Every year throughout training camps and the preseason, we get word that a number of running backs are getting snaps in the slot. That is then followed by reports that those teams also want to get their top two running backs on the field at the same time.
This year the focus for these reports comes from the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, and Indianapolis Colts. There are reasons to believe this shift in personnel could make these for these teams. First of all, offenses appear to lack the receiver quality and depth that could prevent more backs from getting on the field.
Then there are the specific players. Tony Pollard was essentially a slot receiver at Memphis. Nyheim Hines might be the most dynamic pass-catching running back in the league. Without Davante Adams, Aaron Jones has basically been the Packers’ No. 1 receiver. Jones is the only one of that group who also serves as his team’s main running back, but A.J. Dillon might be the Packer’s second-best offensive player behind Jones. It makes sense, in theory, to get him on the field more often, as does getting Pollard and Hines more snaps in their offenses.
But rarely does the slot usage or two-back offense (referred to as “Pony” personnel) actually happen in the way many imagine when they hear those reports.
Most running back slot snaps have occurred when offenses use an empty formation (no players in the backfield). Offenses are using empty more often, which does put those backs in the slot more often.
Last season, offenses were in empty on 15.8% of dropbacks and 75.2% of all routes from running backs in the slot came when offenses were on those plays, per TruMedia. It’s a plus to be able to put backs in the slot on those plays but the backs aren’t often the main target.
On plays from empty, running backs in the slot averaged 0.83 yards per route run and were targeted on 16% of their routes. The overall average for running backs on all plays last season was 1.12 yards per route run and a 19.1% target rate per route.
Having two running backs on the field hasn’t been all that efficient for offenses, either. Last season, offenses averaged -0.09 EPA per play over 808 plays with two running backs on the field together. Part of the problem is in the passing game, things get condensed when two backs are on the field. Compare the difference between offenses with two running backs on the field and a more traditional look with one running back and one fullback.
Two Back Passing Depth with RB-RB vs. FB-RB, 2021
data per TruMedia
Nearly 40% of all passes end up at or behind the line of scrimmage in the two running back offense. As we’ve previously noted, passes behind the line of scrimmage are generally the least efficient passes for an offense. The main pass-catching options for the three focus teams (Jones, Pollard, and Hines) all had negative average depths of target from these personnel packages last season.
With the self-constraint offenses are putting on themselves with these formations and personnel packages, the upside is limited. By running so many screens and passes behind the line of scrimmage, the offense has to rely on excellent blocking across the board and maybe a broken tackle or two to create a big gain. It’s not much different than a running play in that sense. “Not much different than a running play” isn’t exactly what offenses should be striving for on their passing plays.
But if the offenses in question can use the horizontal spacing to their advantage, then there are some opportunities to create a big play.
Getting Tony Pollard on the field was something the Cowboys clearly focused on last offseason because he was a big part of their Week 1 game plan against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Three of his nine targets in two-back sets came in that first game. (However, all of Pollard’s targets came behind the line of scrimmage.)
On the opening play of the Cowboys’ second drive, Pollard lined up on the outside and then motioned behind Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as the ball was snapped. Prescott faked a handoff to Elliott and Pollard swung out to the other side. Thanks to an opening from a slot blitz, Pollard was able to turn up the field for a gain of 11.
Another place where that horizontal stretch can work is in the red zone and that’s where the Green Bay Packers have thrived, especially in the low red zone within 10 yards of the goal line. That’s often been Davante Adams territory but without him on the roster, the Packers can still find ways to use some of the same principles that made that such a dangerous area for the offense.
Against the Detroit Lions in Week 2, the Packers had the ball on the Lions’ 5-yard line. With Aaron Rodgers in shotgun and A.J. Dillon set to his left, Green Bay came out with Jones and Adams stacked to the right of the formation. Jones ran jet motion before the snap and received the tap pass from Rodgers. With solid blocks from the tight end and receiver on the left side, Dillon was able to act as a lead blocker to clear a path for Jones into the end zone.
The Packers love these types of motion plays near the end zone, especially when they’re expecting man coverage. Getting a defender to sift through traffic across the formation while the ball is being snapped can set up a pick on its own and get the motioned player with a free path to the end zone. Adams was typically the beneficiary here, but Jones could be in-line to see more of these targets in 2022. With Dillon in the backfield, the threat of the run still forces the middle of the defense to stay put, which gives the Packers the advantage on the edge.
Using that type of motion to stress the defense horizontally but then running some type of vertical element off of it is something most teams miss when using these personnel packages. But it’s a place where the Colts have flashed and could expand for the 2022 season.
In Week 13 against the Houston Texans, the Colts came out in a split-back look. Before the snap, Jonathan Taylor motioned out to the right. At the snap, Hines flared out and up the sideline. Michael Pittman was the lone receiver to Hines’s side and he was able to run a pick of the linebacker responsible for Hines. That gave Hines just enough time to get past him for the reception and an eventual 24-yard gain.
Two weeks prior in Week 11, the Colts used motion from Hines to open up Taylor down the field. Hines and Pittman opened in a condensed split to the left. Hines ran the typical jet motion at the snap. To add to the eye candy of the motion, the Colts also pulled left guard Quenton Nelson as if he would lead a sweep to Hines. On top of that, the Colts faked a handoff to Taylor in the backfield.
Taylor was able to sneak through the line and up the field while most of the middle of the field defenders were frozen from all the motion and fakes — similar to why the tight end Leak play always works. Taylor was able to break a few tackles and work his way into the end zone for a 23-yard score.
The vertical element still needs to be explored. Of the 195 targets given to running backs out of Pony personnel last season, only 25 (12.8%) came five or more yards down the field. 11 of those targets belonged to Cordarrelle Patterson of the Atlanta Falcons, who was a wide receiver before 2021.
There could be hope these offenses lean more into that. These coaches are saying the right things that would hint that an increase in these looks could be on the horizon.
Earlier in the offseason, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore spoke about the potential vertical element Pollard could bring as a receiver.
“At Memphis that really was his primary position, at slot receiver,” Moore said to reporters. “Then he would kind of go into the backfield, that was his secondary role… He’s not going to just run the running back route tree… He can stretch people vertically.”
Pollard always had that ability and his receiving was used early on in the season, but the usage in Pony personnel faded out as quickly as it was implemented, even as Ezekiel Elliott struggled through injuries.
Colts head coach Frank Reich told reporters if he was playing fantasy football, he’d consider drafting Hines. That meshes with Reich recently saying he would like to lessen the load on Jonathan Taylor after his 332-carry, 1,811-yard season last year.
But this also wouldn’t be the first time we hear about an increased usage in Pony personnel only for it to never become a staple of a regular season offense. Moore’s words about what Pollard could do run antithetical to how he was used in the Dallas offense last season.
The potential is there for these teams to get more out of two-back sets, but it has yet to be fully unlocked. Pushing the ball down the field can just be one key to helping. These backs can be dynamic and so can these offenses, but if those two things can be combined at the same time for optimal success remains to be seen.