Gap Control: Interior Offense, 2011

| 5 years ago

Gap Control: Interior Offense, 2011

A team’s ability to gain yards on the inside is a statement of their physical dominance over an opposing defense. Teams that have success inside are saying that they can get whatever yards they want whenever they need them, dictating the tempo and physicality of the game rather than being forced to go to other areas of their offense quickly.

Being successful on inside carries sets up so much in an offense that it is a crucial battleground not to be stymied on. If you have success inside, then the defense’s awareness that they can’t stop those carries immediately makes them vulnerable to outside runs and, crucially, to play action as they fly up at any hint of an interior attempt.

Many offenses league wide have moved away from the ground-and-pound, “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense to a more passing-oriented attack, but teams still need to keep the opposition honest. With the proliferation of three-wide offenses around the league drawing teams into nickel packages that often leave inside gaps less covered, teams–now more than ever–need to challenge a defense with these inside carries.  

In the first of a series of articles examining who controlled which gaps on offense and defense in the 2011 season, we take a look at the offenses that failed and those that succeeded in controlling the game with inside carries. These articles encompass only designed backfield carries, so carries from end-arounds, reverses, laterals and scrambles are not included.


A-Gap Architects

The first “winners” in our look at point of attack stats this offseason goes to the team holding the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, the Minnesota Vikings who picked up a frankly astonishing 5.5 yards per carry on A-Gap rushes last season. The Vikings rewarded starting center John Sullivan with a shiny new contract for his play this year and didn’t it show. Having two powerful backs hitting up behind Sullivan’s blocking certainly helped as the Vikings picked up on average 3.6 yards per carry after contact through the A-Gaps as well, further inflating the work Sullivan was doing. This is a steep climb from the Vikings’ 2010 regular season where they managed a miserly, in comparison, 4.1 yards per carry on 121 A-Gap carries. There have been reports that this was Sullivan’s first year playing at full health and, if that is the case, then it’s little wonder Adrian Peterson can’t wait to get back on the field and hit up opposing defenses right down the middle behind Sullivan once more.

It is an interesting note that none of the Top 5 yards-per-carry offenses on A-Gap carries had more attempts than the league average which is heavily driven up by the likes of Houston, Baltimore, and the New York Jets who all had in excess of 150 carries through the A-Gaps, more than the Pittsburgh Steelers ran through the A and B-Gaps combined.

The Texans had the highest average of those three teams, picking up a whopping 744 yards through the A-Gaps off of the blocking of our No. 1 ranked run blocking center from 2011, Chris Myers. The Texans never broke any long runs either on those 180 carries to inflate that number with their longest A-Gap carry topping out at 27 yards. That average and those yards are simply a statement of the effectiveness and consistency of Myers’ blocking along with his guards to give Arian Foster a great deal of room to run through.

The Cowboys are somewhat the opposite of that, seeing their yards per carry figure boosted as a result of gutting the Rams for a 91-yard touchdown rush in Week 7. Without that run by DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys would be around the bottom of the Top 10, but still a quality season of interior running from them, showing the big play ability from inside rushes by springing that one long run.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Minnesota Vikings1045695.5375354
Dallas Cowboys804115.1225191
San Francisco 49ers904535.0221147
Buffalo Bills1075014.7309234
Detroit Lions964454.6226488
* NFL Average1074193.9248235


A-Gaps Annihilated

How times change. Just two years removed from a 2000-yard season by Chris Johnson, the Titans find themselves at the bottom of a rushing category. However, at least in this area, it hasn’t been such a precipitous fall as even at the heights of Johnson’s power at the end of the last decade, the Titans were not a dominant inside running team. In 2009, the Titans averaged only 3.7 yards per carry through the A-Gaps and, in 2010, that number fell to 3.4–even so, dropping a whole yard per carry is a big fall. Johnson at his best can cover for a poor run blocking offensive line, but not inside where he isn’t the type of back that can physically make up for weak blocking.

The Titans have made it an offseason target to improve the run blocking of their offensive line and if they were to start 2012 with a three new starters at guard and center they would be taking a step in the right direction in that regard. A bigger back to complement Johnson might also help the Titans in their search for a more physical inside running game.

The two playoff teams on this list were widely known to have weak running games and simply went with the passing game to paper over these cracks; when you have quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger you can do that. However, the Steelers’ ownership has made it clear that they want to see more from the running game moving forward and it would seem uncharacteristic to have a Giants team that didn’t work to bring back a more physical running game.

The Bears signed a physical back last year to complement Matt Forte, but Marion Barber failed to deliver, they will hope that the addition of Michael Bush will boost their inside rushing along with a change of offense that could draw dividends. New power back–potentially new tailback (depending upon how the Forte contract situation pans out)–Bush averaged only 3.2 yards per carry through the A-Gaps last year. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice will need to get more from the interior offensive line this season to re-inject some physicality into the Chicago running game.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Tennessee Titans902202.4119016
New York Giants812042.5151219
Pittsburgh Steelers601752.9121121
Chicago Bears982913.0210021
Kansas City Chiefs1123493.1211122


B-Gap Bourgeois

The only team to appear in the Top 5 of both A-Gap and B-Gap rushing is that famous under center physical ground-and-pound offense from … Buffalo. OK, so they don’t quite fit the bill on the prototype of the offense that succeeds inside, but what the Bills show by being the top inside rushing team in the league is that once again Chan Gailey is one of the great offensive minds at tailoring an offense to the players at his disposal. Certainly having a back like Fred Jackson carrying the ball, ably spelled by C.J. Spiller, helps as the Bills’ lead back broke 10 tackles on 46 carries through the B-Gaps.

