this resurgence.

"When you have to have one, a team better have a guy who can go in there and be a head-knocker." 

With an influx of talented running backs, it makes sense for teams to lean more heavily on those backs and fullbacks in run-based offenses. 

      

Heady Transformation

High-flying passing offenses are fun to watch. Some may view traditional two-back pro-style sets as boring and the fullback as the equivalent of a telephone switchboard operator in a world defined by cellphone carriers.

The overall message shouldn't be lost, though. The primary goal is to win games, and those victories are achieved by creating mismatches and exploiting them. 

A strong ground game isn't sexy, but it's still vital to success. 

"The run game is so important in general," DiMarco said. "Nowadays, defenses are so good up front, including blitzing backers and defensive backs, the offensive line will have trouble holding up if it can't effectively run the ball.

"It has to be a balanced approach, even if the run game isn't effective, to keep these defenses honest. That's where having a fullback is important. Being able to rely on the run game and two- or three-yard gains will eventually lead to longer runs." 

Teams that continue to work the body and wear down defenses over the course of a season place themselves in a position to succeed on a consistent basis. Last season, for example, four of the top five teams in rushing attempts made the playoffs. 

Smaller, faster defenses? Punch. 

Bigger, more physical offenses? Counterpunch. 

And a fullback will lead the way.

     

All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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