Jay Ajayi is a wild horse of a running back. What is the one thing he must do to become a refined thoroughbred?
15 Jul 2013
by Mike Ridley
Last week, we took a closer look at how offenses ran the ball last year based on the number of backs lined up in the backfield. Today, we'll check in on the defensive side of the ball.
As we discussed when we presented this same data last year, it's hard to draw conclusions from these numbers, particularly when it comes to wins and losses. In 2011, the top five teams to see multiple backs all had losing records, including three of the worst teams in the league. In 2012, four of the top five had losing records, but we find two teams with 10 wins each following that group. In fact, the 10 teams who faced multiple-back formations most often averaged eight wins, up from 6.2 the previous season.
If opponents used multiple-back sets to attack defensive weaknesses, DVOA wasn't able to pick up on it, despite a strong correlation from 2011. The average DVOA rank for the six teams who faced multiple backs most often was only 16th, with only Buffalo ranking in the bottom third of the league (30th). Conversely, these six teams were actually worse against single-back sets, averaging a ranking of 18th. Three of those teams ranked 25th or worse.
It appears teams used single-back formations to capitalize on their opponents' flaws. Four of the six worst teams against a lone back saw that formation on more than 62 percent of opponent runs, including Baltimore's league-high 70 percent. Looking at the six teams who faced single backs the most, you'll find an average ranking of 24th in defensive DVOA.
The teams many would expect to see facing multi-back sets most often -- doormats Kansas City and Jacksonville, who often faced opponents trying to run out the clock -- actually faced these formations on just 38 percent of the rushing plays their opponents ran. That tied them for the fourth-lowest mark in the league, despite them being ranked first and third, respectively, in time spent trailing. Of the six teams to face multiple-back sets 50 percent of the time or more, not one ranked in the top eight in time trailing. Despite conventional wisdom, teams preferred to use single-back sets when winning, especially if it exploited defensive holes.
That brings us to the Tennessee Titans. For the second straight year, the Titans found themselves among the league's worst at defending runs from single-back sets. In 2011, the Titans ranked 31st; this year, they ranked dead last with a 2.2% DVOA. (That sounds pretty good, but the average run defense DVOA against single-back sets was -8.9%.) Surely, Akeem Ayers' second-straight appearance on our broken tackle list played a large role here.
Trailing them was another poor tackling team, the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are no stranger to either list. After having the sixth-highest broken tackle rate last year, the Saints moved up to fourth in 2012, thanks to Malcolm Jenkins and Curtis Lofton combining for 22 broken tackles. The largest factor in the Saints' 31st-ranked run defense DVOA against single-back sets, however, is their defensive line, which also finished 31st in our Adjusted Line Yards metric. It's no surprise that Steve Spagnuolo didn't get a second season to sort out the mess. Rob Ryan will be counted on to recreate the results he had in Dallas, where the Cowboys ranked 12th and 10th in run defense DVOA against single backs the last two years.
On the other end was Tampa Bay, authors of the league's biggest turnaround in defending the run. Whether it was defending single backs (24th) or multiple backs (31st), the Bucs struggled against the run in 2011, compiling the third-worst rush defense DVOA in the league. Tampa Bay's drop from first to 12th on our missed tackles list helped vault them all the way up to third overall in rush defense DVOA, including a ranking of fourth against single-back rushes. Also, some guy named Lavonte David was a factor.
Below are the running statistics we keep for single- and multiple-back formations, sorted by the difference in run defense DVOA allowed between single-back and multi-back sets. This is about formation, not personnel; if a receiver is in the backfield, for the purpose of this study, he is counted as a back. Also, these numbers represent only represent runs by running backs or wide receivers who were lined up as running backs, although no Wildcat-style (i.e. direct snap) runs were counted.
|2012 Rushing Defense by Number of Backs|
|1 RB Pct.||2+RB Pct.|
|1 RB Pct.||2+RB Pct.|
|1 RB Pct.||2+RB Pct.|
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