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The real rise of the 'offensive weapon' in the NFL

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The lines are blurring between receiver and running back, and offensive coordinators are finding more ways to utilize hybrid players. Danny Kelly goes to the tape to show you how teams are using receivers as de facto running backs this season.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the NFL politely asked the Jacksonville Jaguars to cease and desist from designating rookie Denard Robinson as an offensive weapon, or "OW" on their official roster. Robinson had been a quarterback in college, but the Jags planned on using him as a receiver, running back, wildcat quarterback, etc. The reasoning behind the NFL's edict was twofold 1), "OW" isn't a recognized position, and 2), and I quote, "we're no fun".

Nonetheless, there are a growing number of de facto "offensive weapons" in the NFL who can be used in a variety of functions - running routes as receivers, taking handoffs in the backfield, and running sweeps or end arounds. The line between running back and receiver is blurring these days. Backs like Darren Sproles, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, and Reggie Bush are as deadly catching the ball out of the backfield as they are running it. Receivers like Percy Harvin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Randall Cobb, and in theory, Tavon Austin are just as comfortable taking a handoff as they are catching a slant. These are a special breed of athletes that possess a greater level of versatility and utility for offensive coordinators, and the creative use of these players seems to be growing with the expanded acceptance of spread offense principles.

One strategy that has shown up plenty over the first two weeks of the 2014 NFL season, something that takes advantage of these players' elite speed and versatility, is to motion a receiver into the backfield and hand it off or pitch it to him as a running back.

Let's take a look at a few ways that teams have done this, and along the way, answer the basic question: why is this becoming more popular? Why do coordinators add this into the gameplan?

The first reason is simple.

It gets the ball in the hands of your playmakers

Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the most freakishly athletic players in the NFL and became a first-round pick not because of his polished receiver skills, but because of his incredible ability in the open field. That came into play in Week 1 against the Rams, and in this case, it's what you'd call a "manufactured" touch. Patterson has some things to clean up in his route running and in chemistry with Matt Cassel, so, in effect, "here, we'll just hand it off to you, you do your thang."

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In the play above, Patterson's motion to the backfield actually helps take a defender out of the box initially. Instead of having a cornerback or safety on the edge that you have to account for and block, Patterson's defender has dropped to the middle of the field about ten yards. After all, Patterson can run to either direction, and the offense can create a numbers advantage with their blockers. In this case, the blocking up front is all well and good, but honestly only a few players in the NFL could have done what Patterson does with this circumstance.

He's a playmaker.

The Rams have been criticized (deservedly) for apparently not having a real plan with their feature playmaker -- 2013 eighth overall pick Tavon Austin. St. Louis has a fairly basic offense and have failed to make Austin a go-to weapon in it thus far, perhaps partly because of quarterback issues and perhaps because of Austin's deficiencies so far as a traditional receiver.

So, they've half-heartedly started "manufacturing" touches for him this year by giving him reps as a running back out of the backfield, perhaps to try and open up the "big play playmaker" flood gates.

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Results have so far been tepid, but, "We're just trying to get the ball in his hands," Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher said prior to last weekend when asked about the plan there, "‘cause he needs the ball in his hands in space."

"Obviously, we want to get him touches," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer added. "It's an easy way to get him a touch, certainly, to just hand him the ball. When the game got to where it went, it wasn't something we were able to do the whole time. This week, there'll be more of the same. We'll keep giving him touches, getting him the ball. The more spots we can put him, the better off we'll be."

As for a more expanded, robust usage plan?

"There's quite a bit more," Schottenheimer replied. "We want to use him a lot of different ways. He's a guy that we know is critical to our success."

As New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia put it recently, "I think there are a lot of offenses right now that are using those types of plays where they have dynamic skill players at wide receiver that are really good with the ball in their hands," he said. "It just gives the offense another way to put the ball in their hands without having to go through a traditional passing game to get it out there, where now they can catch and run. It gets it in their hands quickly."

The speed of the transfer is the key. It takes out the time it takes to fire a pass to the wing and takes away some of the risk therein.

Motion typically requires a response from the defense

Whether a receiver comes out of the huddle and just sticks in the backfield or is motioning prior to the snap over to stand next to or behind the quarterback, it requires an adjustment by the defense. This is one main reason that teams use motion in the first place -- not only can it tell a quarterback or receiver what type of defense an opponent is playing, it often means that defenses have to communicate checks and assignment changes as a receiver, tight end, or running back moves around the formation.

This can be difficult in a loud, hostile stadium. It can cause defenses to make mistakes, align incorrectly, or, simply, just be thinking too much. A thinking defense is not a reacting defense.

Motioning a receiver into the backfield to take a handoff marries well with the jet and fly sweep game that's becoming popular early this season.

