Gap Control: Outside Offense, 2011

| 5 years ago

Gap Control: Outside Offense, 2011

Sweeps, tosses, powers, stretch plays, crack back blocks … there are endless methods and opportunities to make big plays to the outside when running ball in the NFL, but not every team takes full advantage. Defenses tend to have aggressive players on the edge who offenses can live or die by challenging. Get it right and the defense is on the back foot. Get it wrong and the offense can find itself in long yardage–an area from which most offenses are not well disposed to recover.

Slow-developing outside rushes are often doomed to fail, so mobility, agility, and speed from both linemen and running backs are vital. It is useless to have a runner outrun his blocking and, if the back can, chances are the defense can and it would take something special for the back to beat the entire defense.

For those who achieve that balance, there are big gains to be made, the best C- and D-Gap offenses gained around 7 yards every time they went outside, and the best outside offense gained close to 1,000 yards off end with the aid of the latest fad to return to the NFL.  



C-Gap Crusaders

The league’s best off-tackle offense from 2011 might take a bit of a hit in 2012 as the Eagles play shorthanded with the loss of Jason Peters to an Achilles injury. Philadelphia averaged 7.1 yards per carry off Peters’ outside shoulder last season–almost a full yard more than any other team in the league, with the Vikings gaining 6.4 yards to the side of Charlie Johnson. No team more than the Eagles pursued the philosophy: speed at running back to compliment agility on the offensive line … and it paid dividends.

The lateral quickness of the Eagles’ offensive line allowed LeSean McCoy to find the sort of gaps outside that running backs lie awake dreaming of, but rarely expect to find. A fair deal of the credit goes to offensive line coach Howard Mudd who fused his scheme perfectly with the Eagles’ linemen this year. How Demetress Bell combines with Evan Mathis on the left side will play a large part in determining whether the Eagles retain their top spot on off-tackle runs next season.

Many have maligned the loss of the Steelers’ power running game and while they didn’t get much right last season, it turns out they can still rush off tackle. Their 69 rushes off right tackle were the most of any team through that point of attack in 2011 and they weren’t flogging a dead horse, either. The backs did a lot of hard graft on those carries, breaking 16 tackles in total and collecting more yards after contact per carry than any backfield outside of Arizona.

He may be struggling to get snaps outside of his running plays, but taking the ball off tackle is something that Beanie Wells in Arizona excels at. On 46 off-tackle carries, Wells picked up 6.2 yards per. The Cardinals would do well to redirect more of Wells’ off-end carries one gap inside. Wells only picked up 3.2 yards per carry when running wide last season.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Philadelphia Eagles654506.9137660
Pittsburgh Steelers996156.2333376
New Orleans Saints733925.4224435
Arizona Cardinals713815.4239371
Minnesota Vikings804125.2196467
* NFL Average783414.4189338


C-Gaps Crushed

For a team that is built so heavily around the running game, you can’t help but think how good the 49ers might be if they were more effective at doing it. They certainly aren’t helped by how much they do it, allowing defenses to key on the running game without fear of the kill shot coming through the air from Alex Smith. However, they also aren’t helped by their offensive linemen who simply don’t make enough good blocks to get the most from Frank Gore and the rest of the 49er backfield.

New addition Brandon Jacobs is a thundering juggernaut when he gets going, but unless the 49ers get improved blocking from their offensive linemen, all we are likely to see from Jacobs are the low notes–the same that we’ve seen in recent years as defenses have gotten to him before he’s built up a head of steam. The 49ers’ inability to break a big play on off-tackle rushes (a longest rush of 17 yards off tackle) also hurts them. They found them in the playoffs against the Saints, but need to find more through the 2012 regular season.

The Chiefs as the third worst off-tackle team in the league is not entirely surprising; the loss of Jamaal Charles was always going to be a devastating blow for the running game. For the team, Charles’ loss meant a drop off from 4.4 yards per carry off tackle to 3.5 in 2011. Charles himself in 2010 average 5.9 yards per carry compared to Thomas Jones’ 3.6. Where Jones gets exactly what the offensive line provides, Charles gets so much more. With the return of Charles this season and the addition of Eric Winston at right tackle, it would be extremely surprising to see the Chiefs this far down the list in 2012. On his last stop in Houston, the Texans averaged 5.0 yards per carry off Winston’s outside shoulder, the Chiefs averaged 2.6 yards per carry off Barry Richardson’s. That should quantify for you the big step forward the Chiefs have taken on paper at right tackle, but will that upgrade transfer to the field?

