Not Going Down
Some runners are renowned and revered for “never going down on first contact”. As with many football idioms it is prone to hyperbole, but there are some backs who are better at fighting through that first contact more often and getting more out of a play — even if it doesn’t happen on every single play as some would like you to believe.
When you track which defender was the first to make contact with the runner on every single run play you can, in a crude sense, quantify this ability to break through first contact and see who does it most often and who makes the most of it when they do it.
Whether you completely brush aside the first contact defender or your effort requires a second defender to come in to take over the tackle (the first defender only helping to finish it) you’ve still fulfilled the idiom of not going down on first contact and have positively affected the play.
The statistical benefit for breaking through first contact is quite clear just from looking at the league as a whole. On 12,311 backfield carries last season the first contact defender was not the primary tackler 3,022 times with the ball-carrier picking up 6.6 yards per carry with better than one in 10 carries resulting in a breakaway gain (15+ yards) for the offense. With more than two-thirds of these carries culminating in an offensive success it’s clear, if the defense doesn’t get you down on first contact the opportunity is there to make them pay.
Power at the Top
It should surprise no-one then to see power runners at the top of the table when it comes to breaking through that first contact defender most often. Every runner in the Top 10 has a list weight of at least 215 pounds and you’re unlikely to mistake many of them for the modern breed of speedy, shotgun scatbacks doing the majority of their game out in space in the passing game.
In a time when the running back position is being ever more devalued in the draft it is perhaps refreshing to see high picks and big time colleges producing a large proportion of this list. Half of these runners were chosen in the first round with Oklahoma and Alabama producing two players each.
Perhaps the curious case in the Top 10 is one of those Alabama running backs, Trent Richardson. Much maligned for his poor vision in both Cleveland and Indianapolis last season, it was not for the want of trying and he didn’t gain his yards for want of being able to make a man miss. Clearly then, simply being able to stay up on first contact isn’t the key to success, you need to go somewhere after it and that is where Richardson (along with Rashard Mendenhall) falls short among these this group.
While he got through first contact on more than 30% of his carries last season, Richardson didn’t use that advantage to get anywhere, averaging less than 4 yards per carry and sparking only one breakaway carry from the 58 times he broke through first contact.
Part of the story here is the quality of blocking he got from his offensive lines and where he was breaking through that first contact, though summing up his whole season, Richardson shoulders his share of the blame as well. Many times last season Richardson was left to make the best of a bad situation (either through poor blocking or poor vision) and wound up meeting first contact in the backfield on more than a quarter of his carries.
Richardson beat that first contact in the backfield on almost 50% of the times he saw it (only LeGarrette Blount stayed up through backfield contact more often) but the best you can hope for in most of those situations is to fight back to the line of scrimmage and live another down, lowering your average in the process.
However, when he did get across the line of scrimmage and broke through first contact, when he should have more of a head of steam up to capitalize on it and make the defense pay, he only averaged 5.2 yards per carry and his solitary breakaway run. By comparison, Marshawn Lynch averaged 8.3 yards per carry with nine breakaways.
Clemson Alumni Make You Pay
Further heaping the pressure on Richardson is the man who made a habit of doing just that last season, his former colleague in the Colts’ backfield Donald Brown. It was the speedier member of the Indianapolis backfield who made the most of the carries on which he made it through first contact, collecting 12.3 yards per carry with seven breakaways. He didn’t break through first contact as often as Richardson (though he was still around the league average), but when he did, no-one made more of it than Brown.
While the Alabama Crimson Tide produced two of the league’s Top 5 runners in terms of defeating first contact most often, it’s the Clemson Tigers that produced two of the league’s Top 5 runners at capitalizing on occasions when they defeated that first contact.
C.J. Spiller took a step back in his whole body of work in 2013, but he was still a devastatingly dangerous runner for the Buffalo Bills last season and when he stayed up through first contact (44 out of 202 carries) he made the defense pay, collecting 507 yards (11.5 per carry) and trailed only LeSean McCoy in translating 10 of those carries into a breakaway gain (though at a higher rate).
Three spots ahead of Spiller we find his successor in the Clemson backfield, Andre Ellington, who was a revelation in the desert for the Arizona Cardinals providing them with outstanding bang for their buck as a sixth-round draft pick. Ellington trailed by just 0.02 yards per carry behind Brown for the league lead in yards per carry and converted exactly one in three (9-of-27) of the occasions that he defeated first contact into breakaway runs; no back had a higher conversion rate in such situations.
Special mention to round out our look at this data should go to the only man to appear in both Top 10’s, DeMarco Murray. The former Oklahoma Sooner has struggled to maintain his health for a full 16 game season in his three years with the Cowboys, but showed his worth last year. Murray broke the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, finishing the regular season as our sixth-highest graded running back (+10.0).
These tables show all too well why Murray graded so well last season, highlighting his down-to-down consistency as a player frequently able to shrug off first contact, but also able to capitalize on that with devastating consistency to ensure that he wasn’t just breaking tackles simply to stand still and go down immediately to a second defender.
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