How changing the point of attack affects NFL rushers

How does an NFL RB respond when forced to deviate from the original plan? PFF's Ben Stockwell explains.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/James Kenney)

(AP Photo/James Kenney)

How changing the point of attack affects NFL rushers


Play designs are there for good reason, and staying within the design of the play is, for the most part, a good thing for offensive success. It should, then, come as no surprise to learn that runs which hit the intended point of attack have this season gained an average of 0.87 yards per carry more than those runs which haven’t, whether by a voluntary change from the running back or from the defense forcing a change from the intended point of attack in the play design. Runs that stay on track gain an average of 4.29 yards per carry, dropping to 3.42 yards per carry if the intended point of attack is not being hit—a sizable difference.

Offense

Those offenses that hit the point of attack more often give their ground game a better chance of having consistent success, regardless of the ball carrier, where as those that see the ball move away from the point of attack put a lot more pressure on the decision-making and creativity of the ball carrier. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the best rushing offenses stay on track, where those that are moved from their initial path struggle.

Offense Changed point of attack (POA) percentage Yards per carry no change Yards per carry with change Yards per carry differential
Eagles 17.2% 4.41 3.10 -1.31
Ravens 17.2% 4.44 3.14 -1.30
Colts 17.6% 3.44 3.32 -0.13
Giants 17.7% 3.83 2.93 -0.90
Dolphins 19.1% 5.23 2.17 -3.06
NFL average 23.5% 4.29 3.42 -0.87
Buccaneers 28.1% 5.17 3.98 -1.20
Packers 29.0% 4.25 3.59 -0.67
Vikings 29.2% 4.69 4.98 0.29
Jets 32.7% 3.64 4.03 0.40
Steelers 38.8% 5.19 4.40 -0.79

As you can see, the success of hitting your intended point of attack only correlates to success within the parameters of your own offense. The Giants have been far more efficient at saying on track and hitting the intended point of attack this season than the Vikings, but you wouldn’t find anyone suggesting by any quantitative or qualitative measure that the Giants have had a better ground game this season than the Adrian Peterson-led Vikings. However, that discipline and execution does lead, with a few exceptions, like the Vikings and Jets, to consistently better success for your own offense.

One of the eye-opening numbers in that first table is just how much of an effect a change in point of attack has on the Miami Dolphins’ offense. No other offense loses more yards per carry when they are forced to their change point of attack than the Dolphins; no other offense, in fact, loses more than 2 yards per carry from their rush average, while the Dolphins lose just over 3 yards. Only six of the Dolphins’ 36 carries that haven’t hit the intended point of attack have gone for more than 5 yards this season.

Offense Yards per carry, no POA change Yards per carry with POA change Yards per carry differential Attempts per missed tackle
Cardinals 4.14 5.34 1.21 6.36
Jets 3.64 4.03 0.40 5.35
Vikings 4.69 4.98 0.29 5.00
Jaguars 3.62 3.89 0.27 5.18
Patriots 4.12 4.02 -0.10 3.00
NFL average 4.29 3.42 -0.87 5.58
Chiefs 4.81 3.16 -1.64 4.45
Bills 4.97 3.28 -1.69 5.80
Bengals 4.54 2.76 -1.78 7.71
Texans 3.96 2.13 -1.83 9.57
Dolphins 5.23 2.17 -3.06 2.77

At the opposite end of the scale, no rushing offense gains more when forced to change its point of attack than the Cardinals, the only team to gain more than half a yard per carry on their rush average than when they hit the intended point of attack. This is helped in large part by the big play ability of Andre Ellington, who will now look to take on a larger role in the running game after Chris Johnson was sent to injured reserve. Forced to move away from the point of attack nine times this season, Ellington has gained 15 or more yards three times, including two 40+ yard scoring runs. The departing Johnson fared a little better than the league average, but Ellington could add another dimension to this offense, though his production when hitting the intended point of attack (3.86) is inferior to Johnson’s (4.30).

