As everyone knows, the NFL is a passing league. That’s why there aren’t many fullbacks left in today’s game. According to Football Outsiders (FO), only six fullbacks played over 25% of their teams’ offensive snaps in 2016. Former lead back for Buffalo, Jerome Felton, was one of those six, having participated in 30.5% of the team’s offensive snaps. He truly made a difference for Buffalo’s #1 rushing attack and really seized his opportunity after being cut early in the season.
— Cover 1 (@Cover1Bills) December 7, 2016
The problem with Felton was that he is cut from the same cloth as fullbacks of yore: downhill thumpers who use power and contact to clear holes for backs. But the role of fullbacks in today’s game has advanced. Enter Patrick DiMarco.
Buffalo signed the talented fullback early on in free agency, and it was a sign that Buffalo was not going to change their offensive philosophy. Rather, they were just going to tweak it. As much as Felton brought in the run game, he was not a player that could be relied upon to block moving defenders in the open field or make a difference in the passing game like DiMarco.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he was the fourth highest graded fullback overall, first in run blocking, and the third highest graded receiver out of the backfield (FBs with over 100 receiving snaps). DiMarco is one of the best fullbacks in the game, and it’s because he offers more athleticism and versatility than what we’re used to.
Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is used to having fullbacks who bring that style of play. In Dennison’s zone blocking scheme, the fullback isn’t asked to just get downhill and put a helmet on a helmet. DiMarco, who played in the same exact system in Atlanta, is asked to move a lot pre-snap to outflank defenses and use angles to seal off defenders.
In zone blocking, simply put, the lineman are working combo blocks to the second level in the direction of the run. This moves gaps horizontally, in turn testing defenders’ run gap integrity.
This is a far cry from a power run game where the tailback has a specific landmark to aim for (e.g. the 4 or 6 hole). DiMarco is asked to lead, read the flow of the linebackers, and use angles to block defenders, all while keeping options open for the running back. This is something that he is very adept at doing.
As you will see in the following clips, DiMarco utilized his athleticism to get out into the open and cut defenders down, which opened up creases for Devonta Freeman. The one cut ability of Freeman and Tevin Coleman, paired with DiMarco’s ability to create lanes for backs at the second level, led to the league’s 5th best rushing attack.
Did you notice anything in the prior two clips? They were runs to the weak side. Why is that important? It’s the cornerstone to the play action passing game that has made this system famous. Matt Ryan ran play action 27.6% (#1) of his passing snaps in 2016, and a lot of those passes were off of run actions like these. The zone run game helped Ryan increase his yards per attempt by +2.8 yards on play action vs. normal drop back passes. The defense is going to have one hell of a time defending these zone runs with Shady and Tyrod Taylor at the helm . . . but that’s an analysis for another day.
Let’s get back on track. As I mentioned earlier, Dennison is used to having a fullback with similar skills to DiMarco. Here’s a clip from Rico’s tenure in Baltimore when he had FB Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk uses angles to take Kuechly where he wants to go, giving RB Justin Forsett the ability to cut it back. How important is the role of DiMarco and Juszczyk? Juszczyk hit the jackpot by signing a 21 million dollar deal in San Francisco with new Head Coach Kyle Shanahan . . .
I don’t want to sell DiMarco short. Yes, he uses his speed, angles, and ability to target, but can he lead with power at the point of attack? Absolutely. He can dominate safeties and linebackers, which is often a difficult task to carry out, due to those types of players’ athletic prowess.
Having a guy like DiMarco on the field also helps dictate matchups. Yes, I said it; a fullback helps dictate matchups. This occurs in the run and the pass game. In the run game, DiMarco’s movement often helps the offense outflank a defense or gives blockers angles to execute.
For example, on the following play, DiMarco aligns in the backfield. In this 21 personnel set, the defense will have eight to nine people in or around the line of scrimmage, but more importantly, they will have a sound defensive structure.
As he motions out wide, the defenders bump out, which lightens the box to around seven/eight, but more importantly, the defense loses a linebacker in the tackle box. This is because by motioning wide, the offense is creating another run gap that the defense must account for.
This creates a HUGE bubble for the offense, and Shanahan attacks with inside zone.
This was all set up from a little movement by DiMarco. When used correctly, it is like poetry in motion. Watch it unfold.
Atlanta used him EVERYWHERE. There were times where he was split wide in empty sets, in the slot in 3×1 sets, and even as the lone back in the backfield with check release responsibilities.
A staple of this offense is by aligning the fullback out wide then motioning him to the backfield. The Falcons do just that to help Ryan decipher that it is zone coverage, so he puts them in the correct play. Post snap, he sells the run, which holds the second level defenders. He finds the single high safety, alerting him that it is zone coverage, and he is able complete the dig to Jones. That motion by DiMarco seems minor, but it makes plays like this much easier on a QB. Deciphering coverages is more than half the battle with Tyrod Taylor.
Fullbacks like Juszczyk and DiMarco are legitimate receiving threats because they are able to release into routes from the backfield. DiMarco was in a passing route 34% of his snaps in 2016, compared to Felton’s 15.5%. The ability to catch and run by a fullback allows coaches to devise ways to not only get them the ball . . .
But it can also open up passing windows for others. On the following play, the Steelers are in a cover three defense, and Juszczyk runs the wheel up the sideline. This forces Polamalu to carry him deep. This leaves a nice window for WR Steve Smith to run a pivot route. So coordinators can devise ways to get 2-3 guys into a route, all while being in 21 personnel (which will keep defenses in base personnel).
Flashback to 2016. Ryan carries out the play fake that forces the cover 2 middle defender to come screaming towards the line of scrimmage. DiMarco releases into the flat, and that widens the hook/curl defender just enough to open a gaping window for the receiver to hook up his route. This is another example of the Falcons running a three man route from 21 personnel.
DiMarco’s presence will allow the offense to maintain it’s run first philosophy, but ultimately, he will augment the passing game. Dennison will move DiMarco around and use a lot of pre snap motion to outflank defensive run fits, but also to dictate coverages.
Dennison’s wide zone runs to Shady, in addition to play action and getting Taylor on the perimeter versus zone coverage, will be tough to stop. Taylor will have not only his physical skills to rely on, but also a scheme that puts him and others in position to be more efficient. This isn’t just a boom or bust offense, but rather an offense that can stretch zone coverage horizontally, not just vertically.
So, for as much flak as the Bills took for signing fullbacks Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert, their skills will be crucial to what Dennison can do in his first year coordinating an offense.
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