The period of the year following the NFL Draft is when teams assess their talent and begin to develop personnel packages that feature their best player combinations.
Finding the most effective matchups against offensive personnel groups is the biggest challenges facing defenses today. Defensive coaches may want to pay attention to the latest trend for offenses across the league to create those matchup nightmares.
It's not a new concept, but more teams are building the possibility of using the "Pony Backfield or Rocket Backfield." The package features two running backs in the game at one time with no fullback. In fact, teams with two good running backs who feature similar skills -- like Baltimore with Willis McGahee and recent draft pick Ray Rice -- aren't the main candidates for this concept.
In New Orleans, the Saints have an ideal pairing of a pony backfield in Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush -- a power back and a speed guy -- to challenge what defenses will try to do. If a team can present a power run series, plus a player who can win an individual matchup against a linebacker or safety, it has the formula to create the chess match offenses want to see. It forces defenses to decide between their base package, nickle package (three corners) or big nickle package (three safeties).
"We have the players to utilize a pony backfield package now, and we know the threat of the reverse by the speed back off the inside zone play and even a QB bootleg will hold the outside defenders and give us a front we can block to keep the running game moving down the field," said one head coach. "If teams still commit to the run then we feel our speed back gets the matchup we will take advantage of in the passing game."
We've been hearing how NFL teams believe the running game is a two-headed situation, and consequently we see a team like Minnesota draft Adrian Peterson when they already had a proven 1,000-yard back in Chester Taylor. If the Vikings challenge themselves with the old coaching adage that they want to play the best eleven on offense at the same time, then there's a place for both backs on the field.
Peterson has the speed to scare most secondary players. What if he lines up on the line of scrimmage on the opposite side of the two wide receivers? A quick slant route versus a safety and he's in an open field situation right away. Walk a linebacker out to help the safety and here comes Taylor on a run play in the guard/center gap.
As Titans head coach Jeff fisher said to me this week, "We need to get the ball in space of the good players."
Here's a look at four NFL teams that took a big step towards building the pony backfield package during the draft. As they experiment, defenses around the league have to decide how they will combat the ermerging challenge.
1. Pittsburgh. Willie Parker can fly, and rookie Rashard Mendenhall has the power and burst to deliver big runs. If Parker lines up in the slot, with Mendenhall in the backfield, all things are possible. Mendenhall could motion out of the backfield and Parker could take a speed sweep. The Steelers may be known for the old fashion power run game, but they are ready to change that look on a moments notice.
2. Oakland. We know Darren McFadden has the home-run speed, and he caught 46 passes in college. Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin used a lot of smoke screens at USC. Fargas proved last year he can run inside, and McFadden can work the outside. The Raiders could also switch roles and draw attention to McFadden in the backfield but still force defenses to line up someone on the outside against Fargas. Look for Oakland to use some imagination with this personnel group.
3.Tennessee.Chris Johnson was drafted out of East Carolina, where he caught a 125 passes while still rushing for close to 3,000 yards. He has blazing speed (4.24 in the 40) and paired up with a power back like LenDale White and with Vince Young under center, it's not a pretty sight for defenses. Johnson is an accomplished receiver, White can break a tackle and Young can get on the flank in a split second.
4. Dallas. We all know what Marion Barber is all about. But the departed Julius Jones never really made defenses think a pony backfield was going to be a big threat. Rookie Felix Jones does. Felix Jones is another speed back complimenting a power back and there could be times both are in the backfield. Imagine if a defense subs out a linebacker for a defensive back, and Dallas checks to a two-back set with Barber leading the way for Felix Jones. Barber will win the blocking matchup against a defensive back.
We may not see too much of this package in the preseason. Offenses will work on it privately and may hold it for the regular season. More offensive coordinators can now reach up on the video shelf and take down the 2006 Saints offense for a few ideas that now work for them.