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
San Francisco 49ers912672.9180617
Cleveland Browns672003.0141014
Kansas City Chiefs852963.5144032
Jacksonville Jaguars853063.6193521
San Diego Chargers873143.6243648


D-Gap Designers

One-and-a-half yards per carry is an extraordinary advantage to have over every other team in the league on carries off tackle and serves to illustrate the advantage that the Panthers have got themselves by fielding the athletic backfield they have at their disposal. The read option is the latest fad in the NFL (will it last longer than the wildcat?) and the Panthers have used it better than anyone else–the Broncos drew more attention for it, but Newton and his backs had more success per carry. The Panthers’ 10 touchdowns off end were also far clear of the three teams tied in second place with seven (and were three more than the team scored on all backfield carries in 2010). Carolina elevated their yards per carry off end by more than two yards in 2011; the addition of Cam Newton taking them from an above average offense to far and away the best in the league.

The next three in the Top 5 achieved their success off end by more “traditional” means with the Texans in particular basing their outside success off of a dominant interior ground game. If defenses cheated inside, it was all too easy for the Texans to work around and seal them to spring Arian Foster on stretch plays, something they did consistently.

In front of them, the Bears were at best average through every point of attack, but Matt Forte’s ability in space was crucial, all of his rushing touchdowns came on carries off end and he picked up 7.0 yards per carry there to boot. If the Bears can fix their offensive line problems, and smooth things over with Forte on the money front, the thunder and lightning combination of Bush and Forte could be devastating in the NFC North. As devastating as the Saints’ outside running game would be a start. That you can combine a running game like they have with Drew Brees tells you just why this is the most explosive offense in the NFL.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Carolina Panthers1309467.34231074
New Orleans Saints1227025.8352635
Chicago Bears1478135.5483746
Houston Texans1186065.1367542
Buffalo Bills793985.0242441
* NFL Average1074814.5296442


D-Gaps Destroyed

Where there are rich there must be poor and in Cincinnati they were left with the beggars bowl when it came to rushing off end. Cedric Benson can still get it done when it comes to taking it to a defense physically, but even in his fresher days he wasn’t a dynamic runner in space. Combine that with the fact that Bernard Scott was an almost complete non-factor and you have a recipe for failure on carries going wide. Scott averaged nearly five yards per carry off end last season, but with an increased workload that yards per carry average nosedived to 3.0 in 2011. As a team, the Bengals stepped forward in 2011, but in terms of finding the right balance in the backfield, the chemistry was off. Don’t think that the addition of BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be the necessary tonic for the Bengals’ outside running game either: Green-Ellis averaged 4.5 yards per carry off tackle in the 2011 regular season but only 3.6 off end. Cincinnati needs to find the right mix in the backfield and gain some more dynamism in the open field to help them take the next step in 2012.

The team with the best regular season record in the league was also the only team not to score a rushing touchdown off end during the regular season as the Packers stumbled their way to only just more than 200 yards over the course of the season. They managed only 3.2 yards per carry to the outside in 2010 as well. This limitation is clearly not crippling their offense, but you wonder what more they could get. The Packers no longer have Ryan Grant under contract so could they get a more dynamic back to offer them something more in this area.

Their penchant for athletic tight ends also doesn’t help; you aren’t going to find a Rob Gronkowski every year, but the Packers need a little more diversity. The team had just one positively-graded run-blocking tight end last season, Andrew Quarless. Their “blocking” tight end, though he played in the backfield a fair deal, Tom Crabtree (179 run block snaps, 57.9% of his snaps) graded -10.5 as a run blocker last season and their inability to seal the edge is clearly reflected in their yards per carry average.

The last two Super Bowl champions are both residing in the bottom five for yards per carry off end, though I’m not sure teams will be trying to emulate them in the hope that they pick up a Lombardi Trophy along the way.

TeamAttemptsYardsYards per CarryYards After ContactTouchdownsLongest Rush
Cincinnati Bengals1033143.0196328
Green Bay Packers652103.2145024
Minnesota Vikings1224033.3307339
New York Giants1023373.3299528
Cleveland Browns722673.7238240


The contrast between the best and worst outside rushing teams in the league is stark. Four yards separates the top and bottom through both the C- and D-Gaps. Every team has athletes, it simply comes down to who can get those athletes into space both by scheme and skill of the blockers.


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

  • mschase72

    Great stuff…no doubt about Cleveland’s struggles based on these numbers which correlate well with the abysmal run grade for the team (single worst unit grade for the squad I believe). I look at this and think that Cordy Glenn would be a more important addition than just about anyone else next week. I see a guy with the longest arms at the Combine and Senior Bowl who was still able to rep more than 30 on the bench…and unusual combination. Do you watch/grade any prospect film on the higher rated college guys?

    • Ben Stockwell

      Unfortunately rookie scouting is not something that time and resources allow for us to do at present but it may be something we look to apply ourselves to in the future.