The Impact of Defensive Packages on Yards Per Carry

| April 9, 2014

moreno“Knowshon Moreno’s 2013 success was a product of Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ record-setting offense. He won’t be nearly as good in Miami!”

We’ve all heard (or said) some variation of the above statement dozens of times already this offseason.

But, is it true?

Although not much makes me happier than using the fine data available here at PFF to prove a false narrative wrong, I can’t do it this time. Moreno was put in an excellent situation last season, and, for the most part, he underwhelmed. More on that later.

Today, I’m going to take a thorough look at running back Yards-Per-Carry (YPC) data from the past six years. I’ll be adjusting the rushing numbers of each back based on the number of defensive backs on the field. As you can see in our first chart, backs who face significantly more Nickel or Dime than Base are operating at a major advantage.

Chart2 YPC Article

DBs YPC Sample
1 0.7 209
2 0.9 509
3 2.3 2449
4 4.2 48307
5 4.6 18498
6 5.6 2815
7 7.3 92

The first thing I did here was to come up with an expected YPC for each player based the number of defensive backs on the field on each of his carries. To do this, I determined the league-average YPC vs. each defensive personnel package and applied those numbers to each player’s rush attempts. Note that I only used carries by tailbacks who lined up in the backfield. The sample was just under 73,000 carries. Adjustments were also made for each year.

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To kick off our player analysis, we’ll take a look at the running backs from 2013 whose actual YPC outperformed their expected YPC by the largest margins (min. 100 carries)

Rk Running Back Car Actual Expected Diff
1 LeGarrette Blount 182 5.2 3.9 1.2
2 Andre Ellington 112 5.5 4.3 1.2
3 DeMarco Murray 217 5.2 4.1 1.1
4 Mark Ingram 105 5.1 4.0 1.1
5 Jamaal Charles 262 4.9 4.1 0.9
6 Donald Brown 128 5.1 4.3 0.8
7 LeSean McCoy 334 5.0 4.4 0.7
8 Alfred Morris 275 4.6 4.0 0.6
9 Adrian L. Peterson 279 4.5 4.0 0.6
10 C.J. Spiller 201 4.6 4.1 0.4
11 Matt Forte 289 4.6 4.2 0.4
12 Chris Ivory 176 4.5 4.1 0.4

LeGarrette Blount was outstanding down the stretch for New England last season. The big man averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 121 carries against opposing base defenses. He scored on five of 14 tries with fewer than four defensive backs on the field (essentially goal line packages). Blount wasn’t quite as dominant against Nickel defenses, but held his own. Now with Pittsburgh, Blount is seemingly stuck behind Le’Veon Bell. As we’ll see later, however, Blount might actually be the better runner.

Just behind Blount sits new Arizona lead back Andre Ellington. Playing a situational role behind now-retired Rashard Mendenhall last season, Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 112 hauls. He did most of his damage against Nickel, racking up nearly seven yards per carry. A concern for Ellington supporters should be his work against Base defenses. Albeit on a small sample, he managed a 3.6 YPC, which, as we learned earlier, is more than a half yard below average. Ellington is surely going to see a lot more Base as a starter. He’ll need to be better else the team will take a longer look at Stepfan Taylor.

Next, we have the other end of our previous chart. These players were least productive in the league last season, underperforming their expected YPC marks by the highest margins.

Rk Running Back Car Actual Expected Diff
47 Bernard Pierce 152 2.9 4.0 -1.2
46 Ray Rice 212 3.1 4.3 -1.2
45 Willis McGahee 137 2.7 3.8 -1.1
44 Trent Richardson 189 2.9 4.0 -1.1
43 Rashard Mendenhall 216 3.2 4.1 -0.9
42 Darren McFadden 109 3.3 4.0 -0.7
41 Maurice Jones-Drew 233 3.4 4.1 -0.7
40 Steven Jackson 156 3.5 4.1 -0.6
39 Le’Veon Bell 237 3.5 4.0 -0.5
38 Danny Woodhead 130 3.9 4.5 -0.5
37 Doug Martin 127 3.6 4.1 -0.5
36 Andre Brown 139 3.6 4.0 -0.5

It shouldn’t be a major surprise seeing the Ravens’ tailback duo one-two in this category. Both were more than a full yard below their expected YPC. Pierce averaged an ugly 2.8 YPC against Base, 3.0 against Nickel, and somehow only 2.3 against Dime. Rice’s 3.1 YPC sounds even worse when you consider that he had the benefit of not seeing a ton of Base defense. Rice faced Nickel on 48 percent of his carries and Dime on another 12 percent. He averaged 2.4 YPC on 76 carries against Base, compared to 3.6 against Nickel. Prior to the 2013 season, Rice had a 4.4 career YPC against Base and a 5.0 mark against Nickel.

