Third Down Backfield Options For The Ravens
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Ray Rice manning the third down duties at tailback. We’ve been so accustomed to seeing him perched alongside Joe Flacco in the shotgun set, ready to take the handoff, wheel into a route, or KO an oncoming pass rusher. However, the reality is Rice will need to relinquish that role when the NFL comes down on him with a suspension to start the season.
The only questions at that point will be for how many games and who will take his place?
It’s much easier to answer the second question right now. But before doing so, let me take a moment to define the role at present because after all, the role is constantly being redefined.
The third-down back in today’s NFL needs to be able to block and function as a receiving threat before being considered a runner. More and more, draws and delay running plays are being phased out like a struggling new TV sitcom in a prime-time time slot. The run is really only employed to hit a coverage-heavy nickel/dime look, or in longer yardage situations, to keep the ball on the ground to prevent against a turnover.
As a blocker and a receiver, the third-down back needs to be adept at identifying the rush and deciding whether to stay in the backfield or leak out based on the look. In that regard, the back has a vital role in buying the quarterback an extra second or two by either stoning a blitzer as a blocker, or serving as a safety valve on a quick dump-off pass.
Even though Rice is hardly known for being a sure blocker (a component of his game that grew progressively worse in 2013), he has always been incredibly resourceful as a bailout receiver for Flacco. How many times can you remember seeing him become available on a quick flat route that turned into an improbable first down run? Too many to count? 4th and 29 ring a bell?
The Ravens’ two best bets to handle the guardian duties next to Flacco are Justin Forsett and and Kyle Juszczyk. Bernard Pierce will get his opportunities as well, but his primary role should be on first and second down, and in short-yardage situations.
In sizing up the two third-down candidates, they both bring explosiveness and versatility to the table.
Forsett made his mark as a third-down back for the Seahawks. He is a very shifty runner who is also terrific in the screen game. For a player that is the same height as Rice but about 15 pounds lighter, he is strong and plays with great pad level. Based on early OTA reports, he not only looks healthy (after missing a large portion of the 2013 season with Jacksonville) but also brings a level of acceleration from the backfield that has been missing. Forsett is a legitimate game-breaker.
Juszczyk is more of an unknown commodity. He is not a traditional fullback in any sense. He can flex out and run routes, and is more of a true H-back in the mold of Chris Cooley. That makes him all the more the intriguing.
Looking at how the game has evolved, tight ends and H-backs are finding themselves in the backfield more often because they create serious matchup problems. Stick the former Harvard grad in the backfield and he’ll be able to win against a lot of the strong-side linebackers he faces in coverage. Unlike most traditional tailbacks, a player like Juszczyk can not only win in the short area (the flats), but he can take his routes further down the field. On isolated wheel routes in which Juszczyk has one-on-one coverage, he’ll be tough to contain.
As Gary Kubiak, explained to Aaron Wilson from The Sun, “He’s athletic and can make some plays down the field. I like fullbacks that can run, because there’s such a separation between them and the tailbacks.”
Now, when it comes to the blocking side of the role, Forsett is ahead of the curve. He already brings a level of pass pro experience that Juszczyk doesn’t yet possess. Forsett has never graded out on a net negative in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus. He is not a great pass blocker by any means, but he understands blitz schemes and can hold his own physically.
Juszczyk performed well in pass protection situations during the 2013 Senior Bowl. But frankly, he’s a player that moved around quite a bit in college, playing in the slot and even out wide. He has the intelligence and tenacity to get better. It also doesn’t hurt that he served in punt protection for Sam Koch last season, so there are similarities to the role that translate.
Overall, the Ravens have two very capable candidates to take over for Rice. Given the skill set that both players bring to the table, the Ravens should look to mix and match as much as possible and transform the traditional third-down tailback role in Baltimore.