McGinn: Little running backs making big impact

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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HOUSTON – One big back, one little back. It’s the Belichickian formula at running back that has helped the New England Patriots reach their seventh Super Bowl in 16 years.

Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett can't prevent a touchdown by Falcons running back Devonta Freeman last month at the Georgia Dome.

Some teams, including the Green Bay Packers, have little use for undersized runners. Their plan for 2016, as it was the last four seasons, was to hammer behind the 1-2 punch of Eddie Lacy (5 foot 11, 250 pounds) and James Starks (6-2, 222).

When the Packers’ pounders suffered season-ending injuries, they hammered some more with Ty Montgomery (6-0, 222), Christine Michael (5-10, 221) and Aaron Ripkowski (6-1½, 246).

If coach Mike McCarthy needed a change of pace, he utilized wide receiver Randall Cobb (5-10, 195). Davante Adams didn’t carry the ball but did catch half a dozen passes out of the backfield.

No one need suggest to McCarthy what he should or shouldn’t be doing on offense. His teams rival anybody when it comes to points and yards.

“They’ve got multiple guys who can do multiple things,” said Bryan Cox, who will coach the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line against the Patriots on Sunday in the Super Bowl. “The guys they have are good. They make do with what they had, and that’s the name of the game.”

Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan will be the principals on offense. At the same time, there probably are more little backs in potentially starring roles than the Super Bowl ever has seen.

Atlanta’s main man is Devonta Freeman (5-8, 202). Speedy Tevin Coleman (5-11½, 207) is No. 2, and if the Falcons need a No. 3 it would be Terron Ward (5-6, 200).

New England will counter with LeGarrette Blount (6-0½, 250). However, Dion Lewis (5-6½, 194) and former Wisconsin star James White (5-9, 203) each might play as many snaps as Blount depending on the flow of the game.

It’s not just the Patriots anymore, either. Short, squatty running backs are hot and getting hotter across the NFL.

“Everybody has ‘em,” said Ivan Fears, the Patriots’ running backs coach under Bill Belichick for the last 15 years. “Atlanta has Devonta, and he’s a nightmare.”

When the Packers were crushed by Atlanta, 44-21, in the NFC Championship Game, their backfield snaps were 28 for Ripkowski, 23 for Montgomery and 15 for Michael. Injuries reduced Montgomery’s exposure.

Ten days after that game, several Falcons were asked if the Packers would be even more prolific offensively with a darting, skilled and diminutive player like Lewis periodically lined up adjacent to Aaron Rodgers in shotgun.

Perish the thought, the Falcons said.

“You’re trying to make Green Bay more dangerous?” defensive end Tyson Jackson said Wednesday. “They’re loaded. They can do everything anywhere on the field. Green Bay more dangerous would be a scary sight.”

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The Packers’ anti-small back stance was formulated by general manager Ron Wolf 25 years ago. He built a roster thinking of November, December and January at Lambeau Field, where the surface used to be good old Kentucky blue grass.

He drafted Edgar Bennett (6-0, 217) and Dorsey Levens (6-1, 228), and later traded for Darick Holmes (6-0, 226) and Ahman Green (5-11, 222).

It was a big man’s game, Wolf often would say, especially when the Wisconsin weather turned Lambeau into a sloppy, slippery mess. Plus, he didn’t think little backs could hold up.

Wolf had been retired for more than a decade when injuries decimated the team’s running back corps in 2012. General manager Ted Thompson, another big-back proponent who had full support from McCarthy, signed DuJuan Harris (5-7, 203) late that October. He was starting by December, making tacklers miss and beginning to rewrite the Packers’ scouting guidelines.

The experiment ended in August 2013 when Harris blew out his knee. He’s with his eighth team now, the 49ers, and remains a useful player.

Other than Harris, exceptions to the big-back philosophy in Green Bay have been few and far between.

“People say bigger backs last longer and they can play the total game and take more of a pounding,” said Atlanta’s Bobby Turner, an NFL running backs coach for 21 years. “That’s not necessarily true. Today, it’s a matter of quickness, catching the ball. It just depends what you’re looking for.”

