Are the NFL's most explosive running backs not actually running backs?


The history of receivers who provide a threat in the run game is long and storied. Johnny Morris, a halfback/flanker hybrid who led the NFL with 93 catches, 1,200 yards, and 10 touchdowns in 1964, also put up 417 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on 73 carries in 1960. Frank Jackson of the AFL's Dallas Texans (soon to become the Kansas City Chiefs) ran for six touchdowns combined in 1961 and 1962 in Hank Stram's offense, which was well ahead of its time. If you want to go back even further, Ray Renfro of Paul Brown's 1953 Cleveland Browns put up 352 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on 60 carries, so this receiver/running back hybrid stuff didn't start with Tavon Austin and Taysom Hill.

But it could be said that we are in the salad days of this kind of hybridization. And neither of the two main guys doing it are Taysom Hill, he of the infinitely goofy contracts. Right now, it's Cordarrelle Patterson of the Falcons and Deebo Samuel of the 49ers who are blurring the lines between receiver and back to the great benefit of their offenses.

And by hybrids, we're not talking about running backs taking screens and swing passes out of the backfield. We're talking about true receivers on paper who make things excessively difficult for opposing defenses because those defenses never know what they're going to get.

Let's start with Patterson, who scored two rushing touchdowns in Atlanta's 21-14 win over the Jaguars on Sunday. Patterson's two touchdowns were the first of any kind the Falcons had scored since Week 9, and it's clear that he is the Falcons' only consistent offensive weapon. The former kick returner and incomplete receiver has transcended his rep as a pure gimmick guy to become an exponential threat on the ground.

Patterson finished his day with 108 yards and those two touchdowns on just 16 carries. The rushing yards and rushing touchdowns were career highs. He missed last week's game against the Patriots with an ankle injury, and the Falcons didn't score a single point. Head coach Arthur Smith put it to his offensive players that they needed to get something happening on the ground. The response was clear: Put No. 84 on the field, and wait for greatness to happen.

"Having (Patterson) back, it adds an element," Smith said after the game. "He's a physical presence who can do a lot for us. I think that's clear."

Just as clear is the effect that Samuel has on the 49ers' offense, and its intricately-designed run game.

"It depends what coverages they are in," head coach and offensive shot-caller Kyle Shanahan said of Samuel as a runner against different coverages, and the confusion that presents. "Man coverage, who's got him when he's outside, who's got him in the backfield, those are different run fits, [and it] can confuse linebackers on the runs and the passes. You just have to account for everything. Same with motions, same with where guys are going to line up, there's a lot of different stuff for it."

Against the Vikings in San Francisco's 34-26 win on Sunday, Samuel ran six times for 66 yards and two touchdowns before leaving the game with a groin injury.

The first touchdown was this 20-yarder in the first quarter, and the sweep aspect perfectly illustrates how well Samuel takes Shanahan's run game from unique to transcendent.

Samuel also had a three-yard touchdown run, but the most impressive run of the day came on this 49-yarder. This was another example of design and implementation coming together perfectly.

The more you can do to a defense from a positional and personnel standpoint, the better position you're in to win. In Patterson and Samuel, the Vikings and 49ers have maxed the hybridization of two crucial positions, and it's paying off with impressive consistency.


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