Over the past decade, the Colts have rarely used a fullback. It simply was unnecessary with a two tight end system and a quarterback who excelled in using his tight ends in the passing game. That lack of a fullback has caused many Colts fans to forget about the fullback when speculating on the 2012 roster.
It’s not just Colts’ fans that forget about them though. If your fullback isn’t named Vonta Leach or Le’Ron McClain, then the fullback’s name likely isn’t one at the forefront of your attention most Sunday mornings. It is one of the most overlooked positions in football, right up there with long snapper.
Of course, this overlooking is not by accident. Fullbacks simply aren’t that important to today’s NFL. The rise of tight ends as dual-threat weapons have slowly squeezed out the fullback, and no signs of a reversal are showing. Nevertheless, fullbacks have an inherent value, and one that the Colts can benefit from in 2012.
With the waiving of Ryan Mahaffey earlier this week, the Colts currently have zero fullbacks on the roster, reminiscent of the days when Darrell Reid or Eric Foster lined up as FB for goal line packages. Despite Ryan Grigson’s claims earlier this offseason, the Colts seem primed to only use TEs as the extra blockers for running backs this season. While I would certainly be in favor of tight ends over fullbacks, I would hope that the Colts keep one natural fullback on the roster, due to the versatility in blocking that it provides.
To be clear, passing is more efficient than running (which really isn’t that important), and a fullback has marginal value on a team. I don’t want to advocate the traditional, I-formation, power running offense. The Peyton Manning led offense is my favorite offense of all time, and they did so without a fullback.
However, a full back has specific value, and if you’ve watched the Colts over the last five years, you know that their inability to run the ball in certain situations has cost them games. Not many, and not enough to the point that their strategy should have been seriously altered, but it has made an impact.
The Colts showed an interest in using a fullback in 2011, with mixed (but mostly positive) results. Here are some reasons why using a fullback can be very intriguing for an offense, and an option that the Colts should keep open for 2012.
These are the key stats from the games I tracked with heavy (respective to the Colts) fullback usage. These games are from 2011′s games against the Panthers, Patriots, and Ravens.
Snaps with Fullbacks in play: 39
Number of running plays: 24 (61.5%)
Number of passing plays: 15 (38.5%)
Number of play action plays: 6 (15.4%/40% of passing plays)
Yards Per Play: 5.74 (Average for the Season: 4.8)
Yards Per Carry: 4.5 (Average for the Season: 4.2)
Yards Per Pass Attempt* : 6.92 (Average for the season: 6.0)
Generally, the claim against fullback use is because, as Paul Kuharsky put it, “you’re probably running it if the fullback is out there.” While this is true, it doesn’t have to be the big tip that some believe it might be. The Colts passed the ball with a fullback on the field far more than I expected them to, and they got almost a 60-40 split in those three games.
Having a tight end on the field gave the opposition a similar hint at what they would do: They ran the ball 43% of the time with a TE on the field, and passed it 57% of the time. Of course, if you break it down individually, it’s an even bigger tip off: the Colts ran the ball 63% of the time when Eldridge was on the field, and passed the ball 63% of the time when Tamme/Clark were on the field. So, having a fullback on the field, in those three games any way, wasn’t as much of a tip to the defense as one may think, at least, when compared to the tight ends.
It is striking that the productivity of both passing and rushing the ball went up with the use of a full back. I would expect rushing, but passing I would expect to drop. When watching the games, the offense was notably more efficient with a fullback in the game, especially when used correctly (such as the Panthers game). During the Panthers game, the Colts ran for 5.85 YPC behind Ryan Mahaffey, and passed the ball four times. On one play action they got a first down catch for four yards. On another, they got a 40-yard pass interference call. The other two resulted in a quick sack (because Linkenbach blew his block) and a bobbled snap by Painter, resulting in a thrown away ball.
Why was the fullback use effective? Versatility. The fullback brings a versatility to the run game that tight ends do not. Yes, tight ends are better down field targets, and generally better receivers (presenting more overall versatility), but the fullback’s positioning gives him a unique versatility in run blocking that is very different from the tight end threat.
First, we have the fullback as the lead blocker, the most recognizable use of the fullback, where the full back hits the hole and takes out the nearest linebacker, safety, etc. The running back follows behind him and (hopefully) has room to gain 5+ yards.
In the Panthers’ game, the Colts ran this play to perfection in the beginning of the second quarter, as Ryan Mahaffey is going to lead Donald Brown. Jeff Linkenbach is going to drive out to the middle linebacker on the play, blocking him inside, as Anthony Hill (TE) blocks the defensive end towards the outside and Ryan Diem keeps the defensive tackle inside. This should leave Mahaffey free to take out the safety who is cheating up, giving Brown a big hole.
