A Fullback Helped Turn Around Tennessee's Run Game. Could It Do The Same For Carolina?

In 2015, the Tennessee Titans finished 25th in rushing yards per game. In 2014, they ranked 26th in the league. They had been desperately searching for some semblance of a ground attack for years. Bishop Sankey turned out a bust. They had struggled to find answers at both right and left tackle. Byron Bell continued to be Byron Bell. Jeremiah Poutasi, drafted in the 3rd round in 2015 to play right tackle, ended up being a guard. Taylor Lewan, who they drafted 11th overall, started 6 games at left tackle but was hardly satisfied with his performance.  Tennessee’s ground game languished and required Marcus Mariota to be the driving engine of the running attack.

While Tennessee searched for answers, the Panthers ran all over teams in 2015. Carolina ranked 2nd in the league in rushing. The following year, however, the Titans catapulted to 3rd in the league in rushing. In Carolina, the Panthers dropped to 10th, averaging 113 yds per game. Every one of those yards came at a cost too. Jonathan Stewart scratched and clawed for every inch and Cam Newton, like Mariota the year before, was the team’s second-;eading rusher. It wasn’t pretty. The offensive line struggled with injury and suckiness. The weren’t any running lanes, which resulted in any positive yards coming from the sheer will of rusher.

How did the Titans turn around their running attack, something that escaped them for so long? Can Carolina learn any lessons from their neighbor to the west?

The Titans invested a lot in getting the ground game going. In 2015, they selected offensive linemen in the 1st and 3rd rounds (Taylor Lewan and Jeremiah Poutasi). In 2016, Tennessee selected Jack Conklin with the 8th overall pick and Derrick Henry, a bruising monster of a back, in the 2nd round. They traded for Demarco Murray, who just two years earlier was the league’s leading rusher.

There is one investment, however, that goes overlooked among these high draft picks and star names--Jalston Fowler. Drafted in 2015 in the 4th round, the Titans sought to bolster their ground game with a tight end. While Fowler didn’t standout his rookie season, he proved critical in his second season as the Titans became one of the league’s most dangerous rushing teams. 

After a resurgent 2016 season, Murray commented, “man it feels good to have a fullback.” Fowler has only had eight carries for 16 yards, and six catches for 58 yards in 32 NFL games. He’s not there to run the ball, however. He’s there to open up running lanes for the Titans running backs. It’s not a glamorous job and one that really isn’t all that common in the NFL anymore. Fowler’s contributions were recognized somewhat in being selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Outside of Tennesee, few have noticed the critical role he’s played in rejuvenating the Titan ground game.

When meeting with Titans running back Demarco Murray after the 2016 season, former NFL fullback and now NFL analyst, Michael Robinson, beamed as the Titan running back described Fowler’s contributing role in Titans offense. Robinson noted, “There’s not a lot of teams that actually major in (the fullback), but look at the top of the league in rushing, and they have fullbacks.” He continued, “It is one of those positions, where we are really moving guards. We are asked sometimes to block d-tackles, block d-linemen. But I don’t think people truly understand how much they are the eyes to the running back. A running back can blindly follow him and be able to at least puncture through the line of scrimmage.”

Panther fans have pined for a blocking fullback for years. Mike Tolbert, a favorite in the locker room and with fans, wasn’t one. He was really a running back that the Panthers masqueraded as a fullback. Unlike Fowler, Tolbert’s role was more as a ball carrier and pass catcher than it was a blocker. A lot of this had to do with scheme. The Panthers didn’t rely on a traditional running attack. The Panthers didn’t like to run under center all that much. Instead, Carolina focused more on deception than power. The read option from the shotgun sought to confuse defenses, create opportunities for Cam Newton, and ultimately marginalized the fullback and traditional run sets. 

After a horrid 2016 season, Ron Rivera has discussed the need to evolve the Panthers offense. Rivera alluded to what he means by “evolving” the offense at the combine, stating, “The one thing we don't want to do is overexpose our quarterback as a runner. So we have to go ahead and look to change some of the things that we do. Some of our philosophies, obviously, have to be a little bit different when it comes to running the football."

Does this mean we will see Cam under center more? Perhaps an emphasis on a more traditional run game, creating the added need for a blocking fullback? Last month’s release of Mike Tolbert suggests that Carolina may just be trying to get back to basics. As Gettleman has said in the past, the answer is sometimes on the roster. Rivera noted at the combine, “We’ve got a couple young guys that we’ll most certainly take a look at, see where they fit. Hopefully, there is a fullback that we feel is good enough to be on that (final roster).” He was referring to Devon Johnson, nicknamed Rockhead, and Darrel Young. Rockhead missed his rookie season with a lingering back injury. Even if he was healthy, he wouldn’t have made the Panthers 53 man roster. He’d likely find himself the odd man out like Lee Ward was the year before. 

Johnson has been working hard this offseason and has remarked he’s feeling the best he has in years. Carolina invested in the offensive line in free agency by signing Matt Kalil. There’s a good chance the invest more in that line in the upcoming draft. With these investments and coming schematic adjustments, just maybe, Johnson could turn out to be much like Jalston Fowler--important, underrated, and overlooked. 

By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
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