Belichick inherited Kevin Faulk (5-8, 202) when he took over from Pete Carroll in 2000. Faulk, a 13-year Patriot, was the third-down back for the Super Bowl teams of 2001, ’03, ’04 and ’07.

Danny Woodhead (5-7, 195) succeeded him as scatback for New England’s runner-up team in 2011. Shane Vereen (5-11½, 205) had better size but was used in that mode for the 2014 champions. Lewis has played when healthy and White basically has played when he wasn’t.

“(Lewis) is the same as all those other guys,” said Fears. “Great in space. Good hands. Smart guy. Hard-nosed football player. Gotta love him, yessir. You might think he’s little but he will knock your block off.

“(White) is really a hell of a dude. Studies all the time. Can run routes, can catch the ball. He can see what the quarterback sees.”

Meanwhile, the Patriots have had five different heavy-duty runners in Super Bowls: Antowain Smith (6-2, 232) in 2001 and ’03, Corey Dillon (6-1, 225) in ’04, Laurence Maroney (5-11, 220) in ’07, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) in ’11 and Blount in ’14 and this season.

“New England has a three-headed monster,” Cox said. “In this day and age you have to have more than one back to survive a season.”

Fears, an NFL assistant for 26 years, appeared incredulous that anyone still might question the efficacy of smaller backs.

“Look at Darren Sproles,” he said. “Come on. You spot play him, he’s a problem. He causes matchup problems.”

Sproles (5-6, 181) has been dynamite for three teams over 12 seasons. He also was one of five little backs to rank among the top 45 rushers this season.

Others were Freeman, the No. 9 rusher with 1,079 yards; Tampa Bay’s Jacquizz Rodgers (5-6½, 190) and Oakland’s rookie standouts Jalen Richard (5-8, 207) and DeAndre Washington (5-8½, 207).

Some other solid contributors were Giovani Bernard (5-8½, 203) in Cincinnati, Theo Riddick (5-10, 201) in Detroit and Chris Thompson (5-7½, 193) in Washington.

Injuries short-circuited the seasons of Bernard and Riddick. Another Detroit player, Ameer Abdullah (5-8½, 203), went down early.

The Lions also suffered a tremendous blow in 2011 when the career of Jahvid Best (5-10, 193) was ended by concussions after 22 games.

Are small backs more vulnerable to injury? Wolf certainly wasn’t the only veteran personnel man to think so.

Jackson (6-4, 315) gave the little people that he chases a little bit of love.

“They don’t take a lot of big hits because normally guys can’t get that low,” the Chiefs’ former first-round draft choice said. “Those are some of the scariest guys to play against. If you shed a block just a tenth of a second too early or late, you can miss them because they’re so small in stature.”

Protecting the passer is the issue that will never go away. Yes, the small backs couldn’t get this far without being willing to stick their face into a blitzing linebacker’s numbers. Size, however, can be critical in blitz pickup.

“Twenty-two (Ripkowski), in passing situations, is an extra blocker,” Jackson said. “A lot of times you can’t depend on (small) guys to pick up a blitz or a free D-lineman in the backfield. You’re in trouble if you’ve got one of those small backs and they don’t know how to block.”

That linebacker-on-little back matchup certainly does produce anxiety, according to Fears, “if you can get it.”

It’s why offensive coordinators sometimes flank the back to reduce the pool of pressure players or “scat” the running back into a route immediately.

“Bill (Belichick) isn’t going to say, ‘I’m going to make you stay back and protect most of the day,’” Fears said. “He wouldn’t do that at all.”

Fears also refuted the notion that the harsh weather in New England, which unlike Green Bay plays on FieldTurf, has reduced any of his scatbacks’ effectiveness in the Patriots’ system.

Let Atlanta’s Ward, who carried six times for 46 yards in the Oct. 30 victory over Green Bay, make the final argument for his kind of player.

“In the ‘80s, the ‘90s, (when) it was more like ground and pound, you might need a bigger back,” Ward said. “In today’s game, (everything) is spread out. Size isn’t that big of a factor. The biggest factor is speed … and getting in and out of holes.

“All the elite quarterbacks in the league would be able to use a small back.”

As a rule, teams shouldn’t target undersized backs. By the same token, they shouldn’t eliminate them out of hand, either.

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