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Having a smarter conversation about the run game

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With the selection of a running back with the second overall pick, the conversation about the running game and it’s importance has taken centerstage. But what we need to do is have a smarter conversation about what happens on the ground, why it happens, and why it matters.

Throughout the offseason, Dave Gettleman has stated the three keys to winning are running the ball, stopping the run, and rushing the quarterback.

The problem with that is maybe one and a half of those keys are true. Running the ball can have value, but it’s importance can be a bit misunderstood. So let’s look over a few concepts surrounding the running game that can help elevate the conversation around it.

Rushing 101

Teams don’t “run to win,” they run when they’re ahead

We’ve all heard an announcer or read a writer who used something along the lines of “TEAM X is 8-2 when RUNNING BACK gets 25 carries.” The problem with that is a team doesn’t magically take the lead when that back gets his 25th carry of the game. Odds are that back got so many carries because him team had the lead and they were trying to run out the clock. It’s the first basic listed by Football Outsiders and the first article written on that site back in 2003 debunked that theory. However, this line of thinking is still prevalent and even some NFL still believe this despite the flawed reasoning.

In 2017, the league-wide pass-to-run ratio was 58 percent to 42 percent. When teams had a lead of at least three points, that went to 48-52. With a lead of at least 10 points, it was 43-57, and with a lead of at least 14 points, teams ran the ball 61 percent of the time. A high volume of rushing attempts is the result of leading, not the cause.

Running doesn’t “set up” much of anything

Quite often running the ball is positioned as a companion to the more important parts of the game — passing efficiency, play-action, or wearing the defense down. Again, these old and established ways of thinking about the run game don’t hold up when tested.

Over the past few years studies have found more rushing volume doesn’t do much to open up the passing game, quarterback efficiency doesn’t change when they’re asked to throw more or less, rushing success and volume don’t impact play-action success (remember: the secret to good play-action is good play-action), and more runs early in the game don’t set up longer runs later.

For more on this, read Ben Baldwin’s chapter on rushing in the 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac, where most of these links come from.

Building to success

Now that we’ve established some of the basics around the rushing conversation and its value, let’s take a look at some things that do matter on the field and what they mean.

Boxing out

Throughout the offseason, Josh Hermsmeyer of airyards.com has been using play-by-play charting data from Sports Info Solutions to dig into various aspects of the game. One thing he focused on was the impact of defenders in the box on the running game.

His first finding was that nearly 80 percent of a running back’s yards per carry can be explained by the number of men in the box he ran against. His finding also included the raw number of men in the box is more meaningful than the blocking advantage an offense has (i.e. seven blockers vs six men in the box is a plus-1 advantage for the offense).

He then found the more defenders in the box, the less of an advantage it is to keep in more blockers. Regardless of how many blockers there are, yards per carry drops as more defenders crowd the line.

This impact can be seen by this simple graph of yards per carry by men in the box.

source: @friscojosh

Despite all of this, every team in the league ran more than they passed on first-and-10 and second and long while facing boxes of seven-, eight-, and nine-men while every team had a higher passing success rate than rushing in those situations.

Let’s take a look at how this impacts the game on the field. In the Giants’ second preseason game against the Detroit Lions, the offense faced a third-and-1 near midfield at their own 45. The Giants came out in a heavy formation that invited 10 Detroit defenders into the box. There was one wide receiver on the play and even he was inside the numbers.

Here’s what that play looked like at the start:

This play had no chance of success because not only did this formation draw 10 defenders into the box, the Giants were at a two-man blocking disadvantage. While having the blocking advantage doesn’t help as much as one would think, having a disadvantage in this situation — especially down two — is less than ideal.

So when an unblocked defender got through the line to stop Jonathan Stewart for a 5-yard loss, it’s hard to blame anything but the setup of the play.

Getting personnel

Another finding was that men in the box was heavily influenced by offensive personnel — the bigger the bodies on offense, the more likely the defense was to stack the box.

Here’s a look at the number of plays run over the past two seasons and how defenses played the box. (For personnel groupings, the first number stands for the amount of running backs and the second is for tight ends).

source: @friscojosh
source: @friscojosh

It’s pretty clear to see how the box gets more stacked as the personnel gets heavier. Maybe it’s easier for you to see the percentages of these boxes to go along with the personnel, so here’s that:

Personnel by men in the box rates

2016-17 5 MIB 6 MIB 7 MIB 8 MIB 9 MIB
2016-17 5 MIB 6 MIB 7 MIB 8 MIB 9 MIB
11 7% 56% 29% 6% 1%
12 2% 14% 53% 26% 4%
13 1% 6% 37% 37% 13%
21 1% 10% 51% 31% 5%
22 1% 4% 31% 32% 16%
source: @friscojosh

These percentages correlate pretty well with how often teams run from these packages. Per Sharp Football Stats, teams ran 32 percent out of 11 personnel, 55 percent out of 12 personnel, 57 percent out of 21 personnel, 74 percent out of 13 personnel, and 85 percent out of 22 personnel.

What can we learn

  • For the most part defenses don’t defend against players, they defend against personnel. The threat of the run is greater when the offense acts like it’s going to run. That might seem obvious, but it’s important to point out. This season there’s unlikely to be a “Saquon Barkley Effect” on defensive boxes, it will more likely be a personnel effect. Last year Todd Gurley faced a box with eight men or more on 16.85 percent of his rushing attempts, the third-lowest rate in the league among 47 backs with at least 100 carries per Next Gen Stats. It wasn’t because defenses weren’t afraid of Gurley, it was because the Rams spent 81 percent of their offensive plays in 11 personnel. Going heavy to show strength on the ground is a bigger impediment to the success of the running game, especially for a running back who thrives in space.
  • Flipping tendencies is a strategy that should be used more. Spreading the field to run can put the offense in a more advantageous position than trying to load up blockers — teams had the highest rushing success rate from 11 personnel last season despite running just 32 percent of the time from it. That eliminates traffic in the middle of the field and prevents situations like the above Lions play from happening. On the other side, passing from heavy personnel can catch the defense off guard. Teams should pass more against eight men in the box and play-action in heavy personnel against stacked boxes should be an automatic call. More runs should be called against light boxes.

Saquon Barkley is going to be a big part of the Giants offense in 2018 and beyond. While his most important contributions should come in the passing game, there’s going to be a lot of focus on what he does on the ground.

All of this can hopefully put a little more context into what influences the running game and which parts of it really matter. And most of all it can hopefully allow all of us to have a smarter and more meaningful conversation about it.