Dec 4, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes to running back Le’Veon Bell (26) against the New York Giants during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Run the ball and stop the run. That is how championships are won, or at least, that is the old adage for how championships were won.
To those paying attention, though, it is clear that the NFL is a league that is now dominated by the passing game. In fact, passing the ball and defending the pass are the two biggest movers of the needle in today’s game with rushing offense and rushing defense settling in behind those two facets of the game in overall importance.
Looking only at the offensive side of the ball from a season ago, just two of PFF’s top-five teams in team rushing grade made the playoffs – the second-place Minnesota Vikings (78.6) and the fourth-place New Orleans Saints (77.6). Meanwhile, all five of the top-graded passing offenses made the playoffs: the New England Patriots, Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
PFF data scientists George Chahrouri and Eric Eager have done great work in quantifying the effect that certain plays and situations have on the outcome of a game through expected points added (EPA). The expected points added of a rushing play is actually negative, coming in at a value of -0.09. On the other hand, the EPA of throwing to a running back lined up anywhere on the field is 0.10.
Essentially, a running back’s real value comes in the passing game. This shift in philosophy away from ground-and-pound towards high-powered passing attacks has led to a resulting change in the skillset necessary of a running back in today’s NFL, and it is showing in the top players at the position.
PFF began charting every play of every NFL game back in 2006, and in that year, running backs combined to see 2,700 targets, 2,148 receptions and 46 touchdowns over the course of the regular season and playoffs. Running backs such as Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson and Brian Westbrook led the charge as high-volume pass-catchers with over 100 targets each, but generally speaking, they were the exceptions rather than the norm.
In 2006, 30 running backs saw at least 30 targets. Fast forward to 2017 and 49 running backs received at least that many looks in the passing game. The overall receiving numbers for running backs last season through the regular season and playoffs:
3,451 targets (most since 2006)
2,766 receptions (most since 2006)
107 touchdowns (most since 2006)
With running back targets jumping considerably, it is proving to be more important than ever to be a proficient receiver out of the backfield as a running back. Not only did running backs see the most receiving volume that they’ve ever seen last season, but they also showed more efficiency than they ever have as receivers.