Considering the hype surrounding him when he entered the league last season, Trent Richardson makes for an interesting case study. Last season, 71 percent of Richardson’s carries came against Base or tougher packages. He managed only 2.8 YPC against Base, compared to 3.6 against Nickel. He was actually more productive as a rookie, averaging 3.7 YPC against both Base and Nickel.

I mentioned Bell earlier and this chart explains why. Although a massive workload allowed him plenty of fantasy value, Bell wasn’t particularly effective on a per-play basis. I’ve previously discussed his complete lack of big play ability and this study shows underwhelming rushing production, especially against Base defenses. Bell averaged a miserable 3.0 YPC against Base, which accounted for 47 percent of his carries. On 106 carries (45 percent of total), he managed a better, but still below average, 4.4 YPC. Bell was on the “easy” side of the league in terms of defensive personnel faced, which adds to the concern surrounding his underwhelming rushing production.

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Next, we have the players who faced fewer than five defensive backs on the highest percentage of their 2013 carries.

Rk Player Att <5 >4 <4 Base Nickel Dime >6
1 Frank Gore 322 95% 5% 15% 80% 4% 1% 0%
2 Darren McFadden 109 86% 14% 6% 81% 11% 3% 0%
3 Alfred Morris 275 85% 15% 2% 83% 14% 0% 0%
4 Zac Stacy 250 84% 16% 2% 82% 15% 1% 0%
5 Mark Ingram 105 84% 16% 2% 82% 16% 0% 0%
6 Adrian L. Peterson 279 83% 17% 4% 79% 16% 1% 0%
7 DeAngelo Williams 192 82% 18% 3% 79% 17% 1% 0%
8 Willis McGahee 137 80% 20% 10% 69% 18% 2% 0%
9 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 228 78% 22% 7% 71% 21% 1% 0%
10 Rashad Jennings 156 76% 24% 9% 67% 16% 7% 1%
11 Ben Tate 181 75% 25% 2% 73% 22% 3% 0%
12 Chris D. Johnson 279 75% 25% 3% 71% 21% 4% 0%

All hail Frank Gore. It’s extremely impressive that the veteran has held up so well considering the disadvantage he’s at in the 49ers run-heavy offense. Gore easily led the league in the percentage of his carries against fewer than five defensive backs (95 percent) and fewer than four defensive backs (15 percent). He had the good fortune of seeing Nickel or Dime on 15 total carries (including the playoffs) last season. Gore averaged 4.3 YPC against Base defenses (slightly above average) and 2.6 YPC against packages that included only three defensive backs (0.3 above average).

No back saw Base on a higher percentage of his carries than Alfred Morris last season. The big man averaged 4.7 YPC on 229 carries against Base. He was just as good against Nickel, averaging 5.0 YPC on 39 tries. As a rookie in 2012, Morris averaged 5.0 YPC against Base, 4.8 YPC against Nickel, and scored on six of 10 carries against fewer than four defensive backs. This kid is really good.

I’ve called Mark Ingram underrated before and the 2013 season just adds fuel to the fire. He’s fairly productive despite playing at a major disadvantage. Only Morris saw more Base defense than Ingram did last season. He averaged 4.9 YPC on 89 carries against Base, and 6.5 YPC on 17 totes against Nickel. Ingram now has an above average 4.3 career YPC against Base and an exceptional 5.2 YPC against Nickel. Ingram has faced a Dime defense only once in his career, but has 23 carries with fewer than four defensive backs on the field.

On the other hand, the below chart shows the players who had the benefit of seeing nickel, dime, or quarter defenses on the highest percentage of their carries.

Rk Player Att <5 >4 <4 Base Nickel Dime >6
47 Reggie Bush 221 10% 90% 0% 10% 81% 9% 0%
46 Knowshon Moreno 283 17% 83% 1% 16% 66% 17% 0%
45 LeSean McCoy 334 22% 78% 0% 22% 76% 2% 0%
44 Danny Woodhead 130 23% 77% 0% 23% 65% 12% 1%
43 Montee Ball 148 30% 70% 4% 26% 53% 17% 0%
42 Joique Bell 161 39% 61% 0% 39% 52% 9% 0%
41 Bilal Powell 158 39% 61% 4% 35% 55% 6% 0%
40 Andre Ellington 112 39% 61% 1% 38% 54% 6% 1%
39 Ray Rice 212 41% 59% 5% 36% 48% 12% 0%
38 Eddie Lacy 305 41% 59% 1% 40% 56% 2% 0%
37 Donald Brown 128 50% 50% 4% 46% 36% 14% 0%
36 Lamar Miller 177 53% 47% 2% 51% 42% 5% 0%

