When the Bengals need a yard, they give the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and let him plow straight ahead. Need a big play on third down? In comes rookie Giovani Bernard to catch a pass or make a cutback that turns into something special.
And Cincinnati is far from alone in splitting the role of running back.
Half of the teams in the NFL are using more than one running back regularly this season, underscoring an evolution in how teams are handling the position. Sixteen teams have two or more running backs with 25 runs or catches so far this season, according to STATS LLC.
Denver leads the list with three, its “Rock, Paper, Scissors” approach with Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno.
On many teams, having two complementary backs is better than leaving it up to one.
“The league is just changing in a way,” said Bernard, the first running back chosen in the draft last April. “Rather than one specific back, you need a lot of backs that can do different things.”
Denver, the New York Jets and Giants, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New England, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Oakland, Buffalo, San Diego and Houston all have more than one running back that has touched the ball 25 times so far, according to STATS.
Running back combinations have always been part of the NFL’s fabric, whether it was Lenny Moore and Alan Ameche in Baltimore, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung in Green Bay, Jim Brown and Ernie Green in Cleveland, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo in Chicago, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris in Miami, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in Pittsburgh, Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen in Oakland.
And so many others.
The difference now is that teams are looking not for two who run the ball with different styles, but for a combination that can run it straight ahead or catch it in the league’s evolution toward pass-heavy offenses.
“If you have a back that’s a one-dimensional, between-the-tackles guy, you can load up (the line of scrimmage) and sure, you’ve got some play-action that you can do with that, but it’s tough sledding,” Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said.
“You like to think you could line up in the I-Formation and Student Body Right and Iso Left — it’s tough. I don’t think they’re totally gone; I think there’s still a place for it a little bit. But I think you’ll see more of the other.”
The other involves a smaller back who can make a cut, make somebody miss and turn a hand-off into a big play. Or take pass out of the backfield and take advantage of a mismatch on defense, turning a short toss into a decisive touchdown.
In the last 20 years, running backs have caught more than 2,200 passes combined each season, according to STATS. The high point was 2,859 combined receptions in 2002, when Oakland’s Charlie Garner led the way with 91 catches for 941 yards.
So far this season, running backs have caught 603 passes.
Guys like Ray Rice and Darren Sproles have shown other teams what’s possible. Rice was a key part of a Ravens offense that won a Super Bowl title last season. Rather than forcing a pass downfield on third-and-long, teams can dump it off and let the elusive running back do the rest.
“The good teams all have one of those,” Gruden said. “It’s important. For guys like that, they’re easy, low-risk plays with big-time results. So those backs are huge.”
Denver has been the pace setter so far when it comes to using complementary running backs. No other team has three with at least 25 runs or catches. No other team comes close to what the undefeated Broncos have done through four games.
The Broncos have scored 179 points, most in the league and second-most in league history through four games. Peyton Manning has 16 touchdown passes, the most ever through four games, and has yet to throw an interception.
It took their Rock, Paper, Scissors run-by-committee approach a little while to adjust to how things are nowadays.
“At first, it was tough,” Ball said. “But now, understanding the situation, you’ve got to be able to adapt in this league. You’ve got to be able to adapt quickly. I think that’s what I’ve done. Whenever I get it and get it running, I’m trying to do the most with the football.”
That’s the whole idea.
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