The CFL rushing game has gone down the past few seasons. Already a pass-first league, the CFL is slowly gearing away from relying on run plays, but Brandon Rutley says versatility is key for a running back. Rutley is amongst a handful of running backs that have the ability to both gain yards from the ground and through the air, but he feels that’s what a running back needs in the CFL to be successful.
CFL Rushing Game Down, Versatile Backs Key
Running Yards Per Game on the Decline
Earlier in the season, an analyst on TSN suggested that the CFL rushing game is on the decline. Without any numbers to back it up, he ended up spotting the new trend in the CFL: to rely more and more on the passing game.
In fact, the number of rush attempts and rushing yards per game has gone down steadily since the 2014 season. In 2014, CFL games saw an average of 216 yards from the ground versus 481 passing yards. Last season took a huge toll on the CFL rushing game, as there was an average of 188 rushing yards/game against 533 passing yards.
This season, the trend has continued its downfall, with a measly 155 rushing yards/game and a staggering 622 passing yards. Overall, rushing yards per game has gone down 17% from 2015 and 28% from 2014.
The number of plays from scrimmage on the ground have also taken a steep decline. From 2013 to 2015, running plays accounted for 35, 36 and 34% of all plays, but this year, only 29.8% of plays result in a run. The Montreal Alouettes, Toronto Argonauts, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Edmonton Eskimos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats all run the ball less than 30% of the time, and only the B.C. Lions pass the ball on less than 60% of their plays. Yes, the CFL is a passing league, but run plays are slowly being phased out to a minimal amount.
Despite the importance of a strong passing game, Alouettes head coach Jim Popp believes offences need to be able to produce in every way possible.
“It’s important to have a balanced offence. Obviously, this is a passing league, but if at some point you have to run the ball, you still have to have a run game. You have to do both pretty well,” the coach said following their practice on Tuesday.
His team, who has a strong receiver group, runs the ball 27.5% of the time but produces the fourth most rushing touchdowns in the league. For Montreal’s running backs Rutley and Tyrell Sutton, they still follow the gameplan and do whatever is needed to win.
“We have to do what works. Whatever gameplan is called by [Anthony Calvillo] and Jacques [Chapdelaine], we will just do whatever it is. As long as we win, that’s all that matters,” Rutley said.
With a changing flow to the CFL rushing game, running backs have to adapt. The backs who produce in this league are the ones that are multi-dimensional and can do more than just take the ball and run.
Versatile Running Backs Are Key
One major difference between the American football game and the Canadian football game is the role of the backfield. In the NFL, the best running backs are those who can carry the team to the endzone on their own. That is extremely rare to see in the CFL rushing game.
There is a difference between a back that could run through the line, like a Marshawn Lynch, and a back who used for screens and swing passes, like a Darren Sproles. In the CFL, a running back has to be good at everything.
“You want to be a dual threat. You want to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield, and be able to run it. You have to be versatile… that’s a plus,” Rutley said.
Rutley himself is an ideal back for the Canadian game. At 5’11”, 192 pounds, Rutley can take the ball for a carry and pick up yards after catch on swing passes and screens. He has 265 rushing yards and 256 receiving yards this season, joining only John White, Andrew Harris and Brandon Whitaker to reach the 250 total in each nearly halfway through the season.
Rutley attributes his past as a receiver to his success as a dual threat in the CFL.
“One thing I did was play receiver in high school and college. That’s something I have always been good at, and I try to implement it into my run game.”
With the Alouettes offence on a high after their 46-19 beatdown of the Ottawa Redblacks last week, Rutley has a major opportunity to do some more damage this week against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.