Gore’s YPC was almost a half yard less than the mark put up by Reggie Bush last season. As we’re learning here, that doesn’t mean Bush was the superior back. While Gore was seeing Base or tougher defenses 95 percent of the time, Bush was working against Nickel or easier defenses on 90 percent of his carries. Bush averaged a mediocre 4.5 YPC on 179 carries against Nickel. Albeit on a small sample of just 22 carries, Bush was good against Base, averaging 5.6 YPC.

I made Moreno the poster boy for this piece and this is where we’re able to discuss him at length. During his breakout campaign, Moreno did, in fact, have the great benefit of facing a ton of Nickel and Dime defenses. He can, of course, thank Peyton Manning for that. Moreno put up a YPC that was 0.3 yards below expected. He was decent on 45 carries (16 percent of his total) against Base, racking up 4.5 YPC. Moreno was worse against Nickel, however, managing 4.3 YPC on 186 carries (66 percent). More troubling was Moreno’s work against Dime. He had the luxury of a league-high 49 carries (17 percent), but managed only 3.9 YPC.

The favorite to replace Moreno has Denver’s lead back, Montee Ball also shows up in the Top 5. Ball was a bit more effective than Moreno on a per-play basis, but his ugly 3.3 YPC against Base defenses is troubling. He put up a 4.5 YPC against Nickel and had a healthy 6.8 mark against Dime.

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The next two charts will be very similar to the previous two, but this time I’m looking at the percentage of rushing yards scored against each defensive package. Backs who ran for at least 200 yards last season are included. The first chart shows the players who accrued the highest percentage of their yardage against fewer than five defensive backs.

Rk Player Yds <5 >4 <4 Base Nickel Dime >6
1 Frank Gore 1283 97% 3% 10% 87% 3% 0% 0%
2 Khiry Robinson 326 91% 9% 4% 87% 9% 0% 0%
3 Kendall Hunter 402 88% 12% 3% 86% 10% 2% 0%
4 Benny Cunningham 261 88% 12% 2% 86% 12% 0% 0%
5 Alfred Morris 1266 85% 15% 0% 84% 15% 0% 0%
6 Shonn Greene 295 84% 16% 12% 72% 12% 4% 0%
7 Zac Stacy 976 84% 16% 1% 83% 16% 1% 0%
8 DeAngelo Williams 789 82% 18% 2% 80% 16% 1% 0%
9 Darren McFadden 355 80% 20% -1% 81% 17% 3% 0%
10 Adrian L. Peterson 1266 80% 20% 2% 78% 19% 2% 0%
11 Mark Ingram 532 79% 21% 0% 80% 21% 0% 0%
12 Daryl Richardson 215 78% 22% 0% 78% 20% 2% 0%
13 Brandon Jacobs 238 77% 23% 4% 74% 23% 0% 0%
14 LeGarrette Blount 941 77% 23% 7% 70% 21% 3% 0%
15 Bobby Rainey 566 76% 24% 4% 72% 23% 1% 0%

The names on this chart include the players you’d generally categorize together as between-the-tackle, early-down backs and/or those on run-heavy teams.

A popular 2014 fantasy sleeper, Khiry Robinson faced Base defense on 65 of his 75 carries last season. He averaged a healthy 4.4 YPC. The Saints called a run on 88 of Robinson’s 101 snaps last season.

Next up, we have the backs who did most of their damage against Nickel and Dime defenses.

Rk Player Yds <5 >4 <4 Base Nickel Dime >6
68 Shane Vereen 260 3% 97% 0% 3% 60% 30% 8%
67 Darren Sproles 248 4% 96% 0% 4% 85% 11% 0%
66 Brandon Bolden 271 6% 94% 0% 5% 60% 34% 0%
65 Reggie Bush 982 13% 87% 0% 13% 82% 5% 0%
64 Knowshon Moreno 1196 17% 83% 0% 17% 67% 16% 0%
63 LeSean McCoy 1677 19% 81% 0% 19% 78% 3% 0%
62 Danny Woodhead 512 20% 80% 0% 20% 65% 13% 2%
61 Montee Ball 655 20% 80% 1% 19% 54% 26% 0%
60 James Starks 522 22% 78% 0% 22% 71% 7% 0%
59 Ronnie Hillman 218 24% 76% 0% 23% 71% 5% 0%
58 Andre Ellington 620 25% 75% 0% 25% 63% 10% 2%
57 Bilal Powell 659 26% 74% 4% 22% 61% 13% 0%
56 Ray Rice 660 32% 68% 4% 28% 55% 13% 0%
55 Donald Brown 647 36% 64% 4% 32% 38% 26% 0%
54 Eddie Lacy 1259 37% 63% 0% 37% 61% 2% 0%

