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Just How Important Is Pass Blocking For Running Backs?

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A couple of days ago we looked at the Cowboys running backs and their broken tackle rates, courtesy of Football Outsiders. Today we turn our attention to another advanced stats site and look at what Pro Football Focus have to say about the pass blocking efficiency of running backs.

Obviously, we wouldn't be discussing this stat if it didn't pertain to at least one of the Cowboys running backs, and sure enough, Felix Jones makes PFF's top ten list, coming in with a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) rate of 3.04.

Felix Jones stayed in to block on 107 passing snaps and allowed four pressures (one sack, three hurries). Over the last three years, Jones has allowed eight pressures on 157 pass protection snaps for a PBE of 3.98, the tenth best rate over that timespan.

After the break, we look at how the other Cowboys halfbacks performed and wonder just how important this stat really is.

To qualify for PFF's top 15 or bottom 15 list, running backs are required to have stayed in to block at least 60 times in 2010. Neither Marion Barber nor Tashard Choice qualify for the list, as they have 49 and 43 pass protection snaps respectively. But we can still calculate their PBE with the following formula:

Pass Blocking Efficiency = (Sacks + (0.75 * Hits) + (0.75 * Hurries)) / Pass Protection Snaps * 100

Marion Barber gave up five pressures, including two sacks, on his 49 pass blocking snaps, resulting in a less than stellar 8.67 PBE. That number would rank Barber the seventh worst RB on PFF's bottom 15 list.

Tashard Choice allowed only two pressures on his pass blocking snaps for a PBE of 3.49, which would be good enough for 11th on PFF's top 15 list. Unfortunately for Choice, where Felix Jones makes the top 15 list for the last three years, Choice only makes the bottom 15, coming in as the fifth worst RB in pass blocking efficiency with a 7.90 PBE.

Obviously, there's no question that a RB who is good in blitz pickup is a valuable asset to the team. But if we look at the bottom 15 list for 2010, some of the premier running backs in the league show up there: Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson are just some of the names that show up in the bottom 15. None of them are known for their pass blocking acumen. Of course, when you're as good as they are in other aspects of the game, you probably don't need to be.

But in the Cowboys' system, pass blocking is a key task for any running back, along with receiving skills and, you know, gaining a couple of yards on the ground. Felix Jones consistently ranks as one of the top ten backs in pass protection, in 2010 he led the entire NFL in % of passes caught (48/52), in 2009 he led the league with 5.9 rushing yards per attempt, which dropped to a more pedestrian 4.3 YPA in 2010. And, lest we forget he was also in the top ten in broken tackles last year.

Jason Garrett likes his halfbacks to be good in all aspects of halfback play. Jones' play highlights how valuable a running back can be without necessarily racking up 1,000 + yards per season.

How much importance you place on the pass blocking of your running back is probably more a philosophical question. Do you prefer a back who is a great runner and who will gobble up the yards on the ground, or do you prefer your halfbacks to me more versatile, multidimensional players who can add value on every single snap?

The answer for the Cowboys is clear. Jason Garrett explains exactly what type of halfback he prefers as he talks about DeMarco Murray and the possibilities a player like that adds to the Cowboys' offense.

We like DeMarco Murray. We like what he brings to the table. He's a versatile back. He's a guy who's shown he can run the football. He's been productive as a receiver and has also been very good on third down as a receiver out of the backfield but maybe more importantly, as a blocker. 

He seems to have a really good understanding of protections and not only who to block, but how to block them. So we really liked his versatility, the kind of young man that he is and he's certainly been a productive player.

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