Formational versatility, personnel group versatility

When you have players that can legitimately play multiple positions, it allows you to do a lot of stuff formationally and with varied personnel groupings. The most popular personnel grouping in the NFL right now, I'd say, is "11 personnel," which is three receivers, a tight end, and a running back. This is also called "posse" personnel by some teams.

Typically, you'd have your receivers out wide, your tight end in-line or close to the line (a "nasty" split), and your running back in the backfield. With hybrid, versatile players, you can effectively utilize formations that otherwise wouldn't be seen in certain personnel groups.

Below, you can see Seattle's running a two-back I-formation but with posse personnel. Harvin has lined up as the tailback, Marshawn Lynch the fullback, and it's a 3rd and 1 situation. Because the Hawks are in I-formation, have their tight end in close to the line and their backside receiver with a reduced split, the Chargers are thinking "run" all the way on this 3rd and 1 play.

When San Diego shows a man-coverage look and crowds into the box to stop Marshawn Lynch in short yardage, Russell Wilson knows his best option will be the flip to Percy Harvin.

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He's right. The play-side defensive end crashes down the line and then with a key block on the cornerback on the edge, Harvin only has one man to beat -- the middle deep safety. He does, and takes it to the house. The play should have been called back because Harvin does step out of bounds at around the 20, but even that would have been a fantastically successful play, largely successful because of Harvin's ability to play multiple spots.

"Percy really runs like a running back runs," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell this week. "He doesn't run like a wide receiver. So to be able to find the right guy to fit into it, I think is a big deal. You can run it with a lot of wide receivers but a lot of wide receivers are just that. They're wide receivers. They will run long legged running so to speak. Percy [Harvin] is guy that runs more like a running back. He has quick feet. His feet are closer to the ground. He's got a good base. He can break down and change directions so he's got good toughness to be able to run it up in there. There's a lot more that goes into it than just handing it to a wide receiver, I think."

Dictate formations/personnel

One of my favorite aspects of the ability to move a player from receiver to running back is that you can dictate to defenses what type of personnel they use or what types of defensive formations they must use. One example would be that a team could use five receivers and no backs or tight ends and generally speaking this forces the defense to counter with a nickel or dime defense, where they swap a linebacker or two and/or a defensive tackle out for an extra cornerback or safety.

If you get that defense that you want, then motion a receiver into the backfield as a running back, you're not running against a personnel group that is minus a linebacker and/or a defensive tackle. Your offensive linemen are now blocking corners instead.

Formationally, with a versatile player, you can dictate how teams defend you as well. Below, the Cowboys come out in a two tight end, three receiver set but immediately spread things out. With two tight ends split out wider, it removes two linebackers from the vicinity of the box and spreads the defense thinner horizontally.

By then motioning their slot receiver into the backfield and quickly running away from his defender, who is in man coverage, the Cowboys create a numbers game at the point of attack, much like the Vikings did above with Patterson. (Note: GIF says "five receivers", but I meant that in from a formational point of view; the personnel group includes two tight ends).

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The Packers do a similar type of thing with their offensive weapon, Randall Cobb.

"He is a versatile player," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "and it's important to always try to create schemes where you're giving people the opportunity to make plays."

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Here, the Packers head into the huddle with four receivers and one tight end, if you're including Cobb as a receiver. The Jets counter with a nickel look, and with Cobb as a de facto running back behind him, Aaron Rodgers calls an audible and changes it to a run play (because in theory nickel is easier to run on). In this case from Week 2, Cobb makes something out of nothing.

Create matchup issues for the defense

Remember how I said that the use of motion and different formations forces the defense to change on the fly? Below, in the Saints-Falcons game from Week 1, as Brandin Cooks lines up in the backfield, he's picked up by linebacker Paul Worrilow, which is a standard reaction in most defenses: linebackers pick up running backs that leak out of the backfield.

However, most teams aren't designing their scheme to get an outside linebacker matched up against an opposing team's fastest, most agile receiver. Cooks is a guy that ran a 4.33 and had some of the quickest agility times in the Combine this year. Some teams have the personnel for this, if they've got rangy, sideline-to-sideline 4.4 linebackers, but most teams don't.

For Drew Brees, this is easy money.

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Cooks takes the swing pass and just gets to the edge, outrunning Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow and finally being driven out by a closing safety from deep. The Saints aren't always going to get this matchup, but they'll take advantage of it when they do.

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With the proliferation of spread offenses in college, these hybrid types of players are developing skills as both receivers and running backs, and the most desirable trait is open field elusiveness and power. These are guys that can take bubble screens to the house; guys that can take an end around or fly sweep and make four defenders miss. Importantly, though, they're getting experience reading and reacting off of offensive line blocking while also running routes as a receiver. They're developing vision running from the backfield while learning about route depth and angles (though, naturally, all these skills must be improved upon greatly when getting to the next level).

As pro coaches are warming up to spread schemes, it seems like these offensive weapons are getting to apply their skills more in the NFL.