A pair of Patriots and Darren Sproles stand out here. Vereen only saw Base on three of his 53 carries. Bolden only saw Base on seven of his 55 tries. With Blount and Stevan Ridley handling early-down work for New England, Vereen and Bolden did their damage on clear passing downs. Sproles, meanwhile, saw Base on just three of 59 carries. Over the past six years, Sproles has a 4.1 YPC against Base, 5.3 YPC against Nickel, and a massive 7.8 YPC on 62 tries against Dime.

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Moving right along, I think there’s something to be said for backs who are exceptional running against base defenses. The next chart shows the backs (min. 50 carries) with the highest YPC against Base defenses last season.

Rk Running Back Car YPC TD
1 DeMarco Murray 130 5.7 3
2 LeGarrette Blount 121 5.4 6
3 Kendall Hunter 64 5.4 2
4 Jamaal Charles 165 5.1 3
5 Mark Ingram 86 4.9 1
6 Alfred Morris 229 4.7 4
7 Arian Foster 84 4.6 1
8 Fred Jackson 115 4.5 4
9 Adrian L. Peterson 221 4.4 5
10 LeSean McCoy 73 4.4 3
11 Khiry Robinson 65 4.4 0
12 Frank Gore 258 4.3 2

DeMarco Murray gets a bad rap because of his poor durability, but he’s a good player. Murray paced all backs with a 5.7 YPC against Base last season. And he did it on 130 hauls, which was 17th-highest in the league. We also see aforementioned Blount, Ingram, and Morris in the Top 6.

Next up, we have the backs with the poorest production against Base defense.

Rk Running Back Car YPC TD
47 Ray Rice 76 2.4 1
46 Willis McGahee 95 2.5 0
45 Bilal Powell 55 2.6 0
44 Steven Jackson 77 2.6 3
43 Doug Martin 81 2.7 1
42 Bernard Pierce 70 2.8 1
41 Maurice Jones-Drew 142 2.8 2
40 Trent Richardson 117 2.8 0
39 Daniel Thomas 51 2.9 2
38 Rashard Mendenhall 150 2.9 3
37 Le’Veon Bell 112 3.0 2
36 Jacquizz Rodgers 52 3.3 1

The Jets and Falcons have been rumored to be looking into upgrades at tailback. This chart helps explain why. Bilal Powell averaged just 2.6 YPC against Base. He just missed the cut for this list, but the other half of the Jets’ 2013 tailback committee, Chris Ivory, managed a 3.3 YPC vs. Base. In fairness, though, Both Powell and Ivory fared well against Nickel and Dime. Steven Jackson, meanwhile, put up an ugly 2.6 YPC against Base. His 4.7 YPC against Nickel was much better.

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So far, our focus has been on players. Our next chart splits the data by team.

Rk Team Att <5 >4 <4 Base Nickel Dime >6
1 SF 447 92% 8% 14% 78% 7% 2% 0%
2 MIN 363 83% 17% 5% 78% 16% 1% 0%
3 CAR 249 82% 18% 2% 80% 17% 1% 0%
4 WAS 338 82% 18% 2% 80% 17% 1% 0%
5 SL 373 81% 19% 3% 78% 18% 1% 0%
6 OAK 273 80% 20% 7% 73% 14% 5% 1%
7 TEN 392 77% 23% 6% 70% 19% 4% 0%
8 HST 391 74% 26% 2% 72% 22% 4% 0%
9 CLV 271 73% 27% 6% 68% 23% 3% 0%
10 TB 380 71% 29% 4% 67% 28% 1% 0%
11 CIN 417 70% 30% 5% 65% 28% 2% 0%
12 KC 360 69% 31% 4% 65% 27% 4% 0%
13 NYG 356 69% 31% 4% 65% 27% 4% 1%
14 NO 387 68% 32% 4% 64% 28% 4% 0%
15 SEA 474 65% 35% 6% 59% 32% 2% 1%
16 BUF 442 63% 37% 2% 61% 35% 2% 0%
17 JAX 333 62% 38% 5% 57% 30% 8% 0%
18 IND 355 61% 39% 8% 53% 31% 8% 0%
19 DAL 310 61% 39% 4% 57% 38% 2% 0%
20 ARZ 376 60% 40% 3% 57% 38% 2% 1%
21 NE 488 58% 42% 5% 54% 33% 8% 0%
22 CHI 352 58% 42% 5% 53% 39% 3% 0%
23 MIA 297 54% 46% 4% 50% 38% 8% 0%
24 ATL 300 53% 47% 3% 50% 43% 3% 0%
25 PIT 350 53% 47% 5% 47% 45% 2% 0%
26 NYJ 349 52% 48% 4% 48% 42% 6% 0%
27 BLT 371 47% 53% 7% 40% 42% 11% 0%
28 SD 489 45% 55% 3% 42% 44% 10% 1%
29 GB 418 37% 63% 1% 36% 59% 4% 0%
30 PHI 423 24% 76% 0% 23% 74% 2% 0%
31 DET 393 23% 77% 0% 23% 68% 9% 0%
32 DEN 495 22% 78% 2% 21% 62% 15% 0%
NFL Avg 12012 61% 39% 4% 56% 35% 5% 0%

