The LA Rams may have done one better than their rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.
San Francisco 49ers RB/WR Deebo Samuel set a trend when he became a wide receiver playing running back during the 2021 NFL season. His hybrid role not only sparked the San Francisco 49ers’ run to the NFC Championship Game, but it also earned its own moniker, “wide back.”
LA Rams’ head coach Sean McVay obviously took notice of the success Samuel had moving into the backfield. McVay has followed a similar blueprint to create his own wide back, one operating in a way more true to the parameters of the position.
Ben Skowronek has gone from the seventh-round wide receiver who was a surprise participant in the Rams’ Super Bowl win last season to the most innovative member of McVay’s offense in 2022.
McVay is lining up Skowronek at a variety of positions, notably at fullback. Skowronek told LA Rams Staff reporter Stu Jackson of the Rams’ official site that he only found out about the plan to use him as a lead blocker shortly before Week 2’s 31-25 win over the Atlanta Falcons:
"‘(I) Never really met with Coach McVay one-on-one, so I didn’t know what to expect. And when the head coach tells you to come to his office, I don’t know, I was like, ‘What did I do?’We kind of went over everything, and I was excited. Went out to practice that day, went smooth, and then it was something that we built on throughout that week. And then obviously in the Falcons game, we had some success with it, so this past week, getting more reps at it, more reps in practice, more reps in games. Just keep getting better and better at it each day.’-per LA Rams WR Ben Skoronek as quoted by Rams staff reporter Stu Jackson"
Seeing a wide receiver aligned as the up-back probably surprises defenses. It also likely makes opponents think they have a physical mismatch they can exploit to stop the run.
That’s not how things are working out. Not against 6-foot-3, 224-pounds Skowronek, who is developing a niche as a punishing lead blocker.
Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Zaven Collins was the latest linebacker to find out in person how effectively Skowronek can move defenders in the hole. Collins was deleted by the Rams’ wide back on a block that sprung Cam Akers for the clinching touchdown in the Rams’ solid 20-12 victory:
Let’s see Samuel do that.
Playing Skowronek at fullback has added a more physical dimension to a running game often considered finesse because of all the stretch plays and zone blocking. Yet, reviving a forgotten position isn’t the only way Skowronek is proving himself a true wide back.
Skowronek’s Also an Invaluable Receiver
Ben Skowronek put up four catches on four targets for 66 yards against the Cardinals, proving that Skowronek also remains an invaluable part of McVay’s passing game. His role in those schemes is now a little different.
Rather than make catches from his wideout position, Skowronek is gashing defenses out of the backfield. McVay has used Skowronek’s alignment in the I-formation as a way to get him lost in traffic and eventually free behind defenders biting on play-action fakes.
The best example came against the Cards when Skowronek ran this corner route behind linebackers pursuing the run downhill:
Play-action passes have always been a staple of McVay’s offense, but they just got more effective, thanks to a backfield receiver quicker and bigger than most running backs.
One of the most important things Skowronek gives the Rams is the ability to change the look of their pre-snap offense. Notice the personnel from Skowronek’s highlight reception in Arizona.
The Rams technically had three wide receivers, Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, and Skowronek on the field, with one tight end Tyler Higbee. Skowronek moving to fullback turned a three-receiver set into a traditional pro set in the I-formation.
Being able to shapeshift this freely is why McVay wants to continue using Skowronek as a wide back:
"I’m sure that this won’t be the only thing that ends up being a little different way of trying to accentuate our player skill sets, whether that be personnel groupings or using certain players to create the illusion of that personnel grouping even though you might be in what is typically an 11-personnel type of look.- per John Dillon of Rams Wire"
There’s more to the evolution of Skowronek’s responsibilities in this offense than simply putting him in the backfield. McVay is moving Skowronek around liberally, with Patrick Engel of on3.com’s Blue and Gold citing PFF statistics that show the receiver has played 29 snaps in the backfield and the same number out wide, along with lining “up as an in-line tight end 5 times.”
Putting Skowronek on the line or in the slot is another way for the Rams to use his blocking ability. He can chip dangerous pass-rushers, the way he did against J.J. Watt:
The Rams have found multiple ways to use their wide back, while Samuel is mostly still a ball-carrier. He’s highly effective, as the Rams learned the hard way when Samuel amassed 107 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in three games against them last season.
Skowronek could very likely be the wide back who decides games between these two NFC West rivals this year.