Aug 8, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker (10) hands off to Titans running back Chris Johnson (28) against the Washington Redskins during the first half at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Why the NFL two-back system becoming the norm

Aug 9, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA;Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush (21) runs the ball in the first quarter of a preseason game against the New York Jets at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Change is said to be a good thing and over the past decade the NFL has seen plenty of it. Not only is the game being played at a faster pace than ever before, but the call for high score totals and explosive plays has the NFL changing the way it’s game is being played.

The NFL has been shaping into a quarterback driven league, where NFL champions are led year in and year out by franchise guys under center who are asked to lead their teams to the promised land. Quarterbacks today are setting record-breaking passing numbers, while the use of the mobile quarterback is taking over and transforming the way NFL offense is being played and coached.

Over the past few years, Roger Goodell and the NFL have instituted rules that has shifted the game to favor the offensive side of the ball, taking away certain contact from the game and speeding up play. Coaches have adjusted by opening the field with four receiver sets and allowing quarterbacks to drop back and sling the ball forty to fifty times a game. Along with the increasing amount of pass attempts, more and more quarterbacks are scrambling and rushing to gain yards as more and more quarterbacks begin to run for hundreds of yards a season. With these major adjustments to the passing game there is an effect to the rushing attack of offenses that has led head coaches and general managers to using a platoon scheme at the running back position.

This new scheme is establishing a two-back system in which a head back is paired with another runner and used as a tandem to work off of each others weaknesses such as speed, agility, strength, short-yardage, receiving, and blocking. The ability to do this successfully will put both backs in the best positions to succeed and increase a teams running game while saving the legs of their runners for the long punishing NFL season.

An Example being the Chicago Bears Tandem of Matt Forte and Michael Bush, where Bush is slated as the short-yardage back and used in short and goal formations. Bush was able to accumulate 411 rushing yards with five touchdowns on 114 rushes, in only thirteen games last year. This was much needed relief for Matt Forte who was coming off of an ankle injury the season before and needed a lighter workload. Forte was still able to carry the ball 248 times for 1,094 yards and five touchdowns, while racking up 44 catches for 340 yards.

Dec 30, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte (22) during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Forte was put in a position to use his elusiveness in between the twenties while also being utilized in the passing game as a dual threat back. This is a perfect example of two backs complimenting one another to become a 1,500 yard rusher with double digit rushing touchdowns in around 350 carries. In comparison, five players in the league reached the three hundred carry mark for their teams in 2012.

Running backs have been known to fall off after having only a few productive seasons in the league, but this new scheme has been saving the legs of star backs and improving running games for multiple teams. In 2011, the average career for an NFL running back was 2.57 years which is the lowest of any NFL position. Teams are now moving on from going out and signing that franchise running back and instead are choosing to find backs who can work together and have the production similar to one star runner.

Since the years of Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith there have been few running backs in the league who have been steps above the rest, year in and year out. In fact, the argument can be made that every team in the top ten in rushing last season had major contributions from multiple runners, whether it was another half back or their mobile quarterback. Over the past few seasons many teams such as the New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, and Buffalo Bills have used multiple-back schemes and with success, as they all ranked in the top ten in rushing in 2012. A couple of teams who hope to join the top ten rushing list for 2013 are the Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions as they both hope their newly signed running backs will compliment the pieces they already have in place.

The Titans signed former New York Jets running back Shonne Green, who is coming off his best year with 1063 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 276 carries. He will be paired with Titans starter Chris “CJ2K” Johnson who is coming into his 6th season and has five straight 1,000 yard seasons.

Aug 8, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Shonn Greene (23) carries the ball against the Washington Redskins during the first half at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson’s carries will reduce from 276 in 2012 as Green is coming in to help Tennessee pick up short yardage and pound the ball between the tackles in a similar role to Michael Bush in Chicago. Johnson will be able to keep his legs more fresh and utilize his lightning speed and elusiveness on the outside and break open the big plays that Titan fans have become oh so used to.

Similarly to Tennessee, Detroit Lions fans hope for an explosive running game like they had back in the 90s with all-time great Barry Sanders. Newly acquired speedster Reggie Bush and budding star Mikel Leshoure will look to bring the Lions rushing attack back to the top of the league and this one-two punch definitely has the potential to surprise NFL fans. In Leshoure’s first season playing, after tearing his Achilles during his rookie training camp, he gained 798 rushing yards with nine touchdowns on 215 carries. This season, Mikel will by bumped down a slot on the chart as Reggie Bush comes over from Miami after being the starter for two seasons and compiling over 2,000 rushing yards and 588 receiving yards. Bush is expected to get the majority of the carries, but do not be surprised if both running backs eclipse the 200 carry mark as they combine for one of best running back duos with a perfect balance of power, speed, and intangibles.

The NFL is continuing to change and the teams who are winning are setting trends of success in ways that the NFL has never seen. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been the staple of success in the NFL for the past decade and has done so with rosters of players who work well together and whose skill sets shine in his particular system. The running back core for the New England Patriots has been by committee for the last few seasons, but coach Belichick has narrowed the field to two for this upcoming year. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be the go to guys after combining for 1,514 rushing yards on 350 carries in 2012. Ridley also just ran for 92 yards on eight carries and a touchdown in his first preseason game of the year, maybe a sign of a breakthrough year for the third year back.

The New England Patriots are 7:1 favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII and it may have something to with three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady holding the reigns of the offense once again, but the Patriots having the seventh best rushing offense last season could be a factor as well. The top favorites according to to win this years Super Bowl all have franchise quarterbacks that have the leadership qualities to bring a Lombardi trophy back to their respective cities.

Along with these quarterbacks, every team also has a dynamic rushing game that has multiple contributing factors such as the dangerous leg combination in Washing D.C. of Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III, all the way up to Green Bay whose two rookie running backs, Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin, are slotted to work off of one another and share reps to maximize production.

The running game is seeing changes in the NFL as quarterbacks are taking games into their hands and throwing the ball more and more every season. The use of two backs will not only allow for longer more productive years out of players, but will as well show long term success for organizations.

So for some teams maybe it is time to move on from one workhorse back and attempt using two running backs to out produce what one is capable of. This two-back scheme may eventually disappear in the copy cat league that is the NFL, but for now the use of multiple backs has only shown positive signs and will continue to be used until a new idea is brought in.

Tags: Chicago Bears Chris Johnson Detroit Lions Matt Forte New England Patriots NFL Reggie Bush Stevan Ridley Tennessee Titans

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