Playbook: A Fullback Renaissance in Oakland

The NFL has become a league in which spread sets are becoming the norm for offenses and the fullback has become virtually non-existent – or so you think.

If it were, why then would Oakland head coach Hue Jackson insist on throwing a 40-yard pass down the seam to – not a wide receiver or a tight end – but fullback Marcel Reece this past Sunday versus Denver? Because Jackson understands the value the fullback position can bring to an offense, especially when you have a player and athlete like Reece.

Reece’s impact was noticeable in the first two weeks of this season, especially against the Broncos, against whom he hauled in a go-ahead TD in Week 1. But an ankle injury early in Week 3 against the Jets had him sidelined for four weeks. His absence clearly affected the Raiders offense, as Darren McFadden averaged just 72 yards rushing per game and had only one TD in three full games without Reece in at fullback.

In 2010, the Raiders ranked second in the NFL to only Kansas City in rushing yards with 2,494 (4.9 YPC). Yes, McFadden had a career year, but Reece not only led the way for McFadden as a blocker, but provided a spark of his own as a runner and receiver. In just his second year, Reece amassed 455 yards of total offense on just 55 touches, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 13.1 yards per catch. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, his athleticism allowed the Raiders to play him as the “Z-receiver” last year and have him run a slant versus Seattle, which he broke for a 30-yard TD. His versatility gives Oakland the option to use a spread attack while keeping power run personnel on the field.

The truth is the fullback position has gone through an evolution, where the few remaining at the position seem to be used as blockers and offer little else. Players like Reece and Green Bay’s John Kuhn may signal the return of complete FBs, though, in the ilk of Larry Centers, Mike Alstott, and Charles Way.

As an offensive coordinator and head coach, Jackson has maximized Reece’s impact. He has used Reece strategically as a chess piece, aligning and shifting him into atypical positions – creating favorable matchups.

In Reece’s return this past week against Denver, his impact was immediate. With McFadden sidelined, they split him out as the No. 3 receiver (inside most receiver) in a 3-by-1 set, using 21 personnel (2 backs and 1 tight end).  The 2nd-and-11 situation gave Denver the option to play their nickel package; this flexed linebacker D.J. Williams into coverage on Reece in the slot. The coverage was “two-deep, man-under,” and Williams was forced to play in space with Reece.  This puts Williams out of his comfort zone and the matchup advantage immediately went to Oakland.

Carson Palmer’s strike to Reece put Oakland up 17-7 late in the first half.

Jackson’s ability to match his play-calling with his talent allows balance through personnel, within a power-based scheme. A dual-threat FB puts more accountability on the defense, dictating that defenders become more reactive instead of proactive. The defense has to keep the appropriate personnel in the game to defend the run, while the Raiders can still line up in spread formations.

You have to be a special player in order to bring full value to the fullback position in today’s game.  While most lead blockers are on-call for situational duty (i.e. 49ers defensive tackle Isaac Sapoaga), there are still talents within this league that allow this position to be frequently depended upon as an every down commodity – making the chess game of personnel in the NFL even more difficult on defensive coordinators.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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