Exploring the Different Types of Football Running Backs

John Rizzo

Football Running Back

In the dynamic world of American football, running backs play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the game. With their blend of speed, agility, power, and versatility, these players are essential to any team’s offensive strategy. However, not all running backs are created equal. 

They come in various flavors, each with their unique skill sets and responsibilities on the field. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the intriguing realm of football running backs and uncover the different types that have evolved over the years.

From powerhouses to elusive playmakers, let’s explore the diverse world of football running back types. So, stay calm and read till the end of this article. 

What is a Football Running Back?

A Football Running Back, often referred to simply as a “running back” or RB is a player in American football who plays a key role in the offensive backfield. 

The primary responsibility of a running back is to carry the ball on running plays, advancing it toward the opponent’s end zone to gain yards and score touchdowns. 

Running backs are also involved in the passing game, as they can catch passes from the quarterback and contribute to the team’s offensive strategy.

Running backs are known for their speed, agility, and ability to navigate through defensive lines to find openings in the opposing team’s defense. 

They must possess good vision to identify running lanes, quick acceleration to exploit gaps in the defense, and often have the strength and power to break tackles and gain extra yards after contact.

Roles and Responsibilities of Football Running Back

The role of a Football Running Back involves various responsibilities that contribute to the team’s offensive strategy. Here are the key roles and responsibilities of a running back in American football:

Running the Ball

Running the Ball

The primary responsibility of a running back is to carry the ball on running plays. This involves taking handoffs from the quarterback and using their speed, vision, and agility to navigate through the offensive line, identify running lanes, and gain yards on the ground. 

Running backs need to be able to read the defense, make quick decisions, and adjust their path accordingly.

Pass Protection

Running backs are often required to help protect the quarterback during passing plays. This includes blocking incoming defenders who are trying to sack the quarterback. 

Running backs must be able to recognize blitzes, identify their blocking assignments, and effectively use their body to prevent defenders from reaching the quarterback.

Catching Passes

Running backs are also targets for passing plays. They may catch short passes from the quarterback and use their agility to gain additional yards after the catch. Running backs who excel at catching passes are often referred to as “dual-threat” or “pass-catching” backs.

Short-Yardage Situations

In situations where the offense needs to gain just a few yards to achieve a first down or score a touchdown, power backs are often called upon to use their strength to plow through the defensive line and gain the necessary yardage.

Goal Line Situations

Running backs are crucial near the opponent’s goal line. They may be used to punch the ball into the end zone for a touchdown in situations where the offense is close to scoring.

Screen Plays

Running backs are often involved in screenplays, where they catch a short pass behind the line of scrimmage and rely on their blockers to create running lanes. This can be an effective way to counter aggressive defenses and gain significant yardage.

Check-Down Options

When the quarterback’s primary passing options are covered, running backs can serve as check-down options. They offer a safe and short passing target for the quarterback to unload the ball and gain positive yardage.


Many modern running backs are expected to be versatile and excel in multiple areas, including running, blocking, and catching passes. This versatility keeps the defense guessing and allows the offense to adapt to different situations.

Pass Route Running

Running backs may run various pass routes, such as swing routes, angle routes, and wheel routes, to create mismatches against slower defenders and gain yards through the air.

Ball Security

Running backs must prioritize ball security to avoid fumbles. They need to maintain a strong grip on the ball while navigating through defenders.

Understanding Offensive Schemes

Running backs need to have a solid understanding of their team’s offensive schemes, including blocking assignments, reading defenses, and adjusting their running path based on the play design and defensive alignment.

Types of Football Running Back

Types of Football Running Back

The terms you’ve mentioned, such as halfbacks, fullbacks, tailbacks, and wingbacks, are often used to describe different types of running backs in American football. These terms have historical significance and reflect specific roles and positions within offensive formations. 

However, it’s important to note that the usage of these terms has evolved over time, and their meanings can vary based on the team’s offensive system and the era of football being discussed. Here’s a breakdown of these terms:


The term “halfback” is often used interchangeably with “running back.” In the past, the halfback was typically the primary ball carrier and had a balanced role in both running and receiving. 

As the game has evolved, the halfback’s role has become more specialized, with different types of running backs taking on specific responsibilities.


The fullback is a running back who lines up closer to the line of scrimmage and is often used for blocking and short-yardage situations. 

While fullbacks used to be more prominent in offensive formations, their role has diminished in modern football, with many teams using single-back or spread formations that focus on passing.


The term “tailback” is often used to describe the primary running back in a traditional I-formation or pro-style offense. The tailback lines up behind the quarterback and fullback and is expected to carry the ball on running plays and contribute to the passing game.


The wingback is a term that originated in older offensive formations like the single-wing and double-wing formations. A wingback lines up off the line of scrimmage, typically behind the line of scrimmage, and may be used as a runner, receiver, or even a passer in trick plays.