Based on the Gore and Kendall Hunter numbers we’ve seen, it shouldn’t a surprise to see that 92 percent of rushing attempts by 49ers’ backs are against Base defenses. Unless San Francisco begins to struggle, or overhauls their offense, it’s fair to expect similar numbers in 2014. Life won’t be easy for Gore, Hunter, or de facto rookie Marcus Lattimore.

On the other hand, we have (again, no surprise) the Broncos. Of the team’s 495 carries, 78 percent were against Nickel or “easier” defenses. This bodes well for Ball and whoever ends up just behind him on the depth chart (currently C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman).

The biggest surprise on this list is Cleveland. Under head coach Rod Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the Browns were the league’s pass-heaviest team. But they still ran the ball against fewer than five defensive backs 73 percent of the time. That’s some seriously predictable play-calling and potentially a cause for concern for Vikings fans.

You should also notice that I included the NFL-wide splits on this chart. Note that 56 percent of all carries came against a Base defense last season. Just over one third were against Nickel.

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That does it for the meat of the article, but, if you’re following closely, you’re probably thinking “Hey, but if the defense is in nickel or dime, the back probably has less blocking help!”

That’s correct. And it’s something I investigated. It turns out that, on a majority of carries, adding the number of blockers as a variable made little to no difference on YPC.

The below graph shows the impact blocking help has on NFL YPC over the last six seasons. Offensive blockers include offensive linemen, fullbacks, and tight ends. The number of defensive players includes all non-defensive backs. The ‘+/-’ number you see is the difference between the two. For example, a ‘1’ indicates that the back had one more blocker than the defense had non-defensive backs on the field.

Chart1 YPC Article

 

+/- YPC Sample
-2 2.6 114
-1 3.8 3342
0 4.29 51685
1 4.23 17084
2 4.5 622

As you can see from the chart, running backs are at an even or plus-one advantage in terms of blockers to non-defensive backs on 94 percent of carries. The YPC difference between the two scenarios is just over a half yard. I applied these “expected” YPC numbers to each back and, as you probably guessed, the impact was almost nil.

Put simply, except in the extremes, while it’s fair to wonder if the influence of extra defensive backs is eliminated by fewer blockers, it turns out that it really isn’t. Score one for coaches who spread out the defense and run the ball (like Chip Kelly).

Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL

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  • Greg

    Interesting article – I would bet that if you matched this up with 1. O line rankings and 2. Run D rankings you would be able to draw more distinct conclusions. If you removed Ingrams game against the happles cowboys D, his numbers will be a lot less rosy

    • Adam Eraky

      I was thinking about checking these against offensive line stats as well. For example, for Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburghs offensive line, outside of DeCastro, was pretty terrible at run blocking. Not sure you can really draw the distinction that Blount is the better runner already. While the Patriots weren’t really great at run blocking either, they don’t appear at first glance to be as bad as the Patriots…

  • jim

    One of the things that makes Alfred Morris so dangerous is that he pretty much demands gang tackling. You almost never see the first tackler bring him down alone.
    Now, looking at that, and realizing that this year defenses also have to try and cover Garcon, Desean Jackson, Jordan Reed and Andre Roberts… its going to create a headache for DCos.

  • TrapMan

    This has to be one of the best rb articles I have ever read. Saying this is great would be an under statement. I am bookmarking this page for future reference.