The play starts out well, as Hill, Link, and Diem (yellow) have all made their blocks perfectly so far, and Saturday, Castonzo, and Mike Tepper (Blue) have slowed down the backside enough so they aren’t a factor. All that is left is for Mahaffey to make the crack block on the last free linebacker/safety, and Brown has a free path.
At this point, Mahaffey has made the block, as my oh-so-well-drawn arrow points out, and Brown simply has to hit the hole hard. You can see miles of empty space in front of him if he can make it through the hole, as the safety was cheating in the box, and all of the linebackers have been engaged.
Brown does his job, and a few minutes later…
Touchdown. A thing of beauty.
The Cutback Lead
This is the same type of play, where the fullback is the lead blocker, but the Colts instead aim the run at the weak side, and leave the tight end on the backside of the run. I call it the Cutback lead because the fullback takes the lead block, but the running back has the option to cut it back towards the tight end. The fullback hitting the hole hard often times has the effect of sucking the linebackers directly to that hole, leaving the cut back free for the running back.
Essentially, this should open up the hole on the left side of the line, but if it looks like linebackers, particularly the backside OLB, are going to leave their gap and flood towards the hole, then Brown can make the decision to cut back towards the tight end, who directs his block even wider than the rest of the line.
As Brown gets the handoff, he reads the holes and the linebackers. Mahaffey is poised to make the block on the OLB, so there is a hole there, but the other two linebackers have made commitments to that side already. That, combined with the defensive end on the strong side taking a wide angle leave Brown with a good cut back option. He could probably make a decent gain off of the main hole as well on this play, as well as the blocks hold up, but the “fullback trap” has made the linebackers flow into that direction, and the backside is free.
Brown made the decision to cutback, and you can clearly see the conundrum the linebackers are left with, as the middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker are left on the wrong side of the pile, and the strong-side backer is too far from the hole to make a stop on Brown. He and the safety would get the gang tackle on Brown, but not before a six-yard gain. The Colts would use this again on the next drive for another 8-yard gain on first down.
Those are the two main options for a lead block play, but there are plenty of other options that the fullback brings as well. One that the Colts used a lot was having the linebacker veer off and block the backside of the running play. The result was two-fold, the FB was protecting the backside from blitzers/missed blocks blowing up the play, but also providing room for a cut back if the original hole closed up.
First, the simple, backside block:
Here, the fullback, Jerome Felton, has curled around the quarterback to come protect the backside of the running play, as Brown aims to hit the hole between the left guard and center. It was fortunate that Felton was assigned the backside on this particular play, as Rob Ninkovich came barreling in off the snap on a blitz.
Felton cuts Ninkovich on the backside, preventing him from being involved in the play, and Brown has a clear path to hit the hole hard. The blocking by the offensive line wasn’t great on this particular play, but Brown was able to build enough speed hitting the hole that he could push forward for three yards, and the first down.
The Backside Cutback
On this play, you can see where the hole is supposed to develop, between the right guard and right tackle. The fullback is going to veer left and keep that backside clean, which now looks like chipping Tamme’s man, who has a step inside on the tight end.
As you can see, the original hole (black) got closed up quickly, as the defensive linemen and linebackers slanted that way, and right guard Ryan Diem got pushed back. Fortunately, Ryan Mahaffey’s help with Tamme’s man (red) allowed Tamme to release and go upfield to get a linebacker, leaving room for Brown to cutback towards the middle.
Brown sidesteps the linebacker who made it back to the backside (yellow), and while Mahaffey slipped while trying to cut block the defensive end (red), he slowed him down long enough for Brown to squirt between the DE and the LB, resulting in an eight yard gain on the play.
These are just a few of the variations the offense can run with a fulback in the backfield, and it generally worked positively for the Colts last season. The fullback can be used as a decoy, drawing the defense to a trap hole, or he can be used as an effective battering ram, clearing the way for the running back. He can protect the backside of a run play, or seal the edge of an outside pitch. He has very little he cannot do in terms of run blocking, and a good fullback can be a weapon out on the flats in the passing game as well, such as Mahaffey was in catching a one handed first down grab last season against Carolina. A tight end usually doesn’t have that kind of options in terms of who and where to block, due to where he lines up on the field.
I would hope the Colts carry a FB in the 2012 season. Cutting Mahaffey, who I liked but wasn’t All-World, isn’t a huge issue for me, although I think he brings more to the team than another camp body linemen. I understand that there is a lot of time between now and the season, and there is still plenty of movement to be made. Still, I hope that the Colts will pick one up somewhere (I do not want to see another DT as the fullback) along the line, and bring in those packages periodically, boosting the run game and giving Andrew Luck a little more support.