“Running” The Game: Observing The Run-First Game in a Pass-Friendly Era

Since the dawn of the forward pass, almost every team in the NFL has made the transition to turn their offense into a pass-friendly system. With the ideal quarterback being a “strong-armed specimen”, we can expect the league to stick to this idea for a while. However, with analysts making mentions of a “run-first offense”, we can assume that not all teams have the same mindset when it comes to working a functioning offense. Which begs the question, what exactly is the definition of a run-first offense? Is it even a real thing? And what changes does it bring to the modern-day NFL defenses?

Benefits Of The Run

To keep it simple, the run-first offense is basically in the name itself. It’s an offense that relies primarily on the run-game rather than going for a deep-threat down a sideline. Rather than trying to speed up an offensive touchdown by taking shots downfield, this type of offense tends to pick up only a few yards per play and burns through a lot of time. This forces the other team to try and answer back fast and may lead to carelessness on the opponent’s side.

Without offending any team or any fanbase, the classic run-first offense in the NFL tends to have a QB who needs a defensive miscommunication to pass. Keeping the pattern of running the ball, then transitioning to an RPO or even an intermediate pass could keep linebackers and defensive ends on their toes. You could see this in teams such as the Ravens, Patriots, or even the Titans. The special case with the Titans though is they don’t tend to “establish” themselves as a run-first offense. Linebackers play closer than the short/intermediate passes in fear of a run, which gives Tannehill more space to play with towards the middle of the field and even downfield if he sees the right opportunity.

The Ravens are one of the more interesting offenses that made a great transition from Flacco to Jackson. Harbaugh overhauled the offense and used Lamar’s legs to change their entire system up. With a great backfield, good O-line, and Lamar Jackson, the Ravens are able to exploit the run-game limited to their personnel. While not exactly being the best passer, running lanes and even some passing lanes sometimes open up through the system that Harbaugh set into place. However, like any other offense, there’s always a way to beat it.

Disadvantages Of The Run

The disadvantage of this particular offense is a defensive scheme that can communicate properly and read a predictable run offense. Most run-offenses really only use the same handful of plays. The blocking assignment could be different based on defensive line setups, but the formations prior to the snap are primarily the same. Based on protection, motions, and even audibles, a run-first offense is fairly simpler than a passing offense, and a lurking linebacker corps could single-handedly shut down that offense.

Much like I mentioned earlier with the time aspect of this offense, the opposite could be said as well. A run-first offense could take a while to march down the field, and when caught in a bad situation, a defense would easily read a forced pass. If there’s no time on the clock, you can’t just keep running the ball, you’d have to pass to move the chains eventually. Like I also mentioned earlier, the QBs in these systems aren’t usually the greatest passers, so anything improvised pass-wise could lead to a turnover.

Evolution Of The Linebacker

What people don’t realize in the league is the evolution of linebackers. If you looked at the game around fifty years ago, the linebackers in the league were bigger-sized but lacked lateral speed. These linebackers were great at stopping the run, but couldn’t keep up with the passing game and some throws over the middle. Slowly, the teams realized this and switched to a passing-oriented offense. Now, the typical linebacker is slowly becoming faster, they have the lateral speed, they can run 4.4s, but their size isn’t as big as the linebackers back then. The modern-day linebacker can move fast over the middle and break-up passes over the middle, but slowly, offenses are starting to realize that power running-backs are becoming popular again. Derrick Henry-type runners could be the new future of the league as the linebackers adapt.


The run-first offense is an offense that we don’t really see much of nowadays. The rules of the NFL are slowly being adapted to becoming a pass-oriented game. People want to see one-handed catches, deep-balls over the sideline, mossing a DB, but rarely do people want to watch a running back take a handoff over the middle for 3-4 yards per play. Say what you want about the run offense, but it works. As teams gain more respect for power-backs, we could start to see them build around a running-back even more nowadays. Especially with the physical evolution of linebackers, the NFL could be a whole different game a decade from today.