The Bills exploit the inside gaps on shotgun carries in a manner which is becoming more widespread around the league. Offenses are looking to take advantage of wide alignments by defensive lines in sub packages which create space before an offensive linemen even needs to make a block. Jackson’s 80-yard carry in Week 6 in New York was the longest carry through a B-Gap during the regular season.

Once again, in terms of volume of carries, the Texans were far and away the busiest team on the inside with their 140 being a full 25 B-Gap carries clear of two teams tied in second place, the Raiders and the Broncos. The Texans’ 682 yards were again the best in the league, giving them a colossal 1,426 yards on inside carries during the regular season. This alone was more than more seven teams gained on all of their backfield carries combined.

While, in terms of pure efficiency, the Texans were topped by teams like the Bills, there is little doubt who set the highest premium on controlling the inside gaps during the 2011 regular season. The Texans’ six touchdowns off guard were only bested by one team and matched by two others, the New York Giants who were at least average at rushing off guard and picked up as many touchdowns through the B-Gaps as they did through the C- and D-Gaps combined.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Buffalo Bills855646.6357380
Miami Dolphins844685.6219235
Oakland Raiders1156055.3330347
St Louis Rams1065485.2293440
Carolina Panthers944695.0248632
* NFL Average944254.5245237


B-Gaps Buried

Our Bottom 5 B-Gap rushing offenses is unsurprisingly the reserve of largely passing-oriented offenses. Teams like the Packers, Patriots, and Lions have an offense centered around the passing game so their guards’ ability to hold up in pass protection is more important than their ability to run block and this is reflected in their rushing stats. All three went to the playoffs this season, so this weakness in the offense is clearly not crippling them. The Patriots saw a drop from above four yards per carry on B-Gap carries in 2010, while the Packers saw a similar stat line from their Super Bowl regular season maintaining an average around 3.5 yards per carry, among the worst in the league.

So long as these teams continue to air the ball out and make hay while the sun shines there, these deficiencies at rushing inside seem likely to remain. However, with the quality of their passing attacks, imagine what a legitimate inside running game could do with the space that these passing attacks can provide inside.

A surprising name on this list is that of the San Francisco 49ers, they made a big effort to run the ball in 2011, but weren’t necessarily that efficient at it and off-guard that was little different. They didn’t rush much off-guard and they didn’t have a great deal of success, particularly to the right. The 49ers used LG Mike Iupati as a pulling blocker a fair deal, though, when he was left in line they at least averaged a passable 4.1 yards per carry off of his outside shoulder.

The issue came to the other side where rushes off Adam Snyder’s outside shoulder at right guard went precisely nowhere. The 49ers averaged a miniscule 2.8 yards per carry there, just topping 100 yards for the full season. Chilo Rachal failed to deliver on his promise from 2010, but the loss of Adam Snyder to Arizona is addition by subtraction for the 49ers. For an offense built around the running game, the 49ers could do with being more efficient.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Green Bay Packers923163.4198220
Arizona Cardinals802783.5175113
San Francisco 49ers792783.5157015
Detroit Lions823133.8175219
New England Patriots953653.8216333


Inside running is no longer the bread and butter of most offenses around the league, but both in terms of short yardage conversions and taking advantage of wide alignments teams still need to make it work. The Texans have shown that even in this age of passing you can still win and be one of the best teams in the league with a dominant inside running game. The Texans and the Bills illustrate that there are many ways to skin a cat when rushing inside, it’s not just about man blocking and driving your man back. Whether by zone blocking from under center or exploiting gaps from shotgun, the ability to run inside is still a key part of an offense. Whether by complement or as the focus of the offense, you’re still better off being able to run inside than not, and if you want to make it the focus point of the offense, you had better be as good as the Texans are at it.


Other articles in this series: Outside Defense | Interior Defense | Outside Offense


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| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • thebigc

    Hey could you guys tell me where the Bears finished in B gap control? Also are you planning on doing this with off tackle runs?

    • Ben Stockwell

      Chicago finished 25th in terms of yards per carry through the B-Gaps at 4.0 ypc. Though that was 2nd in the NFC North at least with the Lions and Packers in the bottom five.

  • PaulK

    I see the Packers, the 49ers and the Patriots all at the bottom of the B-gap list. Could this be because all three teams were killing the clock in the fourth quarter of most games, and because everyone in the stadium knew they were going to call straightforward running plays?

    • Ben Stockwell

      In terms of fourth quarter B-Gap carries of those three teams only the Patriots had a lower ypc average in Q4 for B-Gap carries than their full season average, weighing in at 2.9ypc in Q4 compared to 3.8 across the season. The Packers and 49ers both averaged north of 4.0 ypc on B-Gap carries in Q4 last season.

  • snowman88

    is there goiing to be a complete list of these stats in the premium section??

    • Ben Stockwell

      Not immediately but time and resources allowing we may look to add a team statistics section to our premium section in the future.