It’s worth noting that the distinctions between these terms have become less rigid in modern football due to the evolution of offensive strategies and the use of multiple formations. 

Many teams use single-back formations with versatile running backs who can both run and catch, blurring the lines between the traditional roles.

Strategies of the Football Running Back

Strategies of the Football Running Back

Football running backs employ various strategies to be effective on the field and contribute to their team’s offense. 

These strategies depend on the situation, the offensive scheme, the defensive alignment, and the specific skills of the running back. Here are some key strategies that running backs use:

Vision and Patience

Running backs need to have good vision to read the defensive alignment and identify running lanes. They must be patient, allowing blocks to develop and waiting for the right moment to accelerate through openings in the defense.

Reading the Offensive Line

Running backs must understand the blocking schemes of the offensive line and know where the gaps and cutback lanes are likely to be. They need to adjust their running path based on the movement of their blockers and the flow of the defense.

Quick Acceleration

Running backs must possess quick acceleration to burst through the line of scrimmage when they see an opening. Their ability to accelerate rapidly helps them gain an advantage over pursuing defenders.

Setting Up Blocks

Running backs can manipulate defenders by using subtle movements to set up their blockers. For example, they might feint one way to draw a defender in that direction before quickly changing direction to exploit a different running lane.

Balance and Agility

Running backs often encounter tacklers in open-field situations. Having good balance and agility helps them elude tacklers and maintain forward momentum after contact.

Ball Security

Protecting football is paramount. Running backs use proper ball security techniques to minimize the risk of fumbles when navigating through the defense.

Pass Protection

Running backs are responsible for picking up blitzing defenders and protecting the quarterback on passing plays. They must identify their blocking assignments quickly and effectively engage with defenders to prevent them from reaching the quarterback.

Catching and Route Running

Many modern running backs are skilled receivers. They need to run precise routes, create separation from defenders, and catch passes cleanly to contribute to the passing game.

Yards After Contact

Running backs often face contact from defenders. Their ability to gain additional yards after initial contact is crucial in extending plays and picking up extra yardage.

Goal Line and Short-Yardage Techniques

In situations near the goal line or when only a few yards are needed for a first down, running backs might employ specific techniques, like lowering their shoulder and driving their legs to gain the necessary yardage.

Situational Awareness

Running backs need to be aware of the game situation, such as down and distance, time on the clock, and field position. This awareness influences their decision-making during plays.

Blocking and Releasing

In passing situations, running backs might chip a pass rusher before releasing into a pass route. This technique helps slow down the rusher and gives the running back an opportunity to catch a pass downfield.

Screen Play Execution

Running backs need to time their release on screenplays, allowing blockers to set up in front of them. They then use their blockers to gain yardage after catching a short pass.

Audibles and Adjustments

Running backs must be able to adjust their play based on audibles called by the quarterback or pre-snap defensive shifts.


What is a football running back, and what do they do on the field?

Football running backs are players who primarily carry the ball on running plays, aiming to gain yards and score touchdowns. They also catch passes, block for the quarterback, and contribute to their team’s offensive strategy.

What are the various types of football running backs?

There are several types of running backs, including feature backs, power backs, third-down backs, change-of-pace backs, and scat backs. Each type specializes in different aspects of the game.

What is the role of power back in a football team?

Power backs are known for their strength and ability to break tackles. They excel in short-yardage situations and near the goal line, using their power to gain crucial yards for their team.

How do third-down backs contribute to the offense?

Third-down backs, also known as pass-catching backs, are skilled at catching passes out of the backfield. They are valuable in passing situations, helping the team convert on third downs and create mismatches against defenders.

How has the role of running backs evolved in modern football?

In recent years, running backs have become more versatile, contributing not only as ball carriers but also as receivers and blockers. Many running backs are now expected to excel in multiple aspects of the game.

Wrapping Up

As the backbone of an offense, football running backs bring an exciting blend of athleticism, strategy, and adaptability to the game. From bulldozing through defenders to gracefully eluding tackles, they showcase a spectrum of skills that keep fans on the edge of their seats. 

The diversity of running back types adds layers of complexity to team strategies, allowing coaches to tailor their game plans to the strengths of their players. 

Whether it’s a power back bulldozing through the line or a scat back darting through the defense, each type of running back adds a unique dimension to the excitement of the gridiron. 

So, the next time you’re watching a football game, take a moment to appreciate the variety and expertise that running backs bring to the field. Thank you very much. 

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John Rizzo

I am a professional rugby player in the Washington DC-Baltimore area. I have been playing rugby for over 10 years and have had the opportunity to play in many different countries. I am also a coach for both youth and adult rugby teams. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in Sports Management and Marketing. I am currently working on my MPA from American University and plan to pursue this career path after graduating next year. LinkedIn