Defense

If staying on course is good for the offense, then the opposite is also true, and forcing the offense to move the run away from the point of attack is, for the most part, good for the defense. The top division at forcing the ball away from the intended point of attack is the AFC North, with only the Browns (24th) outside the top half of the NFL; the Ravens sit first in the league, and the Bengals are second in forcing the point of attack to change on more than 30 percent of the carries they have faced this season. Both defenses, however, are not among the league’s best at clamping down when they do change the point of attack, both yielding above the league average of 3.42 yards per carry on runs with a change from the intended point of attack.

Defense Changed POA percentage Yards per carry, no POA change Yards per carry with POA change Yards per carry differential
Ravens 30.8% 3.64 3.47 -0.17
Bengals 30.7% 4.65 3.83 -0.83
Patriots 30.3% 4.41 2.87 -1.54
Raiders 28.9% 4.65 3.28 -1.37
Vikings 27.8% 4.59 3.41 -1.19
NFL average 23.5% 4.29 3.42 -0.87
Cowboys 19.8% 4.20 4.02 -0.19
Chargers 18.0% 4.97 5.34 0.38
Jaguars 17.4% 3.65 3.13 -0.52
Titans 16.8% 3.88 4.07 0.19
Cardinals 15.2% 3.98 2.63 -1.35

Proving that good run defense is good run defense regardless of how you approach it, you find two of the best run defenses in the NFL at opposite ends of the scale by this measure of playing style. While the Ravens like to disrupt to shut down the run, no defense forces the point of attack to change less than the Cardinals, but with similarly excellent results. On the rare occasion that they do force the ball away from the point of attack, only four teams give up fewer yards per carry than the Cardinals, but those four teams are closer to the league average than Arizona, who lie 10th in the league in terms of yards per carry allowed when the run hits the intended point of attack.

Just as changing the point of attack isn’t bad for every offense, so every defense in the NFL doesn’t necessarily capitalize and shut the run down for minimal gains. The Lions’ and Chargers’ defenses both force the point of attack to change less than the league average, and given their current performances, both would do well to improve on that. Both teams are surrendering more than five yards per carry when the point of attack changes, with the Lions giving up more than a yard and a half per carry more on the 58 occasions the run they are defending has not hit the intended point of attack, compared to runs that do.

Defense Yards per carry, no POA change Yards per carry with POA change Yards per carry differential Attempts per missed tackle
Eagles 4.97 2.19 -2.78 4.80
Steelers 4.58 2.17 -2.41 4.83
Saints 5.36 3.48 -1.88 5.55
Giants 4.48 2.77 -1.70 6.89
Chiefs 4.12 2.54 -1.58 6.00
NFL average 4.29 3.42 -0.87 5.58
Titans 3.88 4.07 0.19 8.80
Bears 4.59 4.79 0.20 8.83
Redskins 4.51 4.72 0.20 3.53
Chargers 4.97 5.34 0.38 3.38
Lions 3.51 5.02 1.51 5.80

The biggest gainers from changing the point of attack, however, reside in the state of Pennsylvania, with the Eagles and Steelers both shutting teams down for less than 2.2 yards per carry. They sit first and second both in terms of yards per carry allowed when the point of attack changes, and differential from runs that hit the intended point of attack. Both teams have seen terrific play from their defensive ends this season, and when Fletcher Cox or Cameron Heyward have wrecked a play, there generally hasn’t been any room for the offense to negotiate that disruption and pick up solid gains.

| 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.

  • Justinius Maximus

    How have you gone about consistently identifying whether a runner has hit the intended point of attack, or has gone off-course? I would imagine that only players and coaches know their scheme with certainty. For the record, I’m not trying to discredit PFF (like so many dissenters seem to be nowadays), but rather trying to establish the limitations of such an analysis.

    • corners

      well, its not that hard to know if a play is blown up. And you can tell many times if a rb decides to go another route because the whole closed uo or he thought he could make the edge.

      I agree, still lost of wiggle room

  • crosseyedlemon

    As far as rushing at point of attack goes it really all boils down to execution. Offenses will generally attack behind their best run blocker(s) and of course the opposing defenses are well aware of this and counter-attack at that point. Ironically the run plays that have become most remembered by fans (such as Marcus Allen’s run against the Redskins in SB XV111) were ad-libs away from the point of attack.

    • corners

      i agree, but im sure a lot of us have played with rb’s that thought they look good trying to do barry sanders impersonations on the field (rarely do they gain yards)