Power rushing coming back in these NFL playoffs
Power! Trap! Wham!
No, these aren’t captions from a fight scene in the old “Batman” TV series. But they are words you might hear the next couple of weekends while watching the NFL playoffs.
The NFL may be known as a passing league, with 5,000-yard seasons becoming more common, but this year’s playoff field has an old-fashioned feel, with several teams that rely on a powerful running game behind fullbacks, oversized blocking tight ends, and extra offensive linemen.
Seven of the NFL’s top 11 rushing teams this year qualified for the playoffs, and many got there with frequent use of the fullback — a position that seemed to be on the brink of extinction a few years ago — and jumbo sets.
The Patriots, naturally, are one of the teams ahead of the curve on this old-school style of play, using fullback James Develin on 26 percent of snaps this season and blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan on 24 percent. The 49ers, Panthers, Colts, Seahawks, and Packers also frequently use the fullback.
The power run game could prove crucial in the playoffs, when teams need to finish off victories in inclement weather. Power running may be even more crucial this year with a potential cold-weather Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J.
Bill Belichick said the return of the fullback and heavy run sets is part of the common give-and-take between offenses and defenses.
“Some of that’s a reflection of what you’re seeing defensively, which are teams going to linebackers who are, I would say, smaller, faster, better space players, as opposed to in-the-box, downhill,” Belichick told the Globe this week.
“A few years ago you saw a lot of empty formations with no backs. Part of that was to take the bigger, slower players and spread them out and put them in space. I think as defenses have gone to linebackers that run better, that have more athletic ability, it’s a little harder to spread them out, but maybe you can get a better matchup with a fullback, or two tight ends in there.
“Some of [the smaller linebackers] have trouble defending double-team blocks, fullback-type plays. I think that’s a little bit of an issue for every defense: How much do you want to have an in-the-box type of defense, and how much do you need to be able to defend space?”
Two playoff teams take the power running game to the extreme: The 49ers and Colts run power plays and formations that were popularized decades ago, including traps, toss sweeps, misdirection, and wham blocks.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh grew up idolizing Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, and Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman made power running en vogue last season in leading their team to the Super Bowl.
“When I got my first coaching job at the University of San Diego, I called my coach Bo Schembechler,” Harbaugh said in New Orleans last January. “Before he said congratulations, he said, ‘Tell me you are going to have a tight end that puts his hand in that ground on every snap. Tell me that you are going to have a fullback that lines directly behind the quarterback, and a halfback in the I-formation.’ ”
“Yes, Coach, we will have that.”
Harbaugh’s dad, Jack, rarely passed as the longtime coach at Western Kentucky.
“I think there was one time where he called a pass when I was at one of his games,” Harbaugh said. “And it did work. It went for a touchdown.”
With proper blocking, traditional plays like traps and toss sweeps can produce huge runs, as when Colts running back Donald Brown scampered 50 yards against the Jaguars in Week 4 on a simple trap play. The 49ers and Colts also haven’t been afraid to bring in six or even seven offensive linemen to pave the way.
Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton worked under Harbaugh and Roman at Stanford.
“I think Greg Roman has done a job that is revolutionary in football,” Harbaugh said. “I think the way he’s mixed the trap, the power, the wham plays into the pistol offense and into the conventional offense has been revolutionary in many ways.”
The Patriots wanted to incorporate a fullback into their offense in 2012, but injuries and outside circumstances prevented it, Belichick said. But the emergence of Develin, a member of the practice squad last season, allowed the Patriots to add the fullback to the running game.
“That’s definitely a position that we’re interested in,” Belichick said. “It isn’t that we haven’t tried to do it. It’s that last year it just didn’t work, and this year James stepped up and definitely earned a roster spot.”
Of course, there’s a passing element to the power run game as well. The two-tight-end and fullback sets help better sell the play-action pass. Many of the Patriots’ chunk plays in the passing game have come out of big sets with only two-man routes.
“You watch a dropback pass, how often do you really see a guy wide open?” Belichick asked rhetorically. “Now, with play-action pass, you could get a guy with nobody within 15 yards, and the only reason for that is the play-action.
“How many passes does [Rob] Gronkowski catch where there’s nobody within 10 yards of him? It’s not the passing game, it’s the action that created the play.”
Roman said his motivation to bring back the traditional power run game was to go against the grain compared with the rest of the NFL.
“Everything became so zone blocking-oriented,” he said. “I think with the incredible success that Denver had there for a while, everybody started doing that.
“When everybody practices against one thing all the time, they don’t quite know how to play that other stuff. So we kind of took the opposite approach and said, ‘Let’s be counter-cultured and let’s do things that people don’t work on.’
“Anything we can do